After Nature


Christopher Alexander broods over the well-being of insects. He abominates structures more than four stories high. A longtime Berkeleyan with a hankering for steeply pitched roofs and old Turkish carpets, he’s been called a “radically conservative” firebrand. Once jokingly deemed the Darth Vader of traditional architecture—leader of an evil, backward-looking empire pitted against modernism’s heroic flight to the future (Frank Gehry as Luke Skywalker?)—Christopher Alexander may be the world’s most dangerous architect at large.

Long viewed as a kook and a kibitzer among the bow-tied architecture crowd, Alexander has unleashed a four-volume frontal assault on the built world as we know it. Twenty-seven years in the making, The Nature of Order is a defiantly homey affront to slick architects who, he charges, have altogether “poisoned the earth with an abundance of terrible and senseless designs.” Alexander’s rogue project, installments of which have been furtively passed among architecture students like latter-day samizdat, chucks the blueprints of modern life and puts in their place a mind-bending new model of matter itself. You won’t look at a skyscraper the same way again. Or a pagoda. Or a puddle.

How now? Alexander has a beef with the whole trajectory of architecture after, oh, say, 1600—when the visionary architect-genius swaggered onto the scene. Modern architects, he says, have substituted empty, ruinous conceits for the “simple, ordinary, vulnerable stuff” of life. The Nature of Order is chock-full of that stuff, to be sure. There are pictures of breaking waves and leaping cheetahs. There are observations on the dew drops on a spider’s web. There are Blackfoot Indian tipis, Japanese shrines, and Swedish log houses. It all brims with a wholeness for which, Alexander writes, we’ve almost lost the knack.

Blame the architects, he says, who are shills for a bankrupt modern society, “very much as if we were the advance-men, the ad-men, paid to make a series of unworkable social forms palatable to people by making something inherently bad seem glamorous.” Twentieth-century architecture, he adds, has been “a mass psychosis of unprecedented dimension,” “a form of architecture which is against life, insane, image-ridden, hollow.” (He told Peter Eisenman, in a 1982 debate, that highfalutin architects were “fucking up the whole profession of architecture.” For his part, Eisenman told Alexander to quit posing as some “California joy-boy” and own up to his intellectual pretensions.) Sprawling over 2,000 pages, The Nature of Order is the joy-boy’s duly considered reply, a sometimes jumbled, on occasion impassable, and yet surprisingly poignant catalogue raisonné of Christopher Alexander’s career-long crusade to get architecture’s groove back.

How, then, to create loveliness? Quite simply, some things feel intensely alive. Some things feel dead. We live in a world shaped by big-time corporate furniture installers and bank officers. Therein lies the rub. Alexander mapped one route out of this prison house in perhaps his best-known work, the 1977 volume A Pattern Language. Part design primer, part revolutionary manual for social change, it presents 253 principles of urban design, listed under gnomic headers like “Something Roughly in the Middle,” “Old People Everywhere,” and “Beer Hall.” In that book Alexander rummaged in tradition’s dustbin, lamenting the moribund avenues (“Why is it that people don’t dance in the streets today?”) and praising communitarian farmhouse kitchens. He admired the elemental (“There is no substitute for fire”) and blasted the nuclear family unit and its design diktats (“Bedrooms make no sense”).

The Nature of Order distills those patterns into fundamental properties Alexander thinks define “living structure”—say, “strong centers,” “local symmetries,” or “inner calm.” The book radiates the homespun wisdom dispensed from his Berkeley-based studio, the Center for Environmental Structure, and embodied in a modest portfolio of built works, including a school campus in Japan and low-cost housing in the mountains of Colombia. Moreover, Alexander delivers a swift kick of the Birkenstock to the legacy of Descartes—the idea of the world as an intricately ordered machine in which we’re merry little cogs. “The devastating truth,” he writes, “is that if the world is made of machinelike matter—and we are ourselves therefore machines—we are then doomed to live, for a very short time, in the meaningless and living hell of Franz Kafka, colored only by the banality of its machinelike pointlessness.”

Whither us hapless flaneurs? Hold on, because Alexander’s an architectural Aldous Huxley, kicking down the doors of perception and finding, out there, beyond the Wal-Marts and Hummer dealerships, “a vision of the world as a horn of shimmering plenty in which the ‘new’ grows unceasingly from the structure that exists around us already.” Dude, whoa. Behold new cosmological assumptions. Everything matters. Everything has life—kitchens, unkempt gardens, French windows, bricks. Even puddles. Especially puddles. And insects, above all.

Oh, man. The Nature of Order sometimes reads like Carlos Castaneda if he’d quaffed too many beers with Jane Jacobs (rest her soul) down at the White Horse Tavern. You can see why Alexander quarreled with colleagues at UC Berkeley, where he taught for 38 years and is currently professor emeritus. Now based in West Sussex, England, the 69-year-old architect still bridles at being called a throwback. Archaic and old-fashioned? Au contraire, he insists. He’s ultra-modern. To that end he praises Lower Manhattan’s towers, gloriously unfolding like a clump of organic turnip tops, and dotes over a vintage photograph of Times Square in the rain, full of skittering bodies and revelatory taxis and a bracing “straightforward rawness” that is the essential New York note.

So space-matter is soul-like. To make great buildings, giggle as if you were a child. Fine, fine. But is Christopher Alexander dangerous? Consider, please, the parable of the insects. In 1992, a community in Nagoya, Japan, asked the architect to help them revamp their neighborhood. They handed him an ultimatum. “Our neighborhood must be fit for insects,” it said. “It is the insects which are important. We want a world in which our insects are preserved.” This bug-first manifesto beautifully encapsulated Alexander’s entire philosophical oeuvre. The reverence for place, the enfoldedness of life, the brazen simplicity of it all—never before had the well-being of insects been declared a top urban-planning priority.

Think of Christopher Alexander as architecture’s trippy elder uncle. A wrinkled ray of light for young architects hunched despairingly over their AutoCAD drawings, Alexander continues to seek “an archetypal quality—something savage,” like the thorn of a wild bramble, untamed by chichi culture. Abandon the Cartesian dogma. Unleash your inner child. Revere insects. If these are dangerous notions, Christopher Alexander is the joy-boy with a metaphysical mean streak. The empire of tradition strikes back.

Jeff Byles is the author of Rubble: Unearthing the History of Demolition.