Christopher Alexander, who died in March at 85, offered ways to unf*ck the world

Code Breaker

Christopher Alexander, who died in March at 85, offered ways to unf*ck the world

The late Christopher Alexander (Courtesy Sophie Elizabeth Alexander)

As news spread in March of Christopher Alexander’s passing, I kept hearing a familiar story. On social media, architects of a certain age recounted catching their first glimpse of theory through encounters with the same compact, faded-yellow tomes. Bearing titles like A Pattern Language, The Timeless Way of Building, and The Nature of Order, they brimmed with what appeared to be secret codes to deciphering and designing a more humane built environment.

I say “familiar” because this was also my experience. As a high school senior, I came across dozens of these works at a used bookstore adjacent to the University of Oregon campus, which owes its fairy-tale quality in part to the invisible hand of Alexander. Redbrick, articulated human-scale form, the languorous West Coast atmosphere. There was a reason why Peter Eisenman christened him the “California joy-boy.”

By the time I became aware of him, Alexander was a fading legend, roaming somewhere in the discursive pantheon but absent from the drama at center stage. He would soon retire from his position down the coast at Berkeley, after nearly 40 years of teaching, and head back to England, completing a tour of three distinct Anglo-American academic cultures. Alexander was born in Austria but moved with his parents at the age of two to England in 1938; two decades later, he completed degrees in architecture and mathematics from the University of Cambridge.

He was ahead of a trend—the 1960s would be a blockbuster decade for mathematical and computational research in architecture—but he was also following in the footsteps of a famous compatriot, the Austrian British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Uncompromising and outspoken, both figures wielded logic in the hope of reconstructing the fallen human world on a basis of rationality. Just as Wittgenstein played “the philosopher who read nothing,” Alexander habitually wore a mask of naivete when delivering cutting criticism that in truth sprang from deep erudition and empathy. “I don’t fully follow what you just talked about,” he told Eisenman during their epoch-defining debate of 1982, after the latter had finished expounding on post-structuralist theory. Then the pivot: Alexander accused Eisenman of “fucking up the world,” to crowd applause. Equal parts hippie-mystic and do-gooder technocrat, Alexander effected a countercultural synthesis that met with popular appeal. Few architects can say as much.

Alexander has long posed a conundrum for architectural historians. When and why did he fall out of favor? The answer surely has something to do with his preference for origins and innocence during a period of great sophistication in architectural theory. Alexander was at heart a structuralist anthropologist turned builder. His breakout book, 1964’s Notes on the Synthesis of Form, applied his novel methods to the design of a village in India. European towns and domestic vernacular forms loomed large in his design imaginary. By construing entire sociocultural totalities as his “clients” and working on behalf of their “interests,” Alexander took the architect’s fiduciary duty to its extreme. This approach made sense in the era of Claude Lévi-Strauss and Bernard Rudofsky, but not so much after Jacques Derrida and Edward Said. By the 1990s, Alexander appeared suspiciously paternalistic at best. He was an exemplar of what would later be termed “the public architect”—a conflicted figure in our neoliberal world and simply beyond the ken of an architectural culture defined by the alliance between conceptual art, French philosophy, and the figure of the starchitect.

We’re no longer in that era, and it may be time to revisit Alexander’s lessons. Be warned, however: He had lots of lessons. Alexander’s hesitation to reinvent the wheel of architectural form was paired with a perverse joy in tinkering with methods. For a few years he parsed the built world into mathematical tree structures only to declare a few years later that “the city is not a tree.” He eventually landed on the conceptual model of social networks, and his pattern-language approach inspired a generation of object-oriented programmers. Alexander, one of the first architect-programmers, was also among the first critics to strike a blow against computation, publishing a diatribe in 1964 under the title “A Much Asked Questions about Computers and Design” calling computer-using architects “misguided, dangerous, and foolish.” (The lesson, in this case, was not to abstain from computation but to avoid foolishness.)

Alexander did everything to alienate himself from the architectural intelligentsia because he could: Unlike his peers, he had found a large and receptive audience outside the discipline. New Urbanism was the final umbrella; Alexander was a fixture at the infamous Prince of Wales’s Institute of Architecture toward the end of his career. He also built a lot of buildings—somewhere in the 100 to 400 range, apparently. Many are fascinating. The Eishin School at the edge of Tokyo evokes an imagined northern European village, and its Studio Ghibli quality feels as contemporary as ever.

Even as Alexander applied strategies that ran afoul of the global architectural elite, his work could be equally off-putting, if for different reasons. Where “critical architecture” of the Eisenmanian variety toyed with people’s neuroses by playing up the disjunctions of the metropolitan condition, Alexander weaponized architectural nostalgia to generate an exaggerated sense of belonging. He peddled a double fantasy, combining a myth of cultural coherence with a dream of benign environmental determinism—as if putting up a few buildings of just the right type could somehow cure the ills of the world.

Which is just to say that, through his extreme partisanship, Alexander effected a sort of balance in a culture of architecture trending in the opposite direction, toward individual artistic innovation. At his best, he stood for deep intelligence and wit with which to combat cynicism. Alexander will likely find a place among the best-known architectural theorists—alongside Vitruvius, Alberti, and Le Corbusier—with a method well-suited to a world gone systemically awry in so many ways.

Matthew Allen is a visiting assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis. His first monograph, Architecture Becomes Programming: Modernism and the Computer, 1960–1990, will be out in 2023.