The figure of Christopher Alexander is unique in the world of architecture. With his thinking, he touches on the central aspects of any design activity and has helped define models such as object-oriented programming and Agile. His first book, Notes on the synthesis of form, is the foundation on which Alexander built his famous pattern theory. For this reason, it is a must-read for architects, designers, computational designers, programmers and project managers.
If interdisciplinarity has become central to contemporary architecture, no one has made architecture an interdisciplinary subject as Christopher Alexander did.
The former UC Berkeley professor had long since retired to the south of England, where he recently passed away. In the course of his career, he designed and built over 100 buildings, for which it is not easy to find material online. Much better known than his projects are his over twenty books, which over time have collected thousands of citations on research contributions ranging from architecture to project management.
His thinking is broad and deep and has contributed to the development of fields seemingly far from architecture, such as programming and software engineering. With his books, he inspired design patterns and object-oriented programming, software development models that programmers use every day. Similarly, he influenced project management methods like Agile: Approaches that we try to apply to architecture projects today without knowing their origin.
Notes on the Synthesis of Form
Notes on the synthesis of Form is the first book Alexander wrote at 28, published Harvard University Press in 1964 and then translated into several languages. It is probably less well known than the later A Pattern Language, but it is just as important, as it represents the foundation on which Alexander built his theory.
Although the title may seem difficult, the book focuses on basic concepts common to all design activities and describes a different approach to solving design problems.
Alexander has divided the book into two parts. The first deals with the goal of the project: to obtain a form capable of solving the synthesis of design problems. In considering the architectural project, the author distinguishes between the unselfconscious process and the self-conscious process. While he recognises the values of the former in the application of traditional models that can adapt and evolve in the hands of their occupants, he also underlines the limitations of the second, which is unsuited to change, limited to individual consciousness of the designer, and therefore doomed to failure.
To overcome this risk, in the second part of the book, Alexander presents the project as the union of two phases: the program and the realisation of the program. He also explains his concept of the diagram, which is described as a pattern of physical relationships capable of solving the system of interactions that defines the design problem.
The book is full of graphs, illustrations and examples, including the most famous one of a kettle design process and another one of an Indian village.
Success and criticism of the book
After the book’s publication, Alexander receives both positive and negative reviews. Some architects accuse him of equating architectural design with the mere application of methods. Alexander defends himself against these accusations in the preface to the 1971 new edition. I quote it because I think it is important for anyone who wants to read the book.
I have written about this realization and its consequences, in other, more recent works. But I feel it is important to say it also here, to make you alive to it before your read the book, since so many readers have focused on the method which leads to the creation of the diagrams, not on the diagrams themselves, and have even made a cult of this method.
Indeed, since the book was published, a whole academic field has grown up around the idea of “design methods” – and I have been hailed as one of the leading exponents of these so-called design methods. I am very sorry that this has happened, and want to state, publicly, that I reject the whole idea of design methods as a subject of study, since I think it is absurd to separate the study of designing from the practice of design. In fact, people who study design methods without also practicing design are almost always frustrated designers who have no sap in them, who have lost, or never had the urge to shape things. Such a person will never be able to say anything sensible about “how” to shape things either.
Christopher Alexander’s lecture on Notes on the Synthesis of Form
While searching for information about the book on the internet, I found a YouTube video of one of Alexander’s last lectures, recorded at the University of Berkeley in 2012. I share it here because it is the best introduction to his first book.
Buy The Book online
This is one of Alexander’s best-know books, It will not be difficult to find it in bookstores or online