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A Landmark Book, October 31, 2003
A Landmark Book, October 31, 2003
|Reviewer: Nikos Salingaros (see more about me) from San Antonio, TX USA|
PART A. REVIEW FOR ARCHITECTS.
Contemporary architecture is increasingly grounded in science and mathematics. Architectural discourse has shifted radically from the sometimes disorienting Derridean deconstruction, to engaging scientific terms such as fractals, chaos, complexity, nonlinearity, and evolving systems. That's where the architectural action is -- at least for cutting-edge architects and thinkers -- and every practicing architect and student needs to become conversant with these terms and know what they mean. Unfortunately, the vast majority of architecture faculty are unprepared to explain them to students, not having had a scientific education themselves.
Here is an architecture book by an architect/scientist, just in time to help architects in the new millennium. Alexander discusses many of the scientific terms arising in cutting-edge architecture, and explains them to those who don't have scientific training or advanced mathematical knowledge. We find discussions of the evolution of forms; the importance of process in design; iteration; genetic algorithms; sequences of transformations; different levels of scale (i.e. fractals); etc. They are explained here by an architect who is also a scientist, because he wants to change the way architects think and build. Alexander is not merely popularizing other scientists' results and making them accessible to architects: he is in fact presenting new and original scientific work that ties many of these concepts together in a way that will be useful to architects.
Alexander spends many of the 636 pages of this book talking about PROCESS. He describes the sequence of steps leading to a built form, and how each step depends on all previous steps. Alexander distinguishes between good and bad sequences of steps, where the latter are marked by some disruptive discontinuity, and which, as a result, cannot lead to coherent form. It follows that the method of design taught in architecture schools for decades -- "conceive an interesting image in your mind, then impose it onto the environment" -- is wrong. ALEXANDER ARGUES THAT COHERENCE CAN NEVER BE ACHIEVED EXCEPT BY THE SEQUENCE METHOD. Don't forget this is the Alexander who wrote "A Pattern Language", an equally revolutionary book. Therefore, every architect, especially those whose own design methodology clashes with Alexander's ideas, is well advised to become aware of what he says instead of simply dismissing him offhand.
The present volume is the second of four. I believe that, with some effort, it can be read independently from the first volume (not that I am suggesting this, but merely to encourage people to plunge into Volume 2 immediately). This is the one of the four volumes that is most likely to appeal to those who are already interested in and actively working in applying the New Sciences to architecture. I therefore urge innovative architects and architecture students to read this book. In my opinion, it should enlighten everyone's conception of the design process, and help to initiate a reexamination in one's mind of how new ideas for structures and buildings are generated. This book might well influence in a major way how buildings of the future are designed and built, hence how they will look. No-one who thinks deeply and conscientiously about design today should pass it by.
PART B. REVIEW FOR SCIENTISTS.
Alexander is famous in the architectural world, yet he trained in Physics and Mathematics in Cambridge, and was part of the group of scientists who developed systems theory along with Herbert Simon. He has been investigating the interaction between science and architecture all of his life, and the four-volume work "The Nature of Order" contains the results of his researches. Volume 2, in particular, contains the most science. It may surprise many professional scientists that Alexander has managed to conceive of new results by applying architecture to science, surely a development that is as unexpected as it is novel.
This book contains interesting scientific insights. For example, already by page 42, Alexander proposes a radical rethinking of the standard Neo-Darwinian synthesis. He suggests that, based on a broad range of examples, evolving form in any context is driven just as much by intrinsic long-range forces having to do with geometrical configurations, as by the usual random Darwinian selection process. He thus takes suggestions by Stuart Kauffman and Brian Goodwin and develops them into a proto-theory of morphogenesis. It is not complete, and Alexander knows that, but I believe that the evolutionary biology community will get very excited about this idea. He supports his arguments by using phenomenology, and providing a theoretical basis wherever he can. I believe we are going to see a lot of activity, as ideas from this book inspire other authors to try to prove or disprove them. All of that is healthy, and will eventually establish Alexander as a contributor to scientific thinking.
My own favorite part is the discussion of how generative sequences break symmetry: instead of producing identical components (i.e., windows, houses, office blocks, apartments), the same generative process gives rise to similar types of complex objects that are individualized and thus distinct. This helps us to understand natural complexity, where adaptation does indeed produce diversity within the same typology. The underlying problem is how to correlate the different scales in a complex system, hitherto unsolved in any discipline. Therefore, this discussion is of great interest to computer scientists, who are grappling with modularization in software so as to handle the increasing complexity of code.
I am a scientist, and I have profited from Alexander's efforts to
understand very deep problems in complexity. The price to pay is having to
read through all the architectural examples (which may or may not be of
interest to many scientists). Alexander is like a moth circling around
fascinating problems. Even when he does not give a solution, his circling
in fact identifies the problem, and by approaching it, he gives nontrivial
hints towards its eventual solution. And, don't forget that it's the
architectural stuff that's going to inspire architects to build a more
beautiful world for the rest of us.