The Theories of Christopher Alexander

In 1977, architect and researcher, Christopher Alexander published A Pattern Language: a guide to designing environments to enable the creation of a collectively made and more living structure or environment. Comprised of rules and guidelines that have resulted from extensive research, observation, and testing of patterns in towns, buildings, and construction, A Pattern Language addresses the unsustainable built environment we live in and encourages a bottom-up approach to architecture wherein a nurturing environment can emerge through the common understanding of patterns and the development of pattern languages (“a genetic code” to best describe their core structural properties or requirements that make the world more livable). Observation of built environments helps identify patterns that have particular impacts on the wellbeing of people. Pattern languages are, then, aggregate elements (or parts) of given systems that enable the generation of convivial physical structures that respond to humane values and a systemic conception of the global (whole) structural scale of spaces and places. The language is developed as a tool for generating coherent and whole environments (buildings, rooms, streets, parks, etc.): “more living structures.”

Not only has it made a huge impact on the ways in which architects and novel practitioners approach architecture and their environments as wholes, but it has also caused the emergent appropriation of its patterns in the world of computer science in general and software programming in particular.

In a 1996 presentation at the ACM Conference on Object-Oriented Programs, Systems, Languages and Applications, in San Jose, California, Alexander reflected on the use of his ideas in the software community that transformed object-oriented computing and how the pattern discipline brought back the systems thinking and humane perspective into the design and architecture of software.

It is Alexander’s understanding that patterns are used as “vehicles of communication” in computer science for discussing, sharing, and modifying data structures, but they are not, however, used as he originally conceived of them. For him, the uses of patterns in software science differ from those in architecture (in the 1970s) whose patterns have a moral quest, a coherent evolution, and aims at a generative whole. The architectural goal is to build a good environment and an objective and living structure “to make human life better.”

Will it actually make life better as a result of its injection into a software system?” (Alexander, 1996)

It seems, to me, that A Pattern Language helps inform the design of self-generating and adaptive computer programs. The most striking correlation between Alexander’s pattern languages and computer science is the works in what computer science often refers to as decentralized or complex adaptive systems, and its parallels to what Alexander describes as “centers” when he talks of “shared pattern languages which [enable people] to generate a complete living structure.”

If we look at systems behavior and the similarities and particularities found within decentralized systems, we see how the conception of an environment built around rules or patterns might generate parallel effects wherein environments are created at the human scale and with the equal consideration of functional and experiential coherence, while yet remaining distinct and separate entities in their particularities.

Alexander’s A Pattern Language promotes a bottom-up approach, which places users of buildings as builders of their environments through the process of co-creating a common ground with the collective consensus of a “shared pattern language”; to give users better control over the spaces they dwell in.

Prior to The Nature of Order (2003-2004), Alexander presented some ideas explored in the extension of his work on patterns: such as, to distinguish between living and non-living structures and to include both technical and experiential fluidity; that is, the integration of both functional and interactive/human behavioral relationships (hardware and software). He defined fifteen geometric properties as essential nodes to architecture that would respond to what he posited as “Do I feel myself to be more whole?” –a certain quest for self-actualization through the generative creation of livable structures. Those recursive geometric properties revealed in the emergence of buildings include the boundaries and gray areas around them as parts of the pattern language itself.

Alexander uses the term “wholeness” to mean: entities of the environment borne out of interactions existing amongst parts (or what he calls centers). He describes “wholeness” as a “field-like” center within which other centers would be interlaced or interdependent, and those in turn would hold centers within centers and so on and so forth –as closely related to self-similarity in chaos theory (Mandelbrot’s study of fractal geometry in nature) and in the behavior of natural systems in the science of fields (e.g., flock of birds). Each center represents a pattern, in theory because it has reoccurred at different times and locations and at most of those has been successful at making one feel more whole.

Essentially, Alexander attempts to identify hubs around which systems occur in the most living structures of which he extracts a pattern language (or a geometric lexicon) for architects and lay people to rely on.

According to a 2002 review in the Harvard Design Magazine, A Pattern Language seems to impose rules that are conceptually important and useful to consider as drivers of a well-informed practice, but which when combined (all 253 rules) create a chaotic and hard-to-conceive structure. In those terms, a bottom-up approach conflicts with the extensive rule set provided by Alexander’s patterns. William Saunders interprets A Pattern Language as “utopist,” “dreamy,” “fragmentary,” “additive,” “structuralist,” “authoritarian,” and even “tyrannical,” despite his respect for the “lively […] and informed intuitions” introduced in the book.

Alexander’s best ideas about town making […]: the promotion of mixed use, pedestrian convenience and zones, ample public transportation, non-exclusive zoning, cluster development, workplaces near and in homes, limited automobile access, small architectural scale, “activity nodes,” town greens, small public squares, street cafes, and so on.’ (Saunders, 2002)


Alexander, Christopher. (1996) “The Origins of Pattern Theory: The Future of the Theory, and the Generation of a Living World.” (last visited: Feb.21, 2011)

Saunders, William S. (2002) “Book Reviews: A Pattern Language.” Harvard Design Magazine, Winter/Spring 2002, Number 16. http// (last visited: Feb.18, 2011)


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