Christopher Alexander’s work represents an attempt to synthesize the poles of our modern culture’s cosmological schism. It is an attempt to meld the rigorous, empirical scientific method - the rational - which has held sway in recent history with the intuitive, mystical integration with nature - the romantic - which was the dominant paradigm in pre-Enlightenment societies. It is Alexander’s contention that this dualistic schism - which separates art and technology, male and female, man and nature - is the root cause of the many ails our increasingly global culture faces. He has made an effort to create a holistic perspective and methodology around the practice of building, and in so doing, has posited a theory which is relevant to our culture in general.


Tarnas, in the epilogue to his survey of Western thought, formulates a possible direction of future human consciousness. He seeks to find an alternative to the dualistic schism in much the same spirit as Alexander, by integrating the processes of nature with those of human beings:

In its most profound and authentic expression, the intellectual imagination does not merely project its ideas into nature from its isolated brain corner. Rather, from within its own depths the imagination directly contacts the creative process within nature, realizes that process within itself, and brings nature’s reality to conscious expression. Hence the imaginal intuition is not a subjective distortion but is the human fulfillment of that reality’s essential wholeness, which had been rent asunder by the dualistic perception. The human imagination is itself part of the world’s intrinsic truth; without it the world is in some sense incomplete...On the one hand, the human mind does not just produce concepts that “correspond” to an external reality. Yet on the other hand, neither does it simply “impose” its own order on the world. Rather, the world’s truth realizes itself within and through the human mind.[1]


Tarnas sketches a historical lineage of this thinking - commonly known as the Romantic -  which departed from the absolute authority of rational comprehension as the only objective basis for understanding the world, as put forth by Kant and other Enlightenment figures. This alternative line, while not altogether independent, still displayed a number of distinct perspectives which share much with Alexander’s theory. Two of the relevant primary distinctions of this parallel history are perception of the world as a unitary organism rather than an atomistic machine and the valuation of man’s imaginative and creative abilities over the rational intellect. Tarnas lists such figures as Goethe, Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley Emmerson, Thoreau, Jung as being among this alternative lineage and it is this essay’s thesis that Alexander is in large part a descendent of this intellectual lineage.


Alexander’s early scientific training and his desire to maintain and prove empirical clarity place him, however, squarely in the rational scientist’s camp, as the convergent parallels between his work and that of the New Science attests. Through his investigations into architecture and the processes that form complex and profound space, he has been led to many of the same hypothesis and conclusions as ‘chaos’ scientists and Deep Ecologists: there are deeply integrated systems at work in nature which form complex and highly ordered patterns and which the human being and culture is a part. Alexander has organized his theory as a scientist would, providing evidence and proofs in a hierarchical structure, and with a heavy reliance on geometrical abstractions.


Alexander’s synthesis goes against the grain of recent philosophic and artistic inquiry, which has its roots in that nihilistic perspective that there can be no truth, no meaning in human experience. This view, which is the result of the aforementioned dualistic schism, is widespread in our culture, although not often consciously acknowledged. When it is acknowledged however it is done so in such a way as to suggest a not unhappy acceptance.  A recent review of Alexander’s work indicates this innocuous characterization of the tension between idealistic positivism which Alexander represents and what some argue is a more realistic view of life:

In both A Pattern Language and in his new book, ideal life for Alexander is California/Mediterranean - comfortable, easygoing, sensuously pleasurable, communal, and full of leisure time for socializing and solitude - life as it can be during vacations. Alexander cannot imagine that anyone would want more conflict, intensity, and rough edges, or that his ideal life could lead to complacency.[2]


In formulating an actual generative theory of building, Alexander is providing a working alternative to this cynical view, a view which abdicates responsibility by claiming impotence in the face of the interpretive nature of life. By claiming this subjective prison, a person gives away their power to be responsible, to know right from wrong and act on that knowledge.  By providing tools of analysis and a methodology for action, Alexander is in effect offering humanity the power to do good, to be of service, and to live up to our responsibility. Some feel that this is a naive effort, that we should just except the downward spiral of human culture. This sounds like real complacency.


[1] Tarnas, R. The Passion of... p. 434.

[2] Saunders, W.  Architectural Record p. 94.