The entry area of Christopher Alexander’s Eishin School near Tokyo, Japan.

“An environment or community will not come to life unless each place, each building, each street, each room, becomes unique, as a result of careful and piecemeal processes of adaptation.”
— Christopher Alexander, The Battle for the Life and
Beauty of the Earth

As both Jane Jacobs and Christopher Alexander asserted throughout their careers, much of what has gone wrong with cities has come from failures to understand or respond in a direct, adaptive way to real human activities or needs, or the real and complex cities and towns in which they exist. Instead, say Jacobs and Alexander, planners, architects and city officials have responded to abstract ideas of what human beings might need — or even more remotely, what the systems might require that we have instituted to serve human needs as we have understood them. This approach has produced widespread failures, and an increasingly unsustainable condition.

Confirming that insight, a considerable body of research shows a remarkable divergence between what professionals believe is a good solution, and what is often seen as a good solution from the point of view of the people whose lives are in question. If that is true, it represents a major barrier to our ability to achieve a sustainable, healthy basis for the future of settlements — and it is a barrier that must be overcome, if we are to actually implement the New Urban Agenda.

An insight about this state of affairs comes from social psychology, and the topic known as “construal level theory.” In essence, the theory helps to explain how people make “construals” about the nature of the world around them, including, in the case of professionals, the nature of the problems to be solved. The more psychological distance there is between a person and the actual concrete set of issues to be treated, the more people — including professionals — must substitute their own abstract “construals” for the more concrete issues of an actual place.

The result of this greater abstraction can be a failure to understand what actually matters to the people who live in that place on a daily basis. If we are planners, we might substitute our own construals of orderly arrangements of the parts (as we saw with Christopher Alexander’s “A City is Not a Tree”). If we are transportation engineers, we might substitute our construals of efficient movement for the qualities that make a place actually worthy of travel in the first place. If we are architects, we might substitute our construals of what a great sculptural building might be, when consciously regarded by connoisseurs like ourselves — not what ordinary people actually experience and actually need. (I discussed this problem at length in Chapter IV.3.)

It follows that one straightforward requirement for understanding what human beings need from their environments is to ensure that we are indeed in close touch with those same human beings — that we involve them in the processes of design, and that we empower their capacity to make many small and large choices and adjustments to meet their own needs. While we will necessarily make some decisions about the structures of their environments, a great deal of the art of our work is in giving them as much capacity to enrich their own lives as possible. We are not so much providing them with something that we think will enrich their lives (for example, what we judge to be a great work of art) but rather, we are providing an environment that offers to them the capacity to live their own rich life.

As Christopher Alexander says in the opening pages of his book The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth:

The purpose of all architecture, the purpose of its spatial-geometric organization, is to provide the opportunity for life-giving situations…. When this purpose is forgotten or abandoned, then indeed, there is no architecture to speak of.

This definition of architecture is fundamentally different from the dominant one shared by many architects, which is to create great works of art, in the manner of gigantic sculptures. Whether or not these are worthy works of art, the problem is that this represents a construal of our own values as artists, or artistic connoisseurs, in place of the values of those who actually live in a place.

Alexander’s definition, however, in no way diminishes the artistic dimension of architecture. It does not demand that we forsake all of art for a cold functionalism, or a dull vernacular. Rather, as Jane Jacobs discussed, it only points out how the artistic aspect of architecture should relate to its human and quotidian aspects. It should serve to illuminate and celebrate the actual life of the city, not supplant it with a wholly foreign (and abstractly construed) series of gigantic sculptures. The result, as discussed earlier, becomes “no longer mutually reinforcing” — in Alexander’s term, it lacks wholeness. It becomes disordered, noisy, malfunctioning — and unsustainable. In Jacobs’ memorable words, the result is no longer art at all, nor life — it is “taxidermy.”

In this context, a close involvement with the people for whom the designs are made is not only a matter of promoting democracy and public involvement in civic affairs — which is a valid aim in itself, to be sure. However, for one thing, many of the people who will live in a given place will not arrive there until long after a given design process has completed. Rather, the involvement is actually necessary to ensure the quality of what gets built, from a human point of view. That is true both for the creation of new structures, and for the ongoing modification of existing ones — which may or may not be done with the assistance of design professionals.

This form of involvement is not a tokenistic “consultation.” Rather, it requires a different conception of design, less about providing a static “finished” state, and more about providing the capacity for users to modify, and sometimes co-create, different parts of their own environment. It aims to develop something close to the idea of “affordances” as developed by the psychologist James J. Gibson, namely, providing to the users themselves “the possibility of an action on an object or environment.”

This kind of creation and modification already goes on at many scales of space and time, although we often ignore it. In the most immediate scales, I can open a door, close a window, draw a blind so that the sun is just so, or move my chair to see the passersby outside — or move to a more private place farther back in my home. In the larger scales of time and space, I might remodel my home, or build a new one, or move to an entirely new location. My neighborhood might join in the planning of a new sidewalk design or a new transit stop.

The evolution of cities and towns is made up by changes like this, small and large, over a day or over a century. Some of them are provided as finished states by specialists and “experts”, but many more are created by a wide variety of actors and agents, including ordinary people. As the city changes, patterns form and re-form. What worked before can be (and often is) copied by another owner, or later in time.

In this way, we pass on to one another “genetic” information — that is, knowledge about how to make a nicer door, a nicer building, a nicer neighborhood. These processes were extremely common in older cities and towns. (Indeed, this was close to Alexander’s idea of a “pattern” that is shared by members of a community in a “language.”) But they still occur today — perhaps more than we realize, with greater importance than we realize.

As we saw in the last section, for Alexander, “adaptive morphogenesis” is the process by which the form of the environment gradually grows in its complexity and its capacity to meet needs — much as biological systems evolve through adaptation to become more complex, more differentiated, and more effective in achieving results that are beneficial to the organism. In The Nature of Order, Alexander spent considerable time examining these lessons from biological systems.

Alexander’s analysis implied a broad critique of “modern” design and construction systems. They are too rigid, too tree-like, too reliant on experts producing static “finished” products, and not sufficiently evolutionary, nor sufficiently adaptive. This was often because the scale was inappropriate — too big, or too repetitive, or too standardized. The economies of scale and standardization needed to be replaced by an economy of place and differentiation.

As I have discussed previously, the most conspicuous influence of Alexander’s ideas in the technology world has been in the world of software, first in the development of pattern languages of programming (also known as design patterns), then in wiki, and then in the development of Agile, Scrum, and Extreme Programming. All of these topics deal with the egregious failures of too-rigid technological approaches, and constitute more “agile” alternatives that have a better capacity to evolve a better adaptive fit for the problem at hand.

In the built environment, the implication is two-fold. One, our goal as designers should be to provide more of exactly this kind of “affordance” — that is, greater capacity by users to modify and evolve their own environments, at a range of scales of space and time, including small ones.

This principle can take many forms — for example, the moveable chairs that William H. Whyte recommended for public spaces, or the ability of restaurants to colonize the adjacent sidewalks in a relatively ad hoc way (now a ubiquitous pattern in many cities), or the preservation of smaller lots or plots, to allow more fine-grained development by a more diverse range of owners and users.

The second implication is more radical, and probably more controversial among today’s architects, especially stylistically ideological ones. It is that users should be free to employ any pattern that is most adaptive and successful, from any source.

By definition, some of the best solutions are already well known and established, for the simple reason that they have clearly worked before, and that knowledge has become common, or is available in a recognizable pattern, often understood as a “traditional design”. These include not only some solutions that worked a decade ago but also a century ago, or even a millennium ago.

Looked at from the broader perspective of evolutionary theory, this is not so surprising. The needs of human animals include universal ones of thermal comfort, shelter, food, spatial security, ability to move about, ability to interact with one’s fellows in a way that maximizes opportunity and minimizes threat — in short, all the things that cities give us. In a real sense, cities are evolutionary structures that represent good adaptive solutions to the problems of living well in large groups of people.

Cities can accommodate many other aspects of human need, of course, including psychological needs, and many of these also have deeper roots in human evolution than we have realized. As I discussed in the last section, this is one of the revelations of the topic of “biophilia” — our innate preference for certain kinds of environmental structures, especially those associated with living systems.

There is an even more radical implication, according to Alexander. As we saw in previous sections, natural processes give rise to certain natural morphological properties, which are fantastically varied but also remarkably simple in their essence. They include properties like centers, boundaries, gradients, local symmetries, alternating repetition, and other characteristics (which he catalogues within “fifteen properties”).

Because these properties are rooted in our deep evolutionary experience, and even the deep order of things, it is not surprising that we find them repeatedly in works of art and architecture over thousands of years and many different cultures and contexts. Indeed, many of the most powerful patterns, the ones that move us deeply, have exactly the properties that Alexander described — say, the interlocking harmonies and dramatic contrasts of a Bach fugue, or the local symmetries and levels of scale of a graceful temple. Even though we are not (or no longer) part of the cultures in which these works were made, they have a universal power.

It is this universal power that, Alexander argued, is encoded into patterns, and shared by means of languages. Functionally they take the form of the kinds of patterns seen in his book A Pattern Language — Entrance Rooms, Light on Two Sides and so on. But aesthetically they are also coded, into motifs, ornamental patterns, “orders” and other elements of traditional design languages.

These coded bits of knowledge are surprisingly sophisticated and powerful, and we are beginning to recognize that our own supposed “modern” practice of sweeping away all traces of “historicism” is, from an evolutionary perspective, actually quite primitive and foolhardy. A more sophisticated, nuanced and complex approach would open us up again to the vast repositories of history and nature. While generally would generally not literally reproduce an exact structure form the past, it would certainly feel free to re-generate new structures with unique properties, from the generative grammar of ancient and universal patterns. This is indeed how most of the rich, complex, well-loved architecture of the past was generated.

These and other patterns of experience and knowledge represent a kind of “repository” of useful solutions to ongoing and often recurrent design problems. That was one of the key goals of Alexander’s work on patterns, and indeed, one of the things that the software designers found most useful. They encode important adaptive solutions that help us to re-generate successful forms, with at least the essential aspects resolved.

As we saw in the earlier discussion of pattern languages, these adaptive solutions often express simple common configurations of things in the human environment, irrespective of period, style, political expression, or ideological intents. For example, pitched roofs tend to shed water and snow better than flat ones; roughly rectangular doors of about a meter wide and two meters high tend to work better than sizes that are much different; flat floors and perpendicular walls of roughly square shape tend to work better than other shapes. These common designs are rooted in the most common geometries of human beings (usually a little more than a meter and a half tall and a half meter wide), their movements on foot, and the common configurations of their needs (social interaction with others, etc).

It must be stressed (for this point is often misunderstood) that this is not a rigid template-based approach. (As “traditional” architecture can be, when produced with defective “modern” approaches — resulting in what has been called “modernism in drag”.) As long as the essential adaptive form-creation or “morphogenesis” is completed, the artist is entirely free to embellish, accentuate, articulate, express, combine, echo, interconnect, in all manner of profound new ways. But this artistic aspect takes its place within the fundamental architecture of human and urban order, and within its wholeness. At every stage, the goal is to transform the order and wholeness, and to make it something living and new. The goal is not to supplant this existing order with a willful contrivance of artistic novelty.

There are many kinds of evolved design patterns that are available as generative kernels within this process of adaptive morphogenesis. They represent well-adapted solutions within a broad human context, not necessarily universal to all of humanity but certainly broadly applicable to a local context, and broadly useful for the human needs there.

These patterns often get recycled within the evolution of a society, creating a kind of fugue between the pattern and its new expression, with new elements added. This new expression amounts to a kind of “revival,” not a literal copying but a new expression of the older patterns. For example, it is easy to see that the Romans revived much of Greek architecture, and the Romanesque and later Renaissance architecture revived much of both the Roman and Greek architecture. Jefferson revived Palladio, who in turn had revived Vitruvius — and so on and so on.

We now understand that these kinds of revivals or recapitulations go on all the time in many different societies — not only the Western Classical tradition — and they are responsible for some of the most spectacular architecture ever known to humanity. The places they have produced — Rome, Paris, London, and many more — are among the most enduring, well-loved, sustainable (because they have sustained) urban precedents known to humanity. It seems beyond ludicrous to suppose that we must never, ever make anything like them again.

Alexander’s hopeful message is that the patterns of a more healing kind of growth are already all around us. We can find them in the structures of nature, and the processes that produce them. We can find them in the collective intelligence of traditional structures and traditional knowledge, ready to be re-opened, revived and regenerated, as part of the living tissue of our globe. The writer Jorge Luis Borges put it best, “that between the traditional and the new, or between order and adventure, there is no real opposition; and what we call tradition today is a knitwork of centuries of adventure.”

Let us only resume that knitwork, and discover the renaissance that nature and history offer us.

Photo Essay for ChapteR V.3

Signs of a renaissance in urban architecture

New projects that rival the human qualities of
the best ones of history.

For this section I wanted to show some examples of the renaissance of more adaptive urban architecture of the sort suggested herein. There are thousands of examples that I could show of this young architectural renaissance — perhaps millions — from many parts of the world. They include work by recognized architects and designers as well as innumerable projects by non-professionals. To give just a small but tangible sampling of this work, I have included here some of the work by Christopher Alexander and his associates, including this author.

Christopher Alexander himself has completed a number of projects that demonstrate his ideas for a more humane architecture based on adaptive morphogenesis, wholeness, and “life-giving comfort and profound satisfaction,” as he put it. Perhaps his best-known example is the project he and his associates (notably his colleague HansJoachim Neis) completed for the Eishin School near Tokyo, Japan.

Figure V.3.1. A gateway in the Eishin School, by Christopher Alexander and associates.

This project was the case study for his last book, The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth. The buildings clearly exhibit a generative result that shows the effects of the “DNA” of Japanese architectural form languages. Yet they are also more eclectic, more differentiated, and more unique in their own way — exactly as Alexander advocates.

Figure V.3.2. Judo Hall at the Eishin School near Tokyo, by Christopher Alexander and associates.

Figure V.3.3. Christopher Alexander’s interest in the geometry of carpets led him to a commission to design the Carpet Museum interior in San Francisco, California.

Christopher Alexander also advised the Prince of Wales, who developed an urban extension of the town of Dorchester, in the UK, called Poundbury. The development is often mocked by modernist architects, who fail to note its remarkable progressive urban achievements.

Figure V.3.5. A grocery store in one of the neighborhood centers of Poundbury.

Figure V.3.4. A public space in the new urban neighborhood of Poundbury, UK. The project’s urban and architectural form fits in with the regional character, unlike the vast majority of new suburban development.

Figure V.3.6. Houses in Poundbury follow the vernacular pattern of the area.

Figure V.3.7. a new public square nears completion in Poundbury. Good-quality public space is often a casualty of “modern” suburban development.

The community demonstrates a number of sustainability innovations, including "green" buildings, local materials, energy produced from an "anaerobic digester," and especially, reduction of car-dependence. As Clive Aslet wrote in The Times of London, in an article titled "Charles has silenced the 'toy-town' sneering":

[Poundbury] was planned so that people could walk from their homes to the shops, to the school, to their jobs. Social housing was — to use the jargon — pepperpotted among posher homes; 35 per cent of property is affordable. By providing a mix of property sizes the Duchy of Cornwall, which owns the town, enabled people of different ages and income levels to live in one sustainable community. And to work there too, in spaces that have been provided near homes.

Figure V.3.9. More photos of the house designed by the author.

Figure V.3.8. A house designed and built by the author in 1984, after studying and working with Christopher Alexander. It featured passive solar design, native vegetation, permeable paving, and other “green” technologies — unusual for the time.

Figure V.3.11. The author was project manager and co-designer for a walkable mixed use project with major new transit connections (sometimes called a “transit-oriented development”) on Portland’s suburban light rail line, known as Orenco Station. Its urban and architectural form was generated very much in adaptation to the local history and urban pattern.

Figure V.3.12. Some architects are fond of criticizing the so-called “historicist” architecture that is sometimes used in “New Urbanist” projects, like Rosemary Beach, Florida, shown here. As this book has argued, the logic behind this criticism is defective. The real question is, does a place have life, and is it therefore successful from a user’s (not an architect’s) point of view? Is it using the best available solutions to meet human needs, from whatever time or place?