In the May 2002 issue of RECORD, William Saunders wrote a Commentary column (page 93) on Christopher Alexander's new book The Nature of Order, Book One: The Phenomenon of Life and his 1977 classic A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. Alexander responded to Saunders in a letter that can be seen here. The following essay is Saunders's response to Alexander's letter.
William Saunders is the editor of the Harvard Design Magazine.
One of the two main points of my essay on Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Langauge and The Phenomenon of Life is that Alexander’s thinking has been wrongly neglected by thoughtful academics and practitioners in the last 20 years. Alexander’s major contribution has been to articulate, in rich, profuse, and convincing detail, the relationship between the design of buildings, streets, towns, and regions with the quality of life which that design fosters.
Although I believe (and he does not) that there are other important reasons to value architecture, we agree that its embodying and encouraging “maximum aliveness” is its highest calling. It was therefore painful to discover that his new book does not, as I see it, serve this cause.
The core of the problem is that Alexander is unaccepting of subjectivity (his own and others’) and merely asserts the contradictory statement that subjectivity is objective. While I share his revulsion with subjectivism—as self-indulgent wallowing in private fantasies and feelings as if they were universal—I believe that, being mere mortals, we can never entirely escape our subjectivity, even though we have a responsibility to try and even though we can be more and less successful.
The impossible certainty that Alexander longs for entails grave moral and intellectual perils: authoritarianism, the unself-critical imposition of an illusory objectivity on other subjects. Even if we could precisely define the objective, measurable structures of good architecture, to demand that people build those structures would be to dictate a robotic and therefore dead and bad architecture. Like relativism, certainty is a killer.