In the late 1970s, a book with the odd title A Pattern Language became a bible to me and to many of my friends. Ostensibly about architecture, it was really a handbook on how to live.
In the evenings, I’d sit under a lamp and turn its thin, almost translucent pages, looking at lists of design elements like “Cascading Roofs,” “Alcove,” and “Sunny Spot.” These “patterns” could be cobbled together to make a house.
Decades before most Westerners had heard of feng shui, it described how the built world shapes human interaction. It recommended windows on two sides of every room, for instance, because this “creates less glare around people and objects. . . . It allows us to read in detail the minute expressions that flash across people’s faces . . . to understand each other.”
More than a recipe book for designing bungalows with cozy window seats and wide front porches, it was an elegy to the social joy and vanishing higgledy-piggledy beauty we touch in Greek island villages, some urban neighborhoods, and timeless indigenous architecture. The book, still in print, became the best-selling architectural treatise of all time.
Its lead author, architect Christopher Alexander—a critic of much Bauhaus-style modern architecture—may now be the West’s most influential “counternarrative” architectural theorist. He is the inspiration behind the pedestrian-friendly New Urbanism and Sarah Susanka’s bestselling Not So Big House books. The organizational logic of his “Pattern Language” inspired a revolution in software design.
Three years ago, Alexander published The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe, the distillation—into four coffee-table sized volumes—of decades of investigation into how beauty is brought into the world. This under-the-radar work, illustrated with beautiful photographs and far more ambitious than A Pattern Language, must be the only serious study in Western architecture to cite the Tao Te Ching and the Hua Yen or Flower Garland Sutra, and to describe a lovely Chinese tower (the Pagoda of the Wild Goose) as having “The smile of the Buddha.” The hunt for beauty had led Alexander to what he sometimes calls the Whole and sometimes calls God.
The Nature of Order begins with deceptive simplicity, explicating fifteen universal design properties, such as alternating repetition, strong centers, and local symmetries, that are found in all beautiful living beings and things, be they the ripples on a sand dune, the lines in a gingko leaf, or a tracing on a blue tile from the Alhambra palace.
The final volume, The Luminous Ground, ends with a description of how beauty evolves from emptiness into form and how all things “unfold” from a fertile, self-organizing, and living Void whose inherent structural patterns are echoed and embodied in all the ten thousand things.
Alexander’s cosmological description—perhaps because it draws its authority from a scientific Westerner’s observation of the natural world—gave me a new appreciation for the Buddhist metaphor of the Jewel Net of Indra and for the kaleidoscopic, inter-nesting lotus worlds described in the Flower Garland Sutra, both of which Alexander cites in his work.
Since the publication of the books, Alexander, professor emeritus of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, has argued more and more publicly for the existence of God, not as an old man in the sky, but as an underlying, order-making Presence in the universe. His most recent paper, “Harmony-Seeking Computations,” to be published in the International Journal of Unconventional Computating, argues for that Presence by describing striking commonalities in the evolution of shapes over time—embryos, crystals, geese flying in formation, or complex architectural forms like the plan of Saint Mark’s Square in Venice. I interviewed Alexander, now 71, last May in the village of Binsted, in southern England, where he now lives year-round. His home there, which he shares with his partner, Maggie Moore, was originally a small fifteenth-century farmhouse but has grown over the centuries by accretion, acquiring a Georgian facade and a second story. Sheep grazed outside; one of the downstairs rooms was half-timbered. The floors of the second story were as wavy as the sea.
Yesterday you showed me the visitor’s center you designed and built at West Dean Gardens, an old manorial estate that is now a center for traditional English crafts. From the outside, your building, with its walls of stacked flint and arched windows, looked as if it had been there for centuries. You told me that when you were trying to get the archways in the dining room just right, you made various mock-ups and asked yourself which of these curves was likely to be the most “pleasing to God.” This is pretty far from modern architecture’s famous maxim—that form follows function. What does it mean to you to make an arch that is pleasing to God?
Of course I do not mean to say that God is something like an old man with a white beard. It is something deep in the universe, the principle that governs all things. To do anything right, you need to be in touch with that “something.” To help focus one’s attention on this something, it is necessary to find, in your mind, a blankness or emptiness and let the solution arise from that emptiness. So, looking at the arches, I ask myself, “Which of these is closest to my own soul? Which is the most fitting gift to God? Which of them could best make a person whole?” The questions clean out my mind, get rid of the rubbish, extraneous concepts, word-bound ideas, and my own ego—and so allow me the freedom to pay attention to the thing itself.
Is this like the mental freedom from all concepts that Zen aspires to teach? Let me give you an example from architecture. Some years ago I was building a house in Berkeley, attached to another house, on a very tight lot. The second house was a little small. You’d come into the main house, and go down some stairs. At the bottom of the stairs, you’d turn left and there was the living room of the second house. I made leopards in the floor, yellow ceramic leopards set in stripes of red polished concrete. Very nice. Originally, the idea was that there would be a French door leading from this room out to the garden. There was a lawn, and a very pretty view, and a terrace. But once we were in construction, and standing in the actual room, I noticed a devastating problem. The window where the French door would be was exactly opposite the bottom of the stairs. The result was that the room felt restless, almost like a passage, and left you rattling around feeling a sort of emotional draft. The two openings, now more or less across from each other, did not leave the room any stillness at all.
Also, there was a growing feeling that the bank of windows overlooking the garden would do best if there were a window seat along their entire length. But then there could be no French door, and you would not be able to go out to the garden. Now, the consciousness of that would be constantly there as an irritant. These stresses—they’re not big in the panoply of human stress, but little by little they are filling your stress reservoir up to its capacity. The problem was so difficult to solve, I had to stop construction for a few weeks. We tried all kinds of stuff that didn’t work. One day, I said, “You’re going to walk out through the window.” I built a little tiny concrete staircase on the outside of the house, and it went up from the lawn, three steps, maybe four. Had a little railing. From inside, you’d step up on the window seat, open the window, and then get down into the garden.
Really? It was completely loony, but it absolutely did what was required. So it wasn’t loony at all. It was only convention that said so. It was a very sensible thing, and it is there to this day. The solution to this problem needed a Zen-like freedom, an escape from conventional concepts, and just to do what was required. Nothing more.
I’m going to talk about God in childish words for a minute. God (whatever it is) wants you to do the most appropriate thing. We don’t want to make a mess. And that means it wants us to do all the things that are required in a place as modestly as possible, without screwing it up. I suppose you could call it a religious problem if you believe, as I do, that the purpose of the whole adventure is to make God smile.
In your best-known book from the seventies, A Pattern Language, there’s a lot of emphasis on practical concerns, such as where to put a window. Now you talk in religious terms, and your newer books quote ancient Mahayana Buddhist texts. How did you get from A to B? What were your earliest religious experiences with Buddhist practice? When I was a boy, I used to bike out into the English countryside and visit churches. I was quite a devout Catholic. But I sort of abandoned it shortly after arriving in the U.S. I came to Berkeley in the sixties to teach at the architecture school, and Zen became one means of exploration for me, and Jungian therapy another, and it’s hard to say which one helped me more. My first Zen teacher came through a book. His name was Hubert Benoit, a French psychiatrist. He wrote The Supreme Doctrine and Let Go. Benoit said that thoughts and language always tie us up in knots. So he devised an exercise where he would ask a person to say a sentence very slowly, keeping it grammatical but choosing words that do not mean anything. Mentally, you stare blankly in your mind’s eye, and if you do the exercise correctly, you won’t be able to remember the last word you said as you are saying the next one. Of course the resulting sentence doesn’t mean anything, but the amazing thing is that by the time you reach the end of the sentence you have completely forgotten the beginning.
It is, in effect, washing your mind out, not allowing you to hold onto any concept, any meaning. I often sit with an empty mind, and I am able to do it fairly easily, in part because as a young man this extremely simple exercise gave me confidence that I could. If I can empty my mind for long enough, many beautiful things then come to fill it, unbidden by me.
And therapy? I was doing some therapy with a Jungian psychiatrist. I used to go walking around the streets of Berkeley, asking myself, To what extent am I alive right now? I got into the habit of doing things that I otherwise would have been too shy to do. And I noticed that when I didn’t do them, I felt really bad.
It sounds as if there was a subsidiary question, then: What would make me more alive? Yes, that’s right. I remember an old lady hovering on the edge of the sidewalk and about to step off and she obviously wasn’t comfortable, perhaps afraid of the traffic. I thought, “I ought to help her.” But then I had all these typical American thoughts: What are you talking about? You don’t want to bother her. And I thought, This is ridiculous because I know she needs to be helped, and I’m not going to let that stuff stop me. And so I went over and helped her. It sounds like nothing, but I stood hovering on the sidewalk there for several minutes trying to get the courage to do it.
It doesn’t sound like nothing to me at all. Around the same time, I built myself a workshop in my house, including a carpenter’s bench and a vise, from scratch. I cut the thread of the screw for the vise myself, from a piece of maple. This wasn’t really a form of religious practice, this was a form of architectural practice, but it was very closely tied somehow to what we’ve just been speaking about.
I wanted to learn how to make beautiful things. But I very rarely used the word beauty because it was a complete no-no word then. Professionals in architecture, in painting, in anything, nobody would use that word in those decades. It was as much of a taboo as the word God.
I got started on this in the sixties, the era of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill—giant buildings made of endlessly repeating things and steel structure. Really hellish to be inside of. I was utterly confused by everything about architecture that was either being said or written. I thought, Okay, well, I’ve got to start with something that I’m sure of. I can be sure about really small things.
And from these “small things” you developed the practical elements that ended up in A Pattern Language. That it’s nice to sit by the window and read, for instance, or to have a bench in a sunny spot in the garden, or to have a shelf by the door where you put your keys. I made my first full-blown pattern language about 1967. For a long time, I was of the opinion that if you just could embed these patterns in a building, then most of this would come out right. But quite a lot of people starting using A Pattern Language, and some of them sent me pictures of what they had done. I realized that there was something fairly drastic wrong. It was almost like a sort of variant of hippie architecture that had these various clumpy bits and pieces. They corresponded to patterns in the book, indeed. But very often the whole thing was quite graceless and lacked tranquility entirely. So I thought, Well, good heavens, if that’s the best we can get with the pattern language, I really better think again about what’s going on.
So what was missing? It had to do with the Whole and whether things can be aligned with the Whole and unfolded from it. At Harvard, when I was doing research for my Ph.D., I spent a lot of time in the anthropology department, simply trying to find out what it was that people in all the so-called primitive societies had been doing when they built their buildings. Most of these buildings were, at their best, beautiful, and at the very least, harmless. They were building in a way that helped what I call unfolding—that was almost a given. People wanted to revere the earth, revere God, and maintain the Whole. And that is not the motive now.
Yet it is the Wholeness that binds things together. My own experience as a builder is that you cannot do this unfolding unless you do it as an act of worship. Craftspeople, ancient and modern, know a tremendous amount about this. If you’re not steeped in that entity, if you really don’t think about it or don’t believe in a version of it, then when somebody says, Okay, now build me this motel, you’ve got absolutely nothing to go on.
If people think something ought to be a certain shape and then they start making it that shape instead of doing what the unfolding tells them to do, they will royally screw it up. Because of concepts! Concepts interfere with this process—indeed, this is the teaching of Zen, isn’t it? You can only act appropriately, according to Zen teachings, if you are free of concepts. Because human concepts, no matter how cleverly conceived they are, almost always work against the Whole. And that’s what we’ve been witnessing in architecture now for about one hundred years. The world is now prevented from unfolding.
How did you come to believe that there was this Whole out of which everything gets unfolded? For twenty years I looked at things—friezes, buildings, doorways, you name it. I’d put two photographs next to each other, and I’d ask myself, Which one has more life? And I began to notice that the ones that had more life all had certain identifiable structural characteristics. I first saw these as fifteen isolated, independent properties [see end of article], with no special rhyme or reason to them. I don’t see them that way now. They appear again and again throughout nature. Do you remember the very famous photograph of the milk drop splash?
Yes. It’s amazing—the droplets suspended in a split second, making a perfect circle, or a halo. So there this thing is, it looks like a crown. It has a number of spikes coming up from it, and then at the end of each spike is a little droplet, right? It’s an amazing structure—this is what happens when the drop hits the ground.
Now already there are so many properties in that thing. There is alternating repetition between the drops and the spikes, and the space between the spikes. The thing forms a center, and is made of smaller centers. You could even say, there’s a void there, in the middle. There’s roughness, because the spikes are not perfectly identical. If one wanted to analyze that particular phenomenon, you’d be talking about the interaction between gravity and viscosity and surface tension. I don’t think there are any mysteries about how that shape comes into being.
Now that shape is not entirely different from a dandelion that has gone to seed. You remember how a dandelion arranges itself? There are all these very thin things with little florets at the end, and they’re all forming a sphere. It’s not the same, but it’s somewhat similar to the milk drop. But you know damn well it’s got nothing to do with viscosity and not much to do with gravity. It has to do with the way those cells grow. And then if I pick the corona around the sun—well, that has to do with fusion processes in the surface layers of the sun, with no relationship whatsoever to these other explanations.
So why are these forms appearing again and again in different ways? That’s what essentially led me to believe that the unfolding we’re witnessing is a more fundamental process. The space unfolds to form these configurations, and the particular forces that we say are responsible are really just examples of a much more general process that’s going on.
The Whole is always taking shape by differentiating itself in a way that is harmonious with what has come before. Now the Hua Yen Sutra, with its description of Indra’s net of infinite jewels—each jewel reflecting all the other jewels—is exactly a description of this sort of adaptational process of geometrical entities. Everything that emerges is coming from the Whole, which is another word for God.
What have you been doing since you published The Nature of Order? Among other things, I want to find a way of talking about God in scientific terms that even Richard Dawkins might understand. I’m part of a mathematical and computer science group at the University of York that is attempting to write algorithms for morphogenesis, or what in this interview we have been calling unfolding [the development, through growth and differentiation of form and structure]. I am concerned with trying to find a way where morphogenesis can find its way into the working world. I really have as my long-distance target the desire to create a basis from which humankind can build and rebuild a beautiful world.
That’s a huge task. I think about it and worry about it every day. And too often I find myself afraid that I may not succeed sufficiently. Not long ago, I was a little bit gloomy and fed up. I went up to Inverness [on the northern California coast], had an okay meal, stayed at a motel, and went to sleep, which didn’t improve my mood. And then in the morning, I decided to drive to the northern end of Point Reyes—out where you sometimes see herds of Tule Elk.
I was getting to a place where the land falls away sharply on both sides of the road. It was misty, and I decided not to continue. I pulled off into a field, popped out of the car, and right next to the car was a patch of long grass. I lay down in the grass, looking through the stems and blades of grass, out at Tomales Bay. There was a lot of mist and fog, and every now and then the mist would clear. You see, and then you can’t quite see.
In the grass there were a very small number of flowers, rather sparse. I think there was one blue flower and a few white flowers, but mainly it was grass. I was lying there looking at this, and the perfection of it gradually began to impress itself on me. There was a faint sense of light in each of the bits of grass. It wasn’t a revelation in any literal sense, and yet as I was looking through these grass stems, myself almost part of the grass, suddenly the thought came to me, So this is what you’re trying to do! What the grass does: it is effortlessly creating a beautiful and complex environment. And it isn’t just capable of it, but it is doing it, everywhere, and every day, and so easily. I was comforted, because the grass found it so easy.
So there’s nothing for me to worry about at all. Even if I fail in my lifetime, it is so obvious. Surely people will understand it sooner or later.
| The 15 Universal Design Properties
01 Levels of Scale (a range of sizes)
Start your day with a fresh perspective
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