|Five hundred years is a long time, and I don’t
expect that many of the people I talk to in these pages
will be known in the year 2500; Christopher Alexander
may be an exception.
Alexander is an architect whose goal is to completely
change the practice of that profession. However, his
ideas are so deep and useful that they have garnered
attention in a seemingly unrelated field, computer
science. His ideas are also important to management.
The first reason managers should read Alexander is
that the design of workplaces has a major impact on the
effectiveness of our organizations. The second reason is
that his insights into the nature of order, as well as
his methodologies, can be applied to the problem of
I’m privileged to present these ideas to you.
DC- To what extent is the design of office spaces
CA- The issue is a lot deeper than it might seem. The
conventional way to talk about office space is to talk
about efficiency criteria. Is this near that? Is this
big enough? This sort of talk has its place, but it’s
really minor compared to what I want to talk about.
When you are working, the quality of your work
depends on the extent to which you are able to put your
spirit, your heart into it. It’s not necessarily about
being intellectual; it’s just a question of staying very
sharp, of doing what’s really needed rather than
something else. All this requires a genuine sense of
well-being. It’s not a problem of efficiency. It’s a
problem of whether overall—in motivation, in atmosphere,
in congeniality—the well-being of the people working has
You can see from this very simple description that
ninety percent of the workplaces in America couldn’t
possibly fulfill that prescription because they weren’t
thought about that way. The workplaces were talked about
in quite different terms, in mechanical ways, that have
very little to do with emotional, psychological, or
Do you agree with that? Does a typical workplace
DC- I’d say the answer is no. The leading
literature on this is the comic Dilbert which is about
life in cubicles. Dilbert is popular because it reflects
how unpleasant people find cubicle life. However, the
belief is, “This is business. We’re here to work not to
have fun. So your job as a worker is to get on with it.”
CA- Are you cartooning your own profession or do you
DC- Since I’m talking to you, you know I must be
cartooning the profession. However, it is true that in a
workplace there are many constraints on what you can
actually do. You read about something really cool that
Nickelodeon has done in their office space but you’ll be
thinking, “Well, we already have a building and an
office layout.” So even to the extent that people
believe that the physical working environment is
important, they will be wondering what they can do about
CA- Let’s just talk about some very basic things, for
example, is it really ok for a person to own their
workspace? Will a typical management organization allow
people to create a place where they feel truly
comfortable? In the sixties and seventies, there were
even serious discussions if it was ok for people to put
family photos on their desks. So the extent to which
it’s ok for someone to be at home in the office has been
under dispute for the past three to five decades. And
clearly, someone who is not allowed to be at home, in
that very simple sense, is hardly going to be filled
with a sense of well-being.
A garage mechanic in a small gas station has more
freedom in this respect. Since it is a fairly ramshackle
place, if they want to stick something up on the wall,
as long as it's not actually interfering with their
work, they can get away with it, whereas, in a corporate
environment that’s not the case. It’s not that this is,
in and of itself, an important point. What I am trying
to demonstrate is that there is not a culture where it
is presumed that to work well, you have to be well.
Do you agree?
DC- Definitely. And when you say it that way, no
one is going to disagree with you, but when you look at
how people spend their time, they invest very little
thought or effort on workspaces.
CA- This is the problem. As you say, everyone will
pay lip service to the concept, and say, “Yes, yes this
is very important.” But when you look at what is
actually being done by a facilities manager in a
particular place, you’ll see that a culture where
managers could feel comfortable initiating this sort of
atmosphere of well-being has not yet developed. It would
be considered very far out and extremely risky.
DC- There is quite a wide variation. The dot-coms
were famous for trying to make workplaces fun. Then
there are those other cases where the size of desk, the
type of chair, and whether you have a plant or not, are
all prescribed by the organization.
CA- Let me give you an example from a campus I built
in Japan. It’s a reasonably large area, about nine
blocks, just outside Tokyo. It’s a combination high
school and college campus. In the early stages, I was
working with the teachers to decide what would be done
and what the atmosphere would be. I had private
interviews with thirty or forty teachers, and I asked
them to describe, as far as they could, their ideal work
environment. I noticed a peculiar difficulty. People
would say, “Well, I don’t really know what you mean,”
humming and hawing and so on. And I would ask, “What is
so difficult about describing your ideal workplace?”
They responded, “Well, there are really no options,
everyone knows what schools are like.” And they’d
describe a typical configuration of asphalt and
regimented office-classroom buildings. They’d say,
“Whatever we do, this is how it will end up, so there is
no point answering the question.”
So I said, “This is not the case here. We’re quite
determined to create the environment where you are able
to be effective and where it really is what you want.” I
asked them to close their eyes and imagine for a moment
the most ideal working environment. After I had worked
at giving them permission to really say what was on
their minds—which was no small task— people were saying,
“I’d love to have a little stream with willow trees
where I could walk along before I give my lecture
because that would really put me in a constructive state
of mind. It would be a wonderful place to work. But who
is going to give us water and willow trees?” And the
core of the campus we actually built is, indeed, a lake
with trees around it. This was part of the pattern
language we used to build the campus.
What I’m trying to illustrate is that the teachers
themselves were almost unwilling to go out on a limb to
tell me about what an adequate working environment would
be, since it seemed, to them, so far out as to be a
stupid thing to dwell on. This is a measure of how bad a
situation we have.
DC- How do we go from what we have now, which
nobody likes but we’ve learned to live with, to
something which is truly effective.
CA- Let me give you a concrete example: the layout of
an individual office for a middle level manager.
I’d ask a person to set up their ideal workspace. I’d
give them a pattern language, which is actually a
sequence of instructions, which says that in order to
get the place you really want, there are some things you
should think about first, and then there are some
actions you should take; and then there are subsequent
things to think about and actions to take, and so on. We
have invited people to play with a model of the office.
We give them models of chairs, desks and so on, which
have the peculiar property of being expandable and
collapsible. This allows the manager to adjust the
dimensions of the furniture as they work with the model.
I then tell them to go through the pattern language
sequence, and work the elements together to create an
entirely comfortable working situation. This is a pretty
simple instruction and in about twenty minutes, they
come up with a unique configuration. If you take 20 or
30 managers and you take them through the process, the
kinds of differences you get between configurations is
Contrast that with typical modern offices. Although
everybody says office furniture can be rearranged to
individual wishes, that it is not true. Even though each
desk comes in two or three different sizes, the
variations are so limited that the attainable
configurations are incredibly constrained, so much so
that it’s impossible for a manager to come up with
something they really like.
DC- Yes, when you move into an office, you might
take a desk which is against one wall and move it
against another wall. It’s not a great improvement but
it’s all you can think of given the constraints.
What’s unusual in your process is that you are
getting the manager to design their own space. You are
not calling upon a design expert to come up with a
beautiful and effective space.
CA- As you will have anticipated, I believe that
these so-called experts, whether they are architects,
furniture designers or interior designers, are quite
authoritarian and usually extremely inexpert, mainly
because they don’t pay attention to what people really
want. They maintain a continuous belief in their own
powers of judgment over and above the judgment and
wishes of the people they are meant to be serving.
I can give you an example of what I mean. I was
laying out a series of apartments in Nagoya and I had a
Japanese assistant, a very intelligent young woman, who
trained as an architect and had studied with me. We
would have the families lay out their apartments and she
would re-draw them for technical reasons. She knew very
well what I was after, and even as good as she was, she
was continually of the opinion that she would somehow
help the families by cleaning up what they had done.
In one example, I looked at the drawing the family
had made, and compared it to her more technical drawing.
I noticed that she had moved the sink a couple of feet
from where the family had placed it. I asked her why and
she said, “I’m quite sure they didn’t intend it to be
here, it looks awkward, so I moved it a little.” But I
sensed some intent in the original drawing, and I asked
the lady why she had put the sink where she had. She
explained something very complex and subtle about coming
in the door, washing, purifying yourself, as you come
home and then relaxing. She had thought exactly where to
put the sink and moving it two feet completely vitiated
My assistant had moved it with the best intentions.
Yet, the mismatch between the professional grasp of the
situation and the so-called layman’s grasp was like
night and day. I’m not quite sure how we ever got to the
almost obscene state where a professional believes that
just by virtue of being a professional, they know more
about someone’s needs, feelings, and wishes than the
DC- And this is relevant to us to in HR, not only
in how we develop workspaces that people will find
effective, but also because there is an exact parallel
with what we call the “technostructure”. Organizations
are full of experts telling people what they should be
doing. And yet, when you study actual work practices,
you find that the only way workers get things done is by
ignoring what the experts tell them and by applying
their own improvisations. Dr. Paul Duguid, who is also
at Berkeley, has written about this.
CA – There is a profound lack of trust of the
fact that what people want is actually the thing that
should be done. Not only in the managerial situation
you’re describing but in so many walks of life.
DC- Getting back to the issue of designing an
office. Even if we want to let people design their own
spaces, is there anything we can do about the
constraints of existing office furniture.
CA- Yes, it’s fine to talk about using these models
with expandable and contractible pieces of furniture but
the issue is the ability to do it in the real world. At
one point, I did a project with Hermann-Miller and found
a way of providing a supply line that was flexible
enough, and had such rapid turnaround, that it was
possible to provide individual pieces of furniture to
the scale required. This, of course, requires a
completely different kind of production facility. We
went very far towards this, and we designed a facility
capable of doing this at low cost. Sadly, at the last
minute, the production facility got cold feet because it
altered so many aspects of their production cycle that
it also altered the power structure in Hermann-Miller.
It would have put the engineers in a stronger position
than the chief designers, who were running
Hermann-Miller at that time, because the designers are
all geared to producing large numbers of very highly
DC- This won’t surprise HR professionals because
although we often talk about change from a rational
perspective, we also always look at it from the point of
view of power structures.
CA- Yes, I’ve been told that these kinds of things
are very common in organizations, rife in fact.
DC- You mentioned the term “a pattern language” a
couple of times, perhaps you could explain what that
CA- Patterns are just a way of recording and
encapsulating knowledge; they are reusable solutions.
They are certain types of relationships which work in
something that you know. For example, the coping on a
brick or stone wall is there not just because it looks
nice, which it sometimes does, but it also protects the
wall from snow and rain. Over centuries, this evolved as
the normal way to build a wall. The coping is a pattern.
In our work, we were concerned with larger patterns,
where people like to sit, patterns of light and so on.
Back in the seventies, a group of people under my
direction studied these patterns extensively and made a
compendium of about 250 of these patterns in the book,
A Pattern Language.
This concept of pattern languages has come into use
in computer science. The concept gives insights into
what kinds of patterns are useful in software
development. Just recently, I heard from the Computer
Scientists for Social Responsibility (http://www.cpsr.org/), who are planning a
compendium of patterns about society, that is work,
ethos, economics, old age, education, and so forth.
DC- The results of that pattern language will be
of real interest to HR. What I find fascinating is that
if I’m interested in making places better, I have the
book, A Pattern Language, which can help me lay
out a building, home or a workplace, but also there is
the more abstract idea that pattern languages are ways
to go about understanding reality. Instead of using some
grand theory or model in a pattern language you have a
whole series of elements that stand on their own and if
you put them together in the right way, you can be
pretty confident your solution will work just because
these patterns have been proven to work well over time.
I know you’ve gone beyond patterns in your upcoming
work, The Nature of Order, and are talking about
process. Maybe you could tell me a little about
CA- Rather than a pattern language just being a
compendium of good ideas, we believe patterns can be
strung together to form generative sequences. This way
one could actually create a design—of whatever was under
consideration—by injecting one pattern at a time, each
building on the product of the previous pattern. Our
book, A Pattern Language, wasn’t as strong as we
would like in this respect. We didn’t focus sufficiently
on the generative aspect of patterns as ideas that could
be used in sequences to produce things. In the
intervening years, that issue is what has most occupied
So patterns are now doing double duty. They are a
repository of good ideas, but more importantly they
become transformations which you apply to a given place
and gradually unfold into a desired structure in this
If you are familiar with the theory of language,
you’ll see this is moving the pattern language much
closer to a true language: a series of transformative
systems that allow people to operate in their
environment so as to make it effective and comfortable.
DC- What’s interesting to us in HR is not just the
idea that this is a methodology for helping to design
places, but the whole idea that maybe the way to get
things done in an organization of any kind is to have
processes that build one upon the other, so that we will
find our way to the end result. This is a very different
way of thinking than, “We’ll design something; we’ll get
the design right, and then just plop it down.”
CA- That’s a very important point. Would that concept
be well-understood in your field?
DC- No, not really. There is something called
“process consulting” which is well-understood. In
process consulting, even though the consultant may know
the answer right away, they take the client through the
process of coming up with their own answer. In a sense,
the process of generating client understanding is more
important than the answer.
CA- You’ve put the emphasis there on participation,
comprehension and ownership, but although I hold all
those concepts very dear, there is an additional vital
concept underlying my focus on process. In architecture,
what’s quite clear is that a living structure cannot be
produced in any other way. It has to be generated
indirectly because there’s so much complexity. You
cannot create a mouse by messing around with
micro-tweezers and a blueprint. You can only create a
mouse by having a fertilized egg turn into a mouse over
a period of weeks, by splitting cells and
differentiation, which will always produce a unique
The morphology of what is produced cannot be produced
in other ways; it can only be produced by generative
processes. This is quite true of buildings. If you don’t
generate the building indirectly, you will not get a
DC- As an aside, did you know there is an argument
in some circles that we can never create artificial
intelligence because the only way to produce
intelligence is to have it evolve in an environment over
millions of years. In other words, you can never design
an intelligent organism or machine; you can only get
there through some kind of evolutionary processes.
CA- That’s possibly related, although we’re talking
about vastly different time frames. Creating a living
building is of course a much smaller task than creating
DC- Another related idea is Henry Mintzberg’s
observation that some of the best strategies are not
designed but emerge over time out of the organization.
One could make the argument that emergence isn’t just an
alternative to design but perhaps it may be the only way
to create all the alignments needed in a complex
organization. Maybe you have to always evolve an answer
rather than design an answer.
CA- When we talk about human organizations, there is
no doubt they do evolve, and the success of the great
ones, whether it’s something small like a family or
something large like an enduring corporation, is
certainly not planned; it is the result of a series of
very careful fine-tunings, day by day by day which lead
to a structure that probably could not have been
anticipated or planned or implemented from a plan.
I recently gave a lecture in Stanford at the computer
science department where I estimated the order of
mistakes that are inevitable if you do not follow an
adaptive process, and we’re talking thousands of
mistakes in small things, 10 to some unimaginable
exponent in large things.
So if you want to have something that is free of
those mistakes, you have to follow a process which is
capable of being an adaptive sequence. As you know from
embryology, adaptive doesn’t just mean tinkering,
there’s a certain unfolding, certain broad morphological
structures that are established, and other things in the
context of those and so on.
I would think it would be quite possible to work out
some of the generative processes which would be needed
to grow an organization successfully: what you do so
that the organization unfolds smoothly towards a
productive and well-ordered end-result—well, there is no
end result, but any way to a good result that continues
DC- And that is a fundamental mistake people in
business make. We always talk about an “end result”.
CA- That’s the same in architecture. It’s the main
reason why architecture is so bad at the moment. People
are always assuming that if they can draw it and have
somebody build it, then that’s it.
Nobel prize winner Ilya Prigogine has very eloquent
passages about what it has taken to get physics from a
static conception of the world to a dynamic conception.
That is what his work has been about his own whole life.
I quote Prigogine in The Nature of Order and I
think he has influenced not just physics or physical
chemistry but also biology; unfortunately, architecture
is completely unaware of it. The main form of
communication about buildings that have not yet been
built is the artists’ conceptions of the imagined end
state. Those sketches do, in fact, carry enormous weight
around boardroom tables but, of course, they are an
absolutely impossible way to deal with reality and so
produce the same dead garbage.
DC- Could you sketch out what a generative process
in architecture might be like.
CA- Let’s suppose we’re going to put a house on a
piece of land for a particular family. You go to the
piece of land where the house is to be built and you
make decisions one by one over a period of time. The key
thing, and something that is frightening to quite a lot
of architects, is that as you go forward in the process,
you choose the decision points, such that you do them at
the right moment and you don’t go back. You don’t have
this sense that the whole thing is constantly in play,
as it is when an architect is sketching on a piece of
yellow tracing paper constantly changing everything,
moving everything. No adaptive sequence can be like that
because it will never come to order. You have to do one
thing at a time, so you have to know what you should do
first, second, third and fourth because if you do not do
it in the right order, it will not work. People are
terrified of making decisions one by one like that.
Back to the concrete specifics. The first thing you
decide is where you are going to put the house. We ask
what volume will be harmonious with the topography,
trees, neighboring structures and so on. Then, sketch
the rough outline, and by sketching I mean, walking
around on the land, waving ones hands, putting down
sticks and stones. Once you have the rough idea of the
volume of the building, we ask where we would like to be
in that building, in regard to where we would spend most
of our time, which is an answerable question at that
point. That’s how we decide where the main room will be.
Again, it’s done in the real situation, and about the
same time you decide where the entrance is.
What an architect typically does is toss off one
sketch of the whole, one after another, often showing
them to the clients. Not only is there great
arbitrariness to the process but also great confusion.
However in the process I’m talking about, you do not
move forward until you have established each point to
your satisfaction. You do your best to decide where the
living room is but you don’t try to sketch it at that
point because you don’t have enough information. You can
place the living room successfully but you don’t make
any decisions that you don’t really understand. You
don’t permit yourself to start drawing what the room
might be like because you’d be making stuff up and you’d
be making arbitrary, senseless, and not well-adapted
decisions. In the state of affairs I’m talking about, at
any moment, you only make decisions about those things
that you can truthfully establish and rest upon, and
then build upon and move forward to the next decision.
Going back to the embryology example, this is exactly
what goes on in a developing embryo. The structure is
laid down in the unfolding embryo and what takes place
next is always in relation to what has been laid down.
The structure that is laid down in the early stages is
extremely fuzzy and only sets out the broad arrangement
of things. The next bit of structure is injected into
this and so on. This is a very different way of thinking
about how to build something.
And this process follows through all the way to
construction. In our company, we carry out construction
in a similar way such that we can guarantee a price to a
client but do not commit to a fixed blueprint. There is
always flexibility because we know from experience that
during construction, decisions need to be made, because
almost every decision that you’ve made earlier, has to
be modified or tweaked as you go further down the line.
DC- You draw on the field of embryology, and I
think in the same way, managers will be able to draw on
the concepts you have developed for architecture.
CA- I hope my own efforts will change architecture,
and with the publication of The Nature of Order,
these things will become clear in a way that can’t be
DC- Something you’ve commented on, which I’d like
to explore, is that we’ve been taught that there are
experts in things and we shouldn’t take any action
without consulting an expert. I’m not talking about the
ignorant person versus the expert, but rather the person
who has rich contextual information versus an expert
dealing with abstract ideas. An everyday example is that
when it comes to the opinion of a mother about the
health of her child, versus the doctor’s opinion, the
mother’s opinion is given no weight, despite the fact
that she knows infinitely more about the child.
CA- On the face of it is an astonishing situation,
but we know it’s true. It’s one of the things I’ve put
my voice against. It’s so vitally important to go to the
knowledge that all of us have. First, because people’s
lives are involved they need to be the captains of their
own fates. Secondly, we need to put the decisions to the
people who know more about the particular local
circumstances rather than people who know less.
The deeper one goes into this, the more you see the
solutions lie almost in an archetypal realm. There is
some place in the human being where there’s a great deal
of knowledge that has bearing on many of these matters.
One of the things I have tried to do over the years is
call on that knowledge. So for instance, for the
majority of people, when they pick up A Pattern
Language they have a reaction something like, “Of
course I always knew this but I didn’t know I knew it.
Meanwhile I’ve been pushed around by other sorts of
concepts. I know this is true, I’ve always known this is
true. How wonderful someone has written it down.”
DC- And perhaps that’s a good place to end. I
certainly found A Pattern Language wonderful, and
I greatly look forward to The Nature of Order
which I can see is even more helpful and more
An example from a pattern language: Pattern 152, The
Half Private Office.
This pattern addresses the question, “What is the
right balance between privacy and connection in office
The discussion of this pattern notes how a totally
private office can damage the flow of human
relationships within a work group. The author's note
that the most effective arrangements for working never
included totally private offices.
They conclude that every workroom, whether for two,
three or only one person, should be half-open to other
workgroups and the office as a whole. There should be an
inviting place to sit near the door, with the actual
desk(s) further back away from the door.
The book includes an illustration and notes links to
other related patterns.
What to Read First:
A Pattern Language is probably Alexander’s
best-loved book. I love it and according to the Global
Business Network, Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel rave about
it too. A Pattern Language is available from
The Production of Houses is hard to find new
but you can easily pick up an inexpensive used copy from
www.abebooks.com This book is interesting to managers
because it takes us through the process of developing
and implementing new production methods. It has all the
elements of a classic innovation or change project from
getting “top management” (in this case government)
buy-in, struggling with technical problems; working
closely with the end-users (the home owners), some of
whom didn’t fully appreciate what you were trying to do
for them; tightly controlling costs, and finally
maintaining the support of remote higher ups who never
really understood the innovation (this was the one thing
Alexander’s team didn’t do well enough).
You can pre-order The Nature of Order from
Check out http://www.patternlanguage.com/
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