Christopher Alexander

Christopher Alexander (http://www.mediamatic.nl/whoiswho/alexander/index.html) is an architect and professor emeritus at CalBerkeley. He is very interested in design, and computer folks who read his books are always impressed by the parallels with designing software. He originated the patterns concept in the later 1960s and early '70s. In particular, a lot of the jargon we use when we are talking about patterns, such as "forces" and the distinction between problem and solution, come from his work.

Alexander has his own web site at http://www.PatternLanguage.com/. Someone who knows how should really talk to his web guy about refactoring this site - very confusing... Yes, please, he has so many well-placed friends in the computer industry that someone must be able to help. I find it interesting that his wonderful sense of aesthetic completely falls down when he tries something outside of architecture. Does he realize that living patterns and dead patterns are present in web applications, too?

Another viewpoint: his website design demonstrates his methods better than most people think; it is quirky, inviting, and each small location gives the sense of being the center of the whole. There are no pages anywhere on the site that are simply "passageways" to other pages; each page is an end in itself. (It would be folly to think this content could be presented as well on a Jakob Nielsen-style website.) That said, Alexander's beautiful books accomplish the same thing but are successful in a way that his website is not. Surely a better site design is possible. The books would make a good starting point for analysis.

Alexander wrote a lot of good books including the indispensable:

And the very gorgeous As of June 6,2002 The first volume ofThe NatureOfOrder was shipped with the rest in various stages of publishing. This series consists of four volumes:

There is a discount order price available through ChristopherAlexander's website at http://www.patternlanguage.com/natureoforder/natureoforder.htm.

Latest book - 2012 - preview -> TheBattle -> Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth


DougLea wrote a good review http://g.oswego.edu/dl/ca/ca/ca.html of Alexander's work from the point of view of SoftwareEngineering. Gabriel's Patterns of Software also speaks of Alexander's impact on our industry.

Other Alexander related material includes:


With which book is it best to start?

Of all the books I've read, the most comprehensive -- both for breadth and depth -- is Grabow's biography of Alexander. It's out-of-print and a bit hard to get, but you should be able to find it through a used book search. Grabow, Stephen. Christopher Alexander: The Search for a new Paradigm in Architecture. Stocksfield, UK: Oriel Press, 1983. If you click on the ISBN, you can give your coordinates to Amazon and they'll try to track it down for you. ISBN 0-85362-199-3 -- JimCoplien

I think The Timeless Way of Building makes a good start, though I haven't read the book Jim mentions. It seems worth mentioning this because I've noticed a lot of recommendations for A Pattern Language (outside the Wiki), which should be read after Timeless Way, rather than before or instead of. -- LukeGorrie

TheTimelessWayOfBuilding didn't make any sense to me until after I read A PatternLanguage. People differ. -- RalphJohnson

I read A PatternLanguage first, too, and grokked it immediately. Later, I tried TheTimelessWayOfBuilding, and found it repetitive and much harder going (more like other books by architects). TheOregonExperiment, however, is a nice introduction to the application of the patterns presented in A PatternLanguage. StewartBrand's HowBuildingsLearn is also a nice introduction to Alexander's ideas (and my very first contact with those ideas). -- CMConnelly

I also began with the a PatternLanguage, though not due to any deep thought or knowledge. For the last few years I have felt I somehow started at the wrong place, as Alexander himself recommends starting with the TheTimelessWayOfBuilding. I finally bought the TheTimelessWayOfBuilding, and to be honest, I am glad I started with PatternLanguage. The two refer to each other, so there is no clear predecessor, but I found a PatternLanguage more technical, and TheTimelessWayOfBuilding perhaps a bit too lacking in detail for my needs -- RichardYeo

One place to start is the video of a talk he gave at OOPSLA '96, "Patterns in Architecture." http://www.computerhistory.org/store/acatalog/GB_OOP96_Alexander.html <BrokenLink> (InternetArchive http://web.archive.org/web/20021203063153/http://www.computerhistory.org/store/acatalog/GB_OOP96_Alexander.html) It gives an overview of his work and his hopes, and then talks about the relation, or lack of relation, to software. See SoftwarePatternsArentAlexanderPatterns. -- SteveWitham


Alexander Watch ...

An interesting article that ends on a sad note.


He gets a lot of play from the men. But have his methods been successful in real life? Article from a Wilson Quarterly article in 2002: http://www.wilsoncenter.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=wq.print&essay_id=5226&stoplayout=true. Snagged this link from catarina.net's weblog. Article is a pretty critical summary of Alexander.

Comments on the article above: "Where does one begin to argue with that?" -- why do you always want to argue? Analytical thinking can help you a lot many times but you shouldn't expect to use analytical thinking all the time solving everything. Christopher Alexander emphasizes on wholeness. No any analytical thinking from a particular angle can grasp the wholeness. Only the human being, using the feels, can grasp the wholeness. So step back and use your feels about the wholeness, which you are actually using every day unconsciously. Christopher Alexander provided base for arguments in his book Nature of Order. (He said most people will be able to give the correct answer to various types of questions he asked.) If you want scientific argument, you can argue on these basis. ChristopherAlexander's theory is indeed useful, in term of being applied to help people out in various domains, although CS people are still working hard to make it more useful through the patterns. -- YuanliangLiu


I'd recommend The Death and Life of Great American Cities by JaneJacobs? along with Alexander's books. ISBN 067974195X . Discussions of high traffic areas, social interactions and private vs. public spaces. What works vs. what is good or ideal - The book reminded me of similar discussions on this wiki in regard to building software. FrankMcGeough


...found this behind the desk while cleaning...

Revision 137 made 11 months ago by c-24-62-25-242.hsd1.ma.comcast.net

If I could just quibble a tiny bit with this mostly accurate sketch, the application of Alexander's work to software was done virtually single-handedly by WardCunningham and KentBeck. I know that Ward and Kent were committed to this in late 1987 and early 1988, during the formative years of OnTechnology?, and they had each (separately) been discussing the ideas with me (I was doing research at Brown/IRIS at the time). The "object oriented" software community was small and very rarified at that time, and the Smalltalk community even more concentrated. Ward and Kent were very well known in that Smalltalk community, very highly regarded, and all of us paid a great deal of attention to their ideas and contributions. Many of us read Alexander's material, many of us saw the immediate application to object-oriented software - and Ward and Kent, virtually single-handedly, verbalized that abstract recognition into concrete, useful, and enormously influential pragmatics. I mean no criticism of any of the GangOfFour, and their volume brought it to the larger software community. At the same time, I don't believe Alexander intended any insight into software design; that insight was almost entirely verbalized by WardCunningham and KentBeck. -- TomStambaugh


See also ChristopherAlexanderQuotes, AlexanderAndBuildingArchitects, AlexanderPirsigConnection, SoftwarePatternsArentAlexanderPatterns
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