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Christopher Alexander: inspirational, or self-indulgent nonsense?

07th December 2011

By Rob Cowan

Christopher Alexander’s appearance at the Urban Design Group two weeks ago – giving the annual Kevin Lynch Memorial Lecture – is still a hot topic of discussion. ‘What do you think?’ I was asked yesterday by someone who had heard reports of the lecture but had not been there. ‘Was it inspirational? Or self-indulgent nonsense?’ To me it was inspirational. The atmosphere helped: the capacity audience, probably the biggest the UDG has ever attracted, listened with rapt attention, aware that they were unlikely again to have the opportunity to see the great man. The 75 years old was clearly uncomfortable in the role of lecturer.

Alexander’s message was uncompromising. There was a right way and a wrong way of designing, he said. The right way involved walking the site, understanding the site, interpreting the site, beginning to design on the site, developing designs through making models, and finding a rare building contractor able to respond creatively to that approach. ‘My aim as a builder is to create adaptations day by day,’ he said. ‘If you want to build a beautiful building you have to think on your feet.’ Design, he seemed to be suggesting, should be a continuous process of adaptation, rather than the realisation of a preconceived (and pre-visualised) idea. ‘The purpose of a building is to bring life to the land.’ The wrong way, according to Alexander, was to design through making drawings, a process that allowed architects to impose designs that had little to do with the place itself.

The first question in the discussion that followed Alexander’s presentation came from former RIBA president Sunand Prasad. Someone asked me afterwards if I didn’t think that his question was rather rude. What Prasad asked was whether Alexander was saying that designing without drawing was just his own preferred approach, and whether he would concede that, for some architects, drawing was a powerful means of thinking and communicating. It seemed a very fair question to me. And it would have been good to know how Alexander’s process worked. Were his sometimes elaborate models made without drawings? Did the procurement and construction process work without drawings? Alexander’s answer to Prasad seemed to be that the conventional drawings-based approach was simply wrong: architects should put down their pens, pull on their boots and take their creativity on to the site.   

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  • Gnoll110 1st March 2012

    Thats sounds like a rather time limited answer, or maybe he didn't elaborate so people had time to think on that state. Not plan on paper then build, but interact and be dynamic.

    I'ld suggest actually reading Christopher Alexander's most recent published work, the four volume 'The Nature of Order'. There are plenty of hand drawn and more formal plans and cross sections.

    In the Appendix 'A Small Example of a Living Process' of Book 2 'The Process of Creating Life', there are 14 illustrations. The first is a 'first sketch' of the house from the street. The rest are a cross section, block plans and floor plans of floors or rooms for a two story house built on Berkeley.

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