Christopher Alexander's theory and practice promote an architecture that nurtures human life.
Bryce Duffy/Corbis SABA Christopher Alexander's theory and practice promote an architecture that nurtures human life.

What is architecture? What is the role of the architect in society? What is a good building? Should architects strive for beauty in their work? What is beauty? These are matters that every architect must ponder from time to time. But no architect of our time has explored such fundamental questions in greater depth or breadth, or with greater persistence, clarity, and originality of thought, than Christopher Alexander. As a theorist, teacher, author, practicing architect, and builder, Alexander has taken it upon himself to question everything, from construction details and the effects of color to the process by which a global species makes and remakes its environment and, beyond, to the objective bases of beauty itself. Along the way, his work has informed, inspired, and provoked generations of architects. His most widely read book to date, A Pattern Language (co-authored with Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein), has served as an essential text for architecture students, architects, and builders. Yet the book is so accessible that it remains popular among lay readers more than 20 years after its first publication and so universal that it has become a model not only for architects, planners, and homeowners but also for software developers. In his architectural practice he has shown a way to create, without being merely imitative, buildings with the richness, resonance, and life we are accustomed to experiencing only in old buildings.

His analysis of the structural features of healthy communities provided the theoretical and practical underpinnings of the New Urbanism. His outspoken critique of the Modernist architectural establishment and architectural education has made him both a hero and a bete noire.

bricks and mortarboards

This is not the career Alexander envisioned when, as a young bricklayer's apprentice, he first set his sights on the profession.

"I feel that in some ways I was like a little kid," he says. "I wanted to be an architect, I went to architecture school, I found out that what I learned in architecture school was nonsense." At Cambridge University in the 1950s, he remembers, "The air was thick with Van Doesburg" and a doctrinaire Modernism that struck Alexander, who also studied mathematics, as the height of absurdity.

"I went through the Cambridge School of Architecture almost in a state of desperation," he says. At one point, assigned to design a house—and knowing that his notion of a proper building would provoke only ridicule—Alexander pulled what he remembers as a rather juvenile prank. Idly doodling "some Mondrian-esque lines" on paper, the thought occurred to him: "I'll just put a glass box around this and I'll call it a house." Summoned later to speak with the director of the department about his work, he feared he had earned himself a ticket home. But the director issued no reprimand. As Alexander remembers, "He walks up to me, puts his arm around my shoulder, and says, 'Chris, my boy, this is exactly what we want.'" When the meeting ended Alexander phoned his father and reported, "This is a lunatic asylum."

Rather than destroy his interest in architecture, however, Alexander's architecture school experience only spurred him to dig more deeply into the matter. After graduating from Cambridge, he says, "I had kind of an instinct about the U.S. I decided, 'I'm going to go to the U.S. and I'm going to figure this thing out from scratch.' I went to Harvard with that goal: What is architecture? And I began with anthropology, because I knew that there were so many cultures around the world that had created so many beautiful things." The work Alexander began at Harvard led to a Ph.D. in architecture, a professorship at the University of California at Berkeley, and a career-long pursuit of the universal principles of life-sustaining design.

building blocks

Alexander's process was not merely to catalog what he saw, even the best of it. Rather, it was—and remains—to identify structures and environments that foster objectively measurable positive effects, distill from them the essential qualities that make them work, and develop systems to produce buildings that embody those qualities. It is a deceptively simple approach. Yet it has been remarkably effective at making explicit the unwritten rules that underlie generation upon generation of building around the world.

His research also shed light on what remains perhaps the central paradox of architecture in the late 20th and early 21st centuries: why, with more and more trained architects in the world, we seem less and less effective in creating an environment in which people feel comfortable, whole, and happy. A period that has produced a wealth of inspired buildings has also brought a coarsening of the common fabric. Alexander's effort to decode the universal grammar of design was motivated by his sense that it was being flouted or ignored by an architectural profession that elevated individual artistic expression above all else.

"The idea that a few people are sort of priests of architecture has wreaked havoc," Alexander says. "It has served architecture very badly indeed." From the second half of the 20th century, academic architecture has occupied many of the brightest minds in the field in a closed conversation among architects and critics. The result has been self-consciously avant-garde or ironic work that has drifted further and further from the straightforward needs of the people who will use it. "It is the desire to be remarkable that removes things continuously from our ordinary lives," Alexander says. And because the desire to be remarkable has come to rule our built environment, "we are constantly trapped in places where we cannot be ordinary human beings." Meanwhile, the public's desire for buildings they can relate to is served largely by mass-market kitsch traditionalism, the architectural equivalent of junk food. Skilled architects who wish to address the needs of their clients in a direct, unselfconscious way have often had to go outside their training to do so.

In a day when architecture is viewed, taught, critiqued, and consumed primarily in the form of two-dimensional images—including photographs in magazines like this one—the photographic image exerts a tremendous influence on the actual design of buildings. But the qualities of a captivating graphic composition are quite different from those of a deeply livable environment. For more than 30 years, Alexander's work has challenged architects to delve deeper, to serve the needs of the body and spirit in a way that photography cannot capture, a way that must be experienced directly. Architects recognize this quality in the special places and buildings in their lives, Alexander says, "but for 60 or 80 years, it has not been on the agenda. It's a private feeling people have, but it's not an acknowledged 'this is what we ought to do when we build.' It's crazy, really, that the thing that is the core of all architecture should be, at least for our time, so elusive."

Alexander's work has made this essential quality less elusive than it once was, and less likely to be dismissed as a historical artifact. "I think Christopher Alexander is probably the most important theoretician on architectural design of the present day," says architect and educator Edward Allen, author of the classic textbook Fundamentals of Building Construction. Alexander's analysis of past and current architectural practice, Allen says, has been "not only deep and important, but also largely correct. He doesn't bat a thousand, but he has undertaken such a vast scope of stuff, it's astonishing how well he does bat."