Christopher Alexander, the British-American architect, educator, and theorist whose writings on human-centered design had an outsized impact not only on architecture but on urban design, computer science, and beyond, passed away on March 17 in West Sussex, England, following a prolonged illness. He was 85.
Elected as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1996, Alexander was conferred a considerable number of prestigious awards and accolades including the American Institute of Architects’ inaugural Medal for Research in 1972, the 2009 Vincent Scully Prize, and a Global Award for Sustainable Architecture in 2014. In a dispatch written by Robert Steuteville sharing news of Alexander’s death for the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU)’s online journal Public Square, Alexander is heralded as a “towering figure in architecture and urbanism” and “one of the biggest influences on the New Urbanism movement.” In 2006, the CNU awarded Alexander with one of its first two Athena Medals along with Léon Krier. Subsequent Athena Medal awardees include, among others, Denise Scott Brown, Robert A.M. Stern, Sinclair Black, and the late Jaquelin T. Robertson.
Born in Vienna in 1936 to a Jewish mother and Catholic father, a young Alexander and his parents emigrated from Austria to England at the onset of World War II. Following his studies at Cambridge University where he earned his bachelor’s degree in Architecture and a master’s degree in Mathematics, Alexander relocated to the United States in 1958 where he received a doctorate in Architecture at Harvard University—the first-ever PhD of its kind awarded by the institution. Alexander’s time on the East Coast, however, was short-lived, and he spent much of his adult life in the San Francisco Bay Area where he practiced architecture, penned his many writings on design theory, and taught for many years at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was an Emeritus Professor of Architecture.
In 1967, Alexander founded the Berkeley-based nonprofit Center for Environmental Structure (CES) and in 2020 established PatternLanguage.com.
While Alexander designed hundreds of buildings including the West Dean Visitors Centre in West Sussex, the Eishin Gakuen high school campus outside of Tokyo, and the experimental Sala House in Albany, California, he is perhaps best known for his widely read (and rarely not controversial) writings on design including the 1965 essay a City is Not a Tree (republished and expanded into book form in 2015), The Timeless Way of Building (1979), and the seminal 1977 work A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, which not only established his reputation as a guru-like figure amongst DIY home builders and New Urbanists but also as the father of the pattern language movement in computer science.
The wide and enduring influence of A Pattern Language (co-authored by Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein with Ingrid King, Shlomo Angel, and Max Jacobsen) cannot be understated. Among the first books written in a hypertext format, the best-selling tome inspired computer programmer Ward Cunningham to develop the first wiki in 1994. Will Wright, the creator of SimCity, has also credited Alexander’s work as serving as a direct inspiration for the development of the city-building video game.
Alexander’s last published work during his lifetime was 2012’s The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth: A Struggle Between Two World-Systems.
“There is one timeless way of building. It is thousands of years old, and the same today as it has always been,” wrote Alexander in The Timeless Way of Building. “The great traditional buildings of the past, the villages and tents and temples in which man feels at home, have always been made by people who were very close to the center of this way. And as you will see, this way will lead anyone who looks for it to building which are themselves as ancient in their form as the trees and hills, and as our faces are.”
This article serves as a short announcement of Alexander’s death—a more comprehensive tribute will follow in the coming days.