Katarxis Nº 3
Towards a New
Science of Architecture,
and a New
Architecture of Science
A Review of
Alexander's New Magnum Opus, The Nature of Order
Alexander studied physics and mathematics at Cambridge
before earning the first PhD in architecture awarded at
Harvard University. Following a distinguished career in
architectural research, he was the first recipient ever of the AIA Medal
for Architectural Research in 1970. He was honored at that time for
his “exceptional willingness to share his scientific
findings with the architectural community.” In 1996, he
was elected to the American Academy of Arts and
Sciences. He is author of the design classics
Notes on the Synthesis of Form, A City is Not A
Tree, and A Pattern Language -- the latter
now reportedly the best-selling treatise on architecture
of all time, and the basis for a branch of
object-oriented software design that has produced such
popular classics as "The Sims".
Christopher Alexander, the Cambridge-educated mathematician and influential
iconoclast of architectural theory and practice, has just begun publication of
the four volume "The Nature of Order," a book on which he has been working for
over twenty years. Like Steven Wolfram's "A New Kind of Science" -- with which
it has been compared -- it is long (almost 2,000 pages), richly illustrated, and
suggestive of nothing less than a new scientific world view.
The essence of that view is this: the universe is not
made of "things," but of patterns -- of complex,
interactive geometries. Furthermore, this way of
understanding the world can unlock marvelous secrets of
nature, and perhaps even make possible a renaissance of
human-scale design and technology.
As to the second assertion, one might understandably be
skeptical until more evidence is seen. As to the first,
there are echoes of this world view across the sciences,
in quantum physics, in biology, in the mathematics of
complexity, and elsewhere. Theorists and philosophers
throughout the twentieth century have noted the gradual
shift of scientific world view away from objects and
toward processes, described by Whitehead, Bergson and
many others. Alexander, like Wolfram, takes it a step
further, arguing that we are on the verge of supplanting
the Cartesian model altogether, and embarking on a
revolutionary new phase in the understanding of the
geometry of nature.
Alexander even goes beyond Wolfram and the other
complexity theorists in one crucial respect: he argues
that life does not "emerge" from the complex
interactions of an essentially dead universe, but rather
manifests itself in greater or lesser degrees, in
geometric order. For Alexander, the universe is alive in
its very geometrical essence, and we ourselves are an
inextricable part of that life. This is a "hard"
scientific world view which is completely without
opposition to questions of "meaning" or "value", "life"
or "spirit". For Alexander, such questions are hardly
irrelevant: in fact, they are of the essence in the most
physical, concrete sense.
There are also echoes of this view in the process philosophers like Whitehead,
and in recent scientific work by the likes of Brian Goodwin, David Bohm and
others. Though Alexander takes an iconoclastic approach to his subject,
his core ideas are not new. Still, for many practicing architects,
Alexander might as well be from Mars. They simply do not understand him --
though they understand well enough the assault on conventional practice that his
theories represent. The result is an eagerness to dismiss Alexander as a
mystic, a romantic, even a solipsist. The truth is quite different -- and
far more interesting.
Alexander started his career as a design theorist, and the ideas of this book
are its direct if surprising progeny. Early on he was a pioneer of
computer-aided design methodology, and his book "Notes on the Synthesis of Form"
is a classic in the field. Later on, he sought a method to handle the unwieldy
thickets of complex data. He identified design "patterns" that repeatedly
occurred in the built environment, and that together formed systems or
"languages." Such languages, he argued, were readily observable in traditional
design methodologies, and were in large part responsible for their unity and
wholeness. Implicit in this phase of work was the belief that the priesthood of
architects hardly had an exclusive claim to good design, and that ordinary
people could be taught to make quite handsome and satisfying buildings, as they
have been known to do throughout history.
A Pattern Language was met with great success, and even at $65 per copy,
it is still one of the best-selling books on architecture -- some 25 years after
it was first published.
But Alexander and his colleagues were disturbed to find that many of the
designers inspired by A Pattern Language produced work that was crude and
artless. How, short of returning to the priesthood of trained professionals,
could this be corrected? What was missing from the methodology he and his
colleagues were offering?
Alexander came to believe what was needed was an essential grasp of good
geometry. Coming to terms with the implications of this, and documenting the
ideas for his readers, was the task that would occupy him for the next 25 years,
and require nothing short of an overhaul of the Cartesian worldview that he
believed underlies the conception of the design problem.
...I believe that there is, at the root of our trouble in the sphere of art and
architecture, a fundamental mistake caused by a certain conception of the nature
of matter, the nature of the universe. More precisely, I believe that the
mistake and confusion in our picture of the art of building has come from our
conception of what matter is.
The present conception of matter, and the opposing one which I shall try to put
in its place, may both be summarized by the nature of order. Our idea of matter
is essentially governed by our idea of order. What matter is, is governed by our
idea of how space can be arranged; and that in turn is governed by our idea of
how orderly arrangement in space creates matter. So it is the nature of order
which lies at the root of the problem in architecture. Hence the title of this
- The Nature of Order, p. 8
Alexander studied the designs of cultures throughout history and across the
world, and formulated some empirical notions about their geometric properties.
He distilled these down to 15 recurrent geometric properties, and developed them
into a theory of design.
At the core of his theory is the idea that good design is not a matter of
elements working properly in a mechanistic system, but rather of regions of
space amplifying one another in a larger totality. That is, one cannot take the
environment apart into elements, but must see the environment as a field of
wholes, each supporting and amplifying one another in an interlocking totality.
One can be very precise and descriptive about these wholes, but one cannot avoid
looking at the totality at each step of the way.
Alexander calls each spatial region a "center," emphasizing that it is not an
isolated entity, but an embedded field within an infinitely larger system of
fields, with gradually diminishing contextual influences. One cannot look at a
part of the whole without looking at its relation to the whole, and the complex
influences of its location within the field.
This geometric holism is not a new view of things, although perhaps, as
Alexander suggests, it holds revolutionary implications for the way we order the
architecture of modern society. As Alexander correctly notes, we are still
captivated by the power of Cartesian reductionism, the metaphor of the machine.
It utterly dominates our conception of the natural world and of the design
problem. It gives us great reductive power over nature, the power to take apart
and reassemble at vast scales for our own purposes. And yet we pay a terrible
price: like Humpty Dumpty, we sometimes find ourselves unable to get all the
pieces to go back together again. Or rather, we find it impossible, since we
don't really understand, in the current world view, what it means for "things to
go together" in the first place. And thus the iconoclastic quality of this
From his introduction:
In physics and biology some progress has been made toward understanding the
phenomenon of order, and the processes which create order. The creation of
living organisms through the morphogenetic process, the creation of matter, the
creation of stars and galaxies from nuclear fire, the constant creation of
particles by interaction with one another- have all been studied in the last
seventy years. In these limited cases we now have a rudimentary idea of the way
the order-creation works. It has become clear, too, that the way the order is
created in these cases is of essential importance to our understanding of the
world. Our knowledge of order-creating processes in physics, chemistry, and
biology has molded the modern view of the universe.
The art of building has not, so far, had a comparable impact on our
understanding of the world. Our modern picture of the universe, what kind of
stuff space and matter is made of, has not been influenced by building or by
architecture. Yet, I shall argue, the process of building is an order-creating
process of no less importance than those of physics and biology. It is vast in
its scale and scope. It is almost universal in our experience. It is therefore
reasonable to think that the art of building might give us equally essential
In what follows I shall try to show that there is a way of understanding order
which is general and does do justice to the nature of building and of
architecture. It is a view which, I hope, is adequate to understanding the
intuitions we have about beauty and the life of buildings. It is a view which
tells us what it means for a building to be a great building, and when a
building is working properly. It is, I believe, a common-sense and powerful
view, with practical results.