This essay endeavours to convey a critical understanding of the work of architect, builder and theorist Christopher Alexander. It will be argued that his work represents a unique and timely polemic: a polemic which shares certain roots of Modern and Postmodern theory, but which attempts to transcend the limits of those theories and which challenges the debilitating hierarchies of contemporary economic and social structures.

Alexander was born in 1936 in Vienna, Austria. He grew up in England where he studied chemistry, mathematics and architecture (winning a scholarship to Cambridge University). In 1964, after post-graduate studies at M.I.T. and Harvard, he joined the faculty of the Department of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley. Three years later he established the Center for Environmental Structure (C.E.S.), a multi-disciplinary professional and academic organization which, in the last 30 years, has published an influential series of books, most notably A Pattern Language and The Timeless Way of Building, and built a number of buildings in countries all over the world. As a member of the Academic Board, Professor Alexander was instrumental in the founding of HRH The Prince of Wales’s Institute of Architecture in the early 1990’s and served as a Trustee for a number of years. He has recently launched an internet company and is finishing a four volume opus - The Nature of Order - which presents what might be termed his ‘unified theory’ of architecture.

It is this ‘unified theory’ which is the subject of this essay. The use of the scientific label ‘unified theory’ is appropriate here, not only in light of Alexander’s scientific background and the resulting organization and terminology of his ideas, but also due to Alexander’s contention that his theory is an attempt to provide a general theory of architecture: a theory which could unify the field. Further, the theory has implications that reach far beyond architecture and which beg a fundamental reshuffling of even physics and biology. This attempt — one which aspires to ‘explain it all’ — goes against the grain of recent philosophic trends where this sort of enquiry might be viewed sceptically as naive romantic nostalgia, or more forebodingly, as repressive totalitarianism.

Developed over the last 30 years, Alexander’s work represents an ambitious attempt to replace current dysfunctional and destructive ways of seeing the world with a holistic cosmology: one in which the destructive schism between art and science promises to be healed; a theory in which the rational and intuitive modes, the masculine and feminine aspects of knowing can be unified. This attempt is rooted in a strong sense of compassion and responsibility. Rather then accept the perceived limitations and helplessness of humanity, Alexander has chosen to make an effort to save the world. The fact that Alexander’s work has a strong moral basis is one of the key points that marks his distinction from other, even better known, contemporaries. For some this attitude is seen as a courageous one, and one which not only gives people some hope by breaking the grip of nihilistic philosophy but also provides a sense of direction that they themselves can follow in order to do some good.

Because Alexander’s theory is fundamentally holistic in nature, it extends from the culture of architecture and engages virtually all facets of life. While this essay will attempt to illuminate many of these connections, it will focus primarily on the culture of architecture and the forces that shape built environments, carrying the notion that ‘art reflects life’ and that architectural culture might be seen as a metaphor for, or mirror of, the state of human culture as a whole.

The primary media communication in architectural culture has for some time been the glossy magazine. It was useful to take a brief survey of the last ten years of one of the most influential magazines, Progressive Architecture. Through the 1970’s and 80’s, Progressive Architecture was the stalwart champion of avant-garde (post)Modern architecture. However, beginning in the late 1980’s, the journal began to seriously question architectural culture, initially by questioning the focus on style and the grip of the so-called ‘avant-garde’ on architectural media. The following letter to the editor nicely sums up the tenor of numerous other letters and articles from the late 80’s into the mid 90’s:

The destructiveness of the avant-garde is that it must be out in front (wherever that is), which is to say there can never be a stable culture, nor can there ever be an acceptable vernacular. The avant-garde gains adherents by (a) deploring the present situation and (b) offering something "new." The public for the avant-garde gets a continuous succession of thrills and demonstrates its own advanced position by keeping up, by knowing the latest thing. (Of course, it does not matter whether it is really new, but only that it be regarded by the right people as new.) In a word: fashion... Fashion provides excitement and gives a way to display alertness and taste. But it does not contribute to a broadly based, stable culture which in a sense is the background against which the fashionable can be viewed. Fashion moves too fast to penetrate far enough to be useful for a general culture. The real difficulty for the avant-garde lies in its no longer being unacceptable...As long as it remained an irritant it served a purpose... But it was so successful that it became official. Since around 1970 it has lost its resistance. Now, the stars are featured in Vogue and attend fashionable dinners - still protesting that they are misunderstood, but that is part of the entertainment (or it wouldn’t be tolerated). It makes its patrons part of a coterie, a small elite. Meanwhile the world goes to pot...

In July of 1991, a major feature on Alexander and his colleagues at C.E.S. appeared in Progressive Architecture. It was titled, "The Real Meaning of Architecture," and was accompanied by a submission from Alexander, "Manifesto 1991." In the years that followed, the magazine devoted much of it’s energy to critique of architectural culture, and seemed to be genuinely concerned with contributing to reform. Articles appeared on subjects such as reforming education and The American Institute of Architects; saving the environment; and finding affordable housing solutions. Numerous rogue architects were profiled, but there seemed to be a renewed emphasis on substance. Unfortunately, publication abruptly stopped in the mid 1990’s. Progressive Architecture’s issues during this period, particularly between 1991 and the end of publication, indicate that architectural culture was, and perhaps still is, in the throes of a deep crisis.

Despite the voices of a few courageous architects, the level of denial that exists is at times staggering. Motivated largely by a desire to protect their interests, many professionals of architecture have sold themselves to the wealthy at a cost to the welfare of the ordinary citizen. Richard Twombly, in Power and Style, has laid out how architecture, particularly the dominant architectural elite, has become a tool of corporate America:

By shaping the content of the American Institute of Architects (A.I.A.) guidelines, the visible elite affects local and state affiliates that, among other things, influence fee structures, licensing and accreditation criteria and determine their own memberships…Visible architects launch trendy stylistic mannerisms, set the agenda for polemical debate, influence the content of national and regional design journals, and often double as directors of prestigious training schools…By cloaking public and private entities in artistic imagery intended to validate the social order, architects not only embraced that order but also found a way to assume a more privileged position within it…By confining the discussion almost exclusively to matter’s of style, however, turn-of-the-century practitioners — whether "traditionalists" basing designs on historical "precedent" or "rebels" advocating "progress"— removed their work from any other formal analysis, where it has by and large remained except for a minority of observer’s.

As a result, our public environment - society’s common ground - has eroded seriously. This is an age old story, but has now reached levels that even the wealthy are beginning to recognise as unacceptable.

H.R.H. The Prince of Wales was one of the first public figures to step forward with criticism of contemporary architecture. That a figure with such a public nature would challenge the English architectural establishment is certainly notable, and a comment on The Prince of Wales’s depth of character. It also points to the seriousness of the problem. Here is an educated man, with a broad view of history and culture, who realises that even with the protection of wealth and privilege, no one is safe from a deteriorating environment; and indeed we all have a responsibility to one another to work for a common good:

For a long time I have felt strongly about the wanton destruction which has taken place in this country in the name of progress; about the sheer, unadulterated ugliness and mediocrity of public and commercial buildings, and of housing estates, not to mention the dreariness and heartlessness of so much urban planning…I remember thinking in the 1960’s how crazy it was to destroy so much of value and, by obeying the dictates of fashion, to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

In a position much in keeping with H.R.H., Alexander’s posture is one based on a stalwart morality, one which assumes a personal responsibility to do some ‘good’ in the world. However, it is not simply naive goodness that marks Alexander’s contribution to architectural culture. Stephen Grabow argues that Alexander’s theory represents the first cohesive and decisive step of a major paradigm shift, which is dawning in the culture of architecture - and perhaps, in culture generally. Grabow models his argument after Thomas Kuhn’s analysis of the parallels between scientific revolutions and paradigm shifts. We find in architectural culture and in Alexander’s work a series of such parallels: the recognition of a defect or anomaly within current practise; the search for a corrective modification (pushing the limits of the existing paradigm); the growing magnification of problems within the culture; an acknowledgement of crisis from within the culture; the casting about for alternatives; a complex and massive reshuffling of elements of field into a new constellation of facts. Alexander’s The Nature of Order is just such a ‘massive reshuffling of elements of field into a new constellation of facts.’ However, his ‘reshuffling’ is undertaken on such a fundamental level that it asks - and attempts to answer - basic cosmological questions. Here then is a vision of a new perspective on life, which starts out with the ‘recognition of a defect’ in architectural culture, searches for alternatives and ends up taking on the basic questions of existence.

As we will see, Alexander’s work is not isolated, but is in fact congruent with and parallel to many streams not only in architecture, but in a variety of other fields. It will be argued that his work belongs squarely in a stream of enquiry which attempts to deal with a number of contemporary issues: the ‘dualist’ perspective; the masculine/feminine, art/science schism; concerns for the environment and for sustainable human relations. Alexander’s work has strong relevance to the contemporary world in that he is seeking a way to heal our fractured society. He is exploring the root causes of our dysfunction and creating a solution that allows a spiritual dimension to return, without the loss of hard won individual liberties. It will be argued that Alexander’s work is squarely in a stream that stretches back to Geothe, Ruskin, and Steiner, and is gaining strength today, particularly through the discipline of Ecology. This stream, made up of diverse voices, carries a common theme: finding an alternative cosmology to that of the dominant dualistic, patriarchal one we now carry. In the epilogue to his survey of Western philosophy, Richard Tarnas lays out a vision of possible future directions for philosophy, and in so doing describes much of the core structure of Alexander’s theory:

The collective psyche seems to be in the grip of a powerful archetypal dynamic in which the long-alienated modern mind is breaking through, out of the contractions of its birth process, out of what Blake called its "mind-forg’d manacles," to rediscover its intimate relationship with nature and the larger cosmos.

While Alexander has spent a great deal of intellectual effort on the theoretical and philosophical aspects of architecture, he and his colleagues have also focused on the actual physical act of building, and on reforming the culture of building, so that the philosophic beliefs can become material. In addition to rethinking the form and geometry of buildings, Alexander has sought to redefine the processes that produce buildings. We will explore these efforts largely through the examination of a recent building by Alexander and colleagues - the West Dean Visitor Centre - where a number of key achievements allowed for the production of a building guided by a unique process. This examination will be undertaken in Part II of this essay.