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Christopher Alexander (wikipedia.org)
24 points by cconstantin on May 3, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 9 comments



I love his pattern language book and I know it inspired people from many fields including but not limited to computer games and architecture.

To a certain degree though it tends to romanticize urban structures that were born strictly out of necessity. For example the Italian old cities with their intricate patterns of small roads, narrow stairwells and tiny houses hugging each other seem quaint and magical to most tourists today, but they were often not designed but born out of pure necessity and economic constraints, and for centuries they housed mostly poor people that probably didn't realize they were surrounded by beautiful "patterns".

If you approach his work with a slightly critical attitude there are many interesting things to discover though.


Considering how important asthetics are to Italian culture - bela figura is an idiom that is used often, and Milan is the fashion capitol of the world - the poor people of Italy not only realize they are surrounded by beautiful patterns but they can also point them out and explain why they are efficient and / or useful. The discovery may have been organic, but in the land of Da Vinci don't underestimate just how intentional many design decisions are. And just how cultured and aware the average person is there, regardless of income. The impression one gets after many years living in that culture, is that it is in no way a new thing.


I don't think this contradicts what Alexander says. His reasoning is that good architecture is born by necessity, involvement by users (he's against architect as God) and some group knowledge of what works - that last part is "pattern language" although it doesn't need to be explicitly codified.


I discovered Christopher Alexander through an interest in permaculture back in the mid-2000s while studying art, so yeah, many fields indeed. Reading Notes on the Synthesis of Form, The Timeless Way Of Building and A Pattern Language was enormously influential (it also made my follow-up design master a relative breeze, since it conceptually overlapped with so much other material that we were taught).

The romanticizing issue is very visible, although you can also see it as a product of the dominant architectural mindset of the era the books were written in (or more accurately: a reaction to it). It's a lot easier to look past it with that in mind.


Isn't this one of the key points though: the patterns emerge because of necessity and constraints during construction and use at the location where they are?


I like much of what Christopher Alexander has written, but many of the patterns he writes about in A Pattern Language are rooted in a mixture of opinion and sometimes evidence. There is an assumption that if an architectural pattern has endured for hundreds of years then its longevity is evidence enough of its universal application.

I'm particularly interested in what Alexander has to say about residential housing, and this strongly-worded opinion from A Pattern Language in particular has always intrigued me:

“In any urban area, no matter how dense, keep the majority of buildings four storeys high or less. It is possible that certain buildings should exceed this limit, but they should never be buildings for human habitation.”

Alexander goes on to argue that high rise living can be socially isolating:

“High rise living takes people away from the ground and away from the casual, everyday society that occurs on the sidewalks and streets and on the grounds and porches. It leaves them alone in their apartments. The decision to go out for some public life becomes formal and awkward; and unless there is some specific task which brings people out in the world, the tendency is to stay home, alone.”

The arguments sound quite convincing, but I’m not sure I agree entirely with the four storey limit. I think there are also cultural and social factors that contribute to whether high-rise living is a success or a failure. For example, how well are housing blocks stitched into the fabric of the urban landscape (instead of situated, isolated, outside of urban centres)?

And in some countries (e.g. Hong Kong and Singapore) high-rise living is a necessity. Having said that, it is also a mistake to assume that high-rise building is the only answer to high-density development e.g. https://imgur.com/LmJ1tTg (from a book called At Home in the City: an introduction to urban design)


> High rise living takes people away from the ground and away from the casual, everyday society that occurs on the sidewalks and streets and on the grounds and porches.

This is a widespread notion among modern ‘hipster urbanists’—e.g. in Russia where Le Corbusier's dreams pretty much came true, in terms of external shape, and buildings get higher and higher since the 60s.

You need to consider not only the floor-space, but also sunlight. To not have ground floors in eternal darkness, high buildings need to have lots of empty space between them. So as a result, you're sitting in an apartment with a view on either a street road or a huge field inside a city block—perhaps with a school or/and a kindergarten, sports court or two, maybe a playground, and some people traversing this landscape. Any sense of closeness is kept inside, there's little of it outdoors. And since the few thousand people in each block need the same things, you basically have no reason to come down other than to walk with your kids on that playground or go to the barber—it's not like you'll see much difference across the road. It's truly residential housing, ‘districts for sleeping’ as they're called.

It can be argued that more places-to-be would be there, if there were paying demand. However I'm yet to see any of that even in newly-built districts, in a not-so-cheap city.


Pattern language is one of the the books that influenced me most in my life. If you feel like you need a change of pace, pick it up. It unlike anything else.


I love Cristopher Alexander, the nature of order and his other books are like they are sent from the future. However 'A Pattern Language' is a nice way to say 'Algebra' and I don't think that he would disagree that he is just passing on a translation of something he was taught himself.

The narrative 'Father of..' feels too pedestal-y for such a humble man.




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