Alexander has done more than simply challenge architects to produce better work. In his books A Pattern Language, The Timeless Way of Building, and The Oregon Experiment, he offered subtle and powerful tools with which to do so. (An earlier book, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, and his soon-to-be-published The Nature of Order address the physical foundations of form and beauty.) New Urbanist planner Andrés Duany calls Alexander "one of the most influential people who has ever been in the design world. His influence on us, operationally, has been enormous." Sarah Susanka, whose popular books The Not So Big House and Creating the Not So Big House have appealed to both architects and homeowners in an effort to change the way Americans build, credits Alexander as the indispensable guiding light of her career.
"I consider myself one of the first generation of architects brought up with A Pattern Language," she says. For Susanka, the book came along at a crucial moment. Early in her training she sensed that architecture had fallen victim to overspecialization. Architects were taught to believe that they held "special, private knowledge," which their clients could never fully grasp. Young architects lived under an oppressive standard of "doing something nobody has ever done before, for the sake of doing something that's never been done before." Meanwhile, generational continuity in the trades had broken down, scattering the cultural capital once invested in the hands of master craftspeople. "Things that were handed down from father to son and mother to daughter for hundreds of years no longer were." As a result, she says, "people lost their confidence."
"Alexander put forth a completely new paradigm in architecture," Susanka says. Eschewing professionalist jargon and arcane theories, he spoke directly to the question of what kinds of places support vibrant human life. Refusing to turn his back on millennia of human experimentation, he sought answers in real buildings and real communities, and he employed a scientific approach to discerning their effects on people. "He was speaking a whole different language than anyone else had up until that point," Susanka says. It is a language that speaks with both authority and specificity about the constituents of a healthy built environment—green corridors into urban areas, small public squares, paths that connect houses without crossing car roads, houses with cave-like spaces for small children to play in, semi-independent spaces for teenagers—a suitable habitat, if you will. A Pattern Language gave architects and their clients a common ground, a vocabulary with which lay people could identify what they wanted in a building, even if they had never experienced it before. "What he was doing was giving back a certain confidence," Susanka says, "reminding people of what they had forgotten."
Alexander's critics have long dismissed him as a nostalgist whose work has no contemporary relevance. But while his work is replete with elements banished from the Modernist palette—he champions the use of ornament, for example—he says, "I don't think it has anything in it that is a desire for the archaic. I view it very much as going forward." The quality he seeks—a quality amply in evidence in his own buildings—is not the province of any style or period. His description of a visitor center he built for West Dean College, West Sussex, U.K.—"You feel that you're in the presence of a traditional architecture of some uncertain type"—could apply to any of his buildings. But the fact that his architecture feels pre-Modern may say as much about Modernism as about Alexander. Modernism and its offshoots may someday come to be viewed as a subordinate branch of architecture's evolutionary tree; if so, returning to the main trunk to move ahead might well at first seem retrograde.
In hindsight, this champion of timeless values in building seems to have been ahead of the avant-garde from his days at Cambridge. Modernism, Alexander notes, drew much of its inspiration from industrial mass production and the scientific theory, current during the early 20th century, that all matter could be reduced to identical repeating units. This gave rise to what Alexander calls the movement's "insane love affair with repetition." Decades later, the scientific vision of a neatly uniform underlying structure has fallen apart. "The idea of identical repeating units was a washout from the beginning," Alexander says. "All of this arose out of a scientific view of the world that was just wrong." The more closely scientists observe matter, the more they see not uniformity but uniqueness.
Uniqueness is at the crux of Alexander's vision. But it is not the uniqueness of the avant-garde, of difference for the sake of being different.
He draws his parallels from biological systems and computer science, each of which employs simple sets of instructions—genetic codes or software scripts—to produce infinitely varied and unique responses to data inputs or environmental circumstances. The same genetic material for, say, a tree will give rise to a distinctly different organism in each different environment in which a tree might grow. The same spreadsheet will give a different set of output figures for every set of inputs. In the realm of architecture and planning, this means that a single set of governing principles—a pattern language—can give rise to an infinite variety of design solutions, each appropriately unique to its unique circumstances.
Today's architectural avant-garde relies on computer technology to envision and engineer increasingly self-referential and abstractly sculptural buildings—dubbed "blobs" by architect Greg Lynn, a practitioner in the new genre. Alexander has embraced computer science and computer technology in a more profound way, as both metaphor and the medium with which to advance his vision of "rebuilding the earth."Alexander's application of computer technology to architecture—to the fundamental work of design, not merely to imaging or drafting—began in the 1960s. In its structure, A Pattern Language bears much in common with the scripts that computer programs employ to carry out complex functions. Indeed, software engineers have adopted the book as a structural model with applications in their own field. In its nesting structure and links between patterns, the book anticipated the structure of the World Wide Web.
With the current widespread use of the Internet and computer-controlled production of made-to-order building materials, the world may have at last caught up with A Pattern Language. Alexander has responded to these developments with a Web site, patternlanguage.com, which offers the content of A Pattern Language—in the form of "generative sequences" for the creation of spaces—as a kind of open source code of environmental design. Anyone with an Internet connection can access the site for guidance in planning and building a variety of spaces: a garden, a small addition, a house, a neighborhood, an office building.
Web-based architecture may yet sound a bit ethereal, but Alexander's theory—and his own practice—are deeply rooted in the nitty-gritty of construction. For more than 30 years, his Center for Environmental Structure has served as both a laboratory for his theories and an active architecture and construction firm. From its base in Berkeley, Calif., CES has undertaken projects ranging from town and community plans to individual houses in the U.S. and as far afield as Peru, Austria, and Japan. From this experience Alexander has derived one iron-clad imperative: The architect must direct the construction process. "The unification of design and construction—the willingness of the architect to take responsibility for construction and not just drawing—is probably the single most critical issue," he says. He has pursued this approach in crafting a series of buildings that express, even through the limited medium of photography, a rare emotional depth. "The architect as artist is the core of our activity," Alexander says, "and I mean an artist in the sense of making beautiful things." For architects to realize their full potential as artists, he maintains, "the love of buildings has to become a love of building."
It is the love of both buildings and creating them that has animated Alexander's career. But while every love bears a core of mystery, Alexander has been unwilling to let the mystery rest. By delving deeper into how the things we build can support us, enlighten us, move us, make us better, he has both enlarged and enriched his profession.
Bruce D. Snider writes for residential architect's sister publication CUSTOM HOME.