Christopher Alexander, who died last week at 85, was brainy. Besides obtaining two architecture degrees, he “read” mathematics at Cambridge, then studied cognition at Harvard and transportation theory and computer science at MIT; he taught at Berkeley for nearly 40 years; and he wrote a couple dozen books of extraordinary erudition. He was also bossy. His most famous book, A Pattern Language (1977), contains 253 prescriptions, ranging from how to organize the planet (“Wherever possible, work toward the evolution of independent regions in the world, each with a population between 2 and 10 million”), to how to organize a bathroom (“put in two or three racks for huge towels, one by the door, one by the shower, one by the sink”). He made provision for other people’s ideas, sort of. Among the 253 entries in A Pattern Language, several are marked with double asterisks—meaning, according to Alexander’s introduction, that they identify “a property common to all possible ways of solving the stated problem.”
Not long ago, the New York Times Magazine named A Pattern Language, written by Alexander with several Berkeley colleagues, one of the 100 greatest non-fiction books, ever. It is also a perennial best-seller, drawing legions of fans to Alexander’s eloquent appeals for rooms, buildings, parks, communities, and cities made of parts that users will relate to and find beautiful. His influence extended into other fields, including systems architecture. The first wiki—the collaborative structure that gave rise to Wikipedia—grew directly out of Alexander’s work. So did the original SimCity games. And his method of dividing large structures into manageable parts has influenced generations of coders. Richard Gabriel, a computer scientist at Sun Microsystems, told The New York Times in 2003 that, in his world, “Chris is a revered cult figure.”
But Alexander was best known, and perhaps best loved, by architects. Robert Campbell, a Boston-based architecture critic and longtime RECORD contributing editor, recalled discovering “A City is Not a Tree”—an essay in which Alexander described modern buildings as proof that “the world is going to the dogs”—in the library of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, soon after it was published in 1965. “That was a landmark moment in my development as a thinker and as an architect,” Campbell said in a speech at the National Building Museum in Washington during a celebration of the essay’s 50th anniversary. “It really blew away what were the foundational principles of the education at Harvard in those days.”
In later years, Campbell became friends with Alexander. “We think of him as such an intellectual,” Campbell said by phone this week, “but by the time I got to know him he was just going out into the world and experiencing. Experiencing! There was no room for experience in the modern movement. He said let’s go out and see what works.”
Alexander designed scores of buildings, many of them quaint, almost Victorian. They ranged from a small house in Berkeley to a high school and college near Tokyo. The last book Alexander published, The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth: A Struggle Between Two World-Systems (2012), describes the Japan project in Manichean terms. He was a hero among New Urbanists, who treated his pronouncements about livable neighborhoods as gospel. But others saw him as reactionary. During his Berkeley years, he said, he and his students were harassed. And according to The New York Times, he even sued the university for infringing on his academic freedom.
Wolfgang Christopher Alexander was born in Austria in 1936 to a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, both archaeologists. Fleeing the Nazis, the family moved to England when Christopher was two. He spent his childhood in Arundel, a small town in West Sussex with a large number of historic buildings, then won a scholarship to Cambridge. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1958 to attend Harvard and MIT, and in 1963 he joined the U.C. Berkeley architecture faculty.
After retiring from Berkeley, he returned to Arundel but continued working. In 2002 to 2004 he self-published The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe, a four-volume treatise that had been in the works for decades. Reviewing a galley of the first volume, The Phenomenon of Life, for RECORD in 2002, William S. Saunders, the editor of the Harvard Design Magazine and a one-time admirer of Alexander, called the book ''full of contradictions, foggy generalities and extreme and unsupported assertions.'' (Alexander responded to the review here.) And in 2003, Peter Eisenman, whom Alexander famously debated—and insulted—in 1982, told Emily Eakin of the Times that Alexander “fell off the radar screen some time ago. He got off into being cranky.”
Saunders and Eisenman may not have been entirely wrong. But to thousands of architects put off by antiseptic, ahistorical, and inhumane approaches to design, Alexander was and is a hero.