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5 out of 5 stars Another Magnum Opus from a central figure in design theory, June 17, 2003
Reviewer: Michael W Mehaffy from Lake Oswego, Oregon United States
This four-volume work is Christopher Alexander's magnum opus of architectural philosophy, and a book on which he has been working for over twenty years. Like Steven Wolfram's "A New Kind of Science" -- to which it has been compared by a number of authors -- 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 may be appropriately skeptical until more evidence is seen. As to the first, there are emerging 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.

This is much more than speculative mysticism, as some poorly-read critics will doubtless be eager to claim. The Cambridge-educated mathematician backs up his beautifully illustrated assertions with copious mathematical formulas and notes, and he includes extensive discussions of the philosophical ideas of Descartes, Newton, Whitehead and many others. He paints an extremely detailed and convincing picture of a vast world of geometric structure that is just now coming into the range of human comprehension.

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.

Alexander started his career as a highly influential 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. (Curiously, Alexander's work has more recently spawned an entire new field of computer programming language, as well as popular computer games like "The Sims".)

Later on, Alexander sought a method to handle the unwieldy thickets of complex data generated by the computer. He soon 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 unsatisfactory methods of 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 the geometry of nature, in the broadest sense. The effort to come to terms with the implications of this, and to document the ideas for his readers, 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.

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 powerful and versatile 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. If so, this work is a major advancement.

It is not an accident that scientists are often Alexander's biggest fans, for they understand his ideas more deeply than do many architects. If history is any guide, thoughtful people would do well to pay close attention to the insights of this fascinating, brilliant, important theorist.