Christopher Alexander. A “model language” – ndion

Between structuralism and postmodernism, he developed an architectural language from schemes and structures: obituary for the architectural theorist and architect Christopher Alexander, who died at the age of 85.

By Thomas Wagner.

Can something as complex as the planning and construction of buildings and cities be reduced to specific structures, schemes and how they are connected? In books such as A Pattern Language (1977) and A Timeless Way of Building (1979), Christopher Alexander attempted to theoretically derive answers to such questions.

Controversial approaches

It is no secret that Christopher Alexander’s approaches to architectural theory were controversial in specialist circles. Some saw in his theories, discussed above all in the English-speaking world, the most complete contemporary approach to the further development of construction; for others they were considered postmodern in a reactionary sense. The discussion of “postmodern” architecture reached its climax, if you like, in 1984, when Arch + magazine dedicated an issue to Alexander and his “Pattern Language”. The editorial by Nikolaus Kuhnert and Susanne Siepl states: “If you guide the conversation between architects about Christopher Alexander, then condemnations and insults are quickly at hand. Anti-architecture and non-architecture are still bland. Conversely, if if you look at his writings, including the discussions between him and Peter Eisenman in this issue, these prejudices are positively reinforced. Alexander deals with nothing more and nothing less than a fundamental alternative to so-called postmodern architecture. claim?”

Can something as complex as the planning and construction of buildings and cities be reduced to specific structures, schemes and how they are connected? In books such as A Pattern Language (1977) and A Timeless Way of Building (1979), Christopher Alexander attempted to theoretically derive answers to such questions.

Controversial approaches

It is no secret that Christopher Alexander’s approaches to architectural theory were controversial in specialist circles. Some saw in his theories, discussed above all in the English-speaking world, the most complete contemporary approach to the further development of construction; for others they were considered postmodern in a reactionary sense. The discussion of “postmodern” architecture reached its climax, if you like, in 1984, when Arch + magazine dedicated an issue to Alexander and his “Pattern Language”. The editorial by Nikolaus Kuhnert and Susanne Siepl states: “If you guide the conversation between architects about Christopher Alexander, then condemnations and insults are quickly at hand. Anti-architecture and non-architecture are still bland. Conversely, if if you look at his writings, including the discussions between him and Peter Eisenman in this issue, these prejudices are positively reinforced. Alexander deals with nothing more and nothing less than a fundamental alternative to so-called postmodern architecture. claim?”

model of rooms. © Christopher Alexander, “A model language”

structuralism and postmodernism

Alexander developed his architectural language, formed of patterns and structures, at a time when structuralism was generally flourishing and when linguistics also considered “grammars of generative transformation”. In both cases, the goal is to describe how an infinite number of sentences or structures can be produced from a finite number of elements using rules. For Alexander, a “model language” is not only the power to generate spatial arrangements, it is also “generative like natural languages”.

Beyond contrasts and prejudices, many at the time were concerned with a structural justification of architecture, although there was disagreement about what exactly structure means, which “models” are used in which fields of application, which styles and preferences account should be considered. And last but not least, how autonomous architecture should be and to what extent it should respond to the wishes and needs of the residents.

A model language of architecture

models in urban planning
models in urban planning. © Christopher Alexander, “A model language”

Each model is a relationship field. While others emphasized (individual) variety, for Alexander the idea of ​​the system was at the fore. A “model language” for a farmhouse in the Bernese Oberland contains the following elements: “North-South axis, west and valley entrance, two floors, rear barn, front bedroom, south garden, roof two pitches like a hipped roof, Balcony to the garden, Carved ornaments. ”It proposes numerous models – from the region to the city, from individual neighborhoods to buildings, constructions and furnishing details – which are linked by a” language “. abstract it may seem, Alexander emphasizes on-site design and the importance of site-specific activities and factors.

Alexander’s theories have been embraced and further developed beyond the realm of architecture in areas such as urban planning, planning methodology, software development, interface design, permaculture and sociology. In addition to his teaching activity at Berkeley, he also directed the Center for Environmental Structure (CES), a mixture of an architectural firm and a construction company, during which numerous projects closely related to theoretical work were carried out.

Regardless of how Alexander’s “model” approach is evaluated, he opposed the individuality of modern architecture and in favor of a building that is beyond vain arbitrariness and which – even for its traditional elements – can be accepted as a matter of course. Going beyond modernity through a system of generative models, building “as it always has been”, expressing time and place only through small differences – can you do it without being defined anachronistic and retrograde? In the debate with Peter Eisenman, reprinted in Arch +, Alexander states: “It is a question of whether, when designing an object, you want the user to try that object and feel the center of attention, or whether you want make it off-center you feel catapulted out. In my work as an architect, the basic rule is that you must continually decide, every minute and every hour, where exactly to place something so that it can achieve the greatest possible harmony with the structure in evolution Died in March 2022 in Binsted, Sussex after a long illness.

Christopher Wolfgang

Christopher Wolfgang John Alexander was born on 4 October 1936 in Vienna. He grew up in England, in Oxford and Chichester. He studied mathematics and architecture at Cambridge and earned his doctorate in architecture from Harvard University. He received the first gold medal for research from the American Institute of Architects for his thesis, later published as Notes on the Synthesis of Form. Here Alexander, as a mathematician, has already discussed the decomposition of a complex problem, a task of design, in individual problems and justified that the general problem was solved by the solution of individual problems. In 1963, Alexander was called to the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught at the Center for Environmental Structure [CES]) founded. In 1980 he was made a member of the Swedish Royal Academy, in 1996 he was admitted to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was also one of Prince Charles’ administrators for the Institute of Architecture of Wales. In 2009, Alexander received the Vincent Scully Award.


More information on Christopher Alexander and “A Pattern Language”

PatternLanguage.com

An excerpt from the book

More Edition 73 of ARCH +

covers
A Pattern Language cover
© patternlanguage.com

A model language

City, buildings, constructions

By Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein
with Ingrid King, Shlomo Angel and Max Jacobsen

Oxford University Press, 1977.

1141 pages.

patternlanguage.com


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