Thursday, 24 November 2011

Christopher Alexander: The Battle to Bring Life and Beauty to the Earth

Christopher Alexander

Last night I attended the Urban Design Group's 2011 Annual Kevin Lynch Memorial Lecture, which this year featured Christopher Alexander as its guest speaker. The 2011 Kevin Lynch Memorial Lecture, the highlight of the Urban Design Group's events calendar, welcomed Prof Christopher Alexander. Christopher was in conversation with the UDG’s patron John Worthington, discussing his career, his influential ‘pattern language’ and his forthcoming new book (with Hans Joachim Neis, and With Maggie Moore Alexander): The Battle to Bring Life and Beauty to the Earth; A Struggle Between Two World Systems.

Fundamental Aim: Wholeness

Key to his thinking here is the difference, and the titular struggle, between his vision of participative and place based design 'System A', and the way almost all mainstream, first world directed architecture occurs, 'System B'. System B, the business as usual approach favoured by governments, corporations and other large institutions is motivated by financial profit and observable all around us. In his lecture Alexander presented an example of the rarer System A approach, through an illustrated presentation of his work on the Eishin Higashino High School and College campus built near Tokyo, Japan between 1982 and 1985.

You Charm the Form out of the Configuration

Alexander was a gnomic presence on stage, evading containment within the discourse of contemporary architectural practice with Zen like turns of phrase, modesty and an idiosyncratic response to questions. He expressed the fundamental aim of his work as 'wholeness', and it seemed clear to me, though he never stated it explicitly, that his approach was essentially spiritually motivated. In appealing to essential harmonies, he presented his work not as conscious design, but as the act of 'dreaming the configuration' and then charming form from that configuration. In a challenge to his assembled professional colleagues, he proclaimed that 'Design is something that's going to get you in a mess'.

Do the Simplest Thing Always

As the lecture turned to a Q&A, the contrast between Alexander's method and those regularly used by architects was quickly reinforced. Repeatedly, the Ego of the architect was cited as a driving force that was both absent from Alexander's approach and a limiting factor preventing its wider application. This Egoic boundary was presented almost as if it were an unassailable condition, and it was clear that many of those present perceived their own professional identity to be synonymous with a heroic vision of the individual. A couple of questioners sought a middle path between their forms of practice and Alexander's; his reply noted simply the dangers arising 'the moment you touch a poisoned way'. Alexander's challenge was practical as well as psychological: he claimed to never use drawings and that in his work the construction phase was more important than the design one. He did not produce a 'finished plan' but adjusted buildings repeatedly during the building process, aligning them harmoniously with the site. He stated that this approach demanded the right kind of clients and the right kind of contractors, but never told how he harmonised his method with the requirements of planning and building control authorities...

Eishin Campus

While it was humorous to observe the challenge Alexander made to a room full of architects, I also felt a challenge to my own methods of permaculture design. The emphasis on the implementation phase, required me to think through the design frameworks I use again and recognise the importance of each stage. It was clear that Alexander saw construction as a time of observation and interaction, each step changing the site and providing new opportunities to creatively respond. This essentially is action learning, the 'praxis' that gives this site it's name.

I was left at the end of the lecture part inspired and part frustrated. I wanted to know more about Alexander's process than a short talk could provide, and so the book to follow (due early 2012) is excitedly anticipated. Tantalisingly, the pre-publication press indicates that the book outlines nine ways of working, "each one fully dedicated to wholeness, and able to support day-to-day activities that will make planning, design and construction possible in an entirely new way, and in more humane ways". Sounds like a great addition to any permaculturalist's bookshelf.

1 comment:

  1. Those interested in learning more about Alexander's method and The Eishin Campus project are also directed towards 'A Phenomenological Interpretation of Biomimicry and its Potential Value for Sustainable Design' by Lance Klein a Masters Architecture thesis available here: