2011/05/02 Christopher Alexander, “The Battle To Bring Life and Beauty to the Earth”, Center for New Media, University of California, Berkeley

In 2011, Christopher Alexander was 75 years old, and fighting jet lag to talk about the book to would be released in 2012.  The pace of this lecture is slow.

Video posted as “Christopher Alexander Lecture at Berkeley, California” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mDwbK_rqyGM .

This digest was created in real-time watching the recorded web video, based on the speaker’s presentation(s) and comments from the audience. The content should not be viewed as an official transcript of the meeting, but only as an interpretation by a single individual. Lapses, grammatical errors, and typing mistakes may not have been corrected. Questions about content should be directed to the originator. The digest has been made available for purposes of scholarship, posted on the Coevolving Innovations web site by David Ing.

Lecture hosted by The Art, Technology and Culture Colloquium, at http://atc.berkeley.edu/bio/Christopher_Alexander/ .

[00:10]  Welcome by Ken Goldberg

[02:30] Introduction on Greg Niemeyer

Notes on the Synthesis of Form

  • There is a context, and there is a function.  The form is in between.
  • Both the context and the function are both unknown.  The trick is the find the form that matches both.

What is a pattern for an introduction?

  • To bring you into the event


  • Alexander as a father and grandfather
  • Pattern language web site http://www.patternlanguage.com/
  • Berkeley 1963-2001, where Alexander taught, connecting art, math, computer science
  • It makes no sense for all chairs to be the same, because we’re all different where we sit, so we should all have dining chairs that are slightly different to accommodate sizes and style.
  • Literature:  Notes on a Synthesis of Form 1968; A Pattern Language; Timeless Way of Building, Nature of Order

[06:00] Pattern Language:

  • People will say they will use pattern 23 to figure out an architectural problem
  • I’m going to use pattern 56 to solve my computer science problem
  • I’m going to use pattern 21 to solve something like Facebook

The pattern was not the message, the message was to find patterns, and to look for patterns, and to think about patterns.

  • And to see how patterns gradually emerge from the organic life that unfolds between  form and intention and context and function.

Can look as buildings as well

  • Has created 200 or more buildings
  • Tokyo, Berkeley family houses, Albany, Oregon campus, Eishin campus in Tokyo

Object oriented programming asks how methods exist independently of the space that they are created for.

Versioning:  how many versions have you seen in the past?

  • Software, cars, products, things that you buy
  • Things always will change, we just have to admit they change, and embrace the change

Another path:  awards

[08:20] In Siena, there’s a wonderful plaza, valley of streets lead to the Piazzo del Campo

[09:20] Please welcome Professor Christopher Alexander

[Christopher Alexander comes on stage, puts microphone in pocket

[10:45] Topic is so confusing, so complicated

  • At Berkeley, didn’t give a talk prepared in advance for 4 years

[12:15] The discipline known as architecture has gone off the rails with some momentum, for 80 to 90 years

[13:15] [Asked for pictures on mass production, takes a few minutes to organize]

  • B17 hangars in Seattle, 1940, not the first time mass production was done

[14:50]:  An erector set for kids made around 1915

Since then, the attempt to build buildings has been swamped with the use of mass-produced components

  • Seen as a blessing by some
  • Claims that it will be efficient and cheap are overblown
  • Nevertheless, it’s taken over the whole field of architecture

The way that architecture is transmitted is through drawings

  • Architect doesn’t know how to make things
  • He or she draws, and some other organization makes buildings from the drawings
  • We’re so deeply into this way of thinking, it doesn’t sound like a blunder, it sounds like a practical thing to do

[17:30] I’m bit wobbly.  [sits down]

The organization of nature is essentially not modular, in a sense that architecture has been made modular

  • Molecules and atoms?  They’re different, from a quantum level

The reality of things — dwelling on reality — comes from structure of something, which at every level, is highly complex and unique.

  • The idea that things can be made by assembly is a crackpot idea which does not work
  • It’s simply an idea that has swelled and expanded
  • From the child’s erector set, one gets a whole vision of the world, and how things in the world are to be made, and are made
  • They are made this way now

[19:50] From the structural point of view, you can have this assembly, or arrangement of prefabricated parts — which to many architects is a gift from heaven, in a weird and meaningless intellectual pattern.

[requests a picture of the 6 blossoms opening]

A spray of flowers

  • Buds opening [showing 6 slides]

In a situation like that, the whole is being transformed by many many processes that are going on roughly at the same time

  • And because of the way that that continuous unfolding is taking place, you have the beauty of the hawthorne bush coming about, as result of the unfolding process where everything develops together, and where its detailed organization is created by transformations that occur in the wholeness in the branch or plant
  • Architecture used to be like that, up to a couple of hundred years ago

The complexity that a building needs and can be enjoyed and loved by the people who live there, or by the people who look at this or that window or rail … all has been cut short

  • You go out on the street and see nothing but crap
  • Large scale crap and small scale crap
  • It’s all be pieced together by simple-minded methods

The ability of a building to work as a whole, and as something that is nurturing to human beings who live there or work there, or use it — all of that has been damanged collosally.

  • No one has had the courage, or the common sense to recognize this difficulty

There are a few visionaries, or seers, who understand this, but can’t really find a way in contemporary society to earn a living in this way

  • The whole vehicle of construction does not have the capacity to deal with type of context-dependent creation of part and wholes and parts and wholes, and wholes nested within other wholes

The vast majority of metropolitan areas are blackened by this disease.

  • Mental health is plummetting
  • The capacity to love — not necessarily one person to another — to love a dandelion or a mouse, or the front steps of the remnant of a building that might have been built 100 years ago, with the steps built by hand
  • The stairs, the treads, the risers, the lip, the overhand were all shaped in such a way that each piece precisely fit into the context that was being created with this evolving structure.

[27:30] I am a person that builds

  • Some people who I have trained are doing their best to work this way
  • The question of large scale production on society has really not been tackled at all
  • We are prisoners of this calamitous situation

The environment that we live in plays a colossal role in our lives

[27:45] The main subject of this lecture is a project that we undertook in Japan in the early 1980s to build a campus outside Tokyo

Unless one turns the methods and processes and production methods around, there is no way that human life on Earth can maintain itself or be a success.

[31:45] The methods by which the human environment are built are damaged to an extreme and extraordinary dimension.

I first began work on this issue in 1958.

If you live in a systems of boxes, as most people do, you can barely struggle to achieve an effective life

[33:50]  Saint Francis, who loved animals and birds, built a little chapel outside Assisi

  • It’s a tiny building, a marvellous place, made by Francis and his brethren over a number of years
  • In around the end of the 16th century, people thought St. Francis was so important that they would do the ultimate honour of building him a large baroque church, in which the tiny chapel was literally encased.
  • The baroque church was massive and ugly as hell, and rarely visited.
  • It was a foretelling of the forms of production which now exist in our society
  • This was a crackpot and unsuitable way to deal with Francis’ loving created

[37:50] Can we, at all, hope to create a world in which things are made with judgement, with love, with adaptation, with continuous modification, with everything than transpires in what I have come to call System A.

  • Systems B is the production world of B17s, computers, prefabricated houses, supermarkets, factories, all of which we benefit from in a material level
  • But it does take away our birthright and heritage, and makes it almost impossible to be a full human being

[39:50] I’m just going to show you some pictures that will run without my comments.

  • You’ll see this place which my colleagues and I have built, but still not finished
  • After you have looked at these pictures, I will tell you about the conditions under which these things can be done

[42:45] Of course these buildings were not built from drawings in the normal fashion

[photos shown in silence through to about 0:56:15]

[57:30] The tea bushes with the white flags

  • The size of this campus is about 9 city blocks
  • After we had worked with our clients to produce a pattern language (which I won’t go into any detail on), what happened next was to lay out the buildings
  • We walked that site, dozens if not hundreds of times over
  • We tried to place ourselves in such a way that one could visualize very simple questions:  where is the best place to enter this campus; what is the first thing that you might want to come to
  • The flags were mostly about 6 foot high, bamboo stakes
  • We planted these flags and looked at them
  • We then planted them some more and looked at them again
  • We continued that operation until we felt comfortable walking the whole

There were virtually no drawings at that time

  • There were some doodles
  • We paid attention to the position of the buildings, the height, the width
  • We were creating the space between the buildings with equal care and intensity
  • Gradually, we collectively formed a vision of what kinds of places there were, where they were
  • Our client client, Hosoi, was quite stunned, by the time we were finished — the flagging out phase was several month
  • He said, several times, in the months that had been passing:  we could see the buildings standing there — there were no buildings, at that point — but the situation was so real, he could see exactly what was happening, and what did happen

[63:30] The staking out of these complex buildings would have been completely impossible in System B

  • If you were the employee or owner of a large planning firm, and were placing pencil to paper, or CAD-lines to printout, there would have been no possibility of creating the feeling that happened within any one single building of the whole lot
  • It would not have been conceivable to create a drawing
  • You can only do that kind of work with your own body, your own heart, with communications with the building crews
  • This is already one example of the huge departure from the current way of doing architecture
  • Currently, architecture is a discipline that has to do with making drawings, which are then transmitted to construction companies
  • The idea that one could actually inject profound feeling into such a process is quite funny

It’s the most commonsensical thing you could possibly do, if you really want to lay out some buildings and build them

[66:20] Once were we done the flagging, we began work on the individual buildings

  • Rudimentary paper and cardboard models, once we had the position and general dimensions from flagging out
  • Had hundreds of models, you don’t have to do them over or use an eraser
  • You can use glue and paper and balsa wood
  • Sometimes you can make one of the models in a day
  • They are extremely rough
  • The buildings follow this rudimentary models, so that the feelings that are being carried by each of us on the project, went all the way through to the execution of the buildings

[69:00] We were the builders of this place, although we had some help, as we needed Japanese crews

  • The number of architecture students in the U.S. or England that could do this are probably 2%
  • What we did, did succeed, to a large degree

Of course, during the course of construction, there were changes being made continuously

  • We were prudent with the money
  • We were skilled enough, so that when something came along on the site, and it because it was obvious it was too long or too short, or where were the windows, or the roof pitch — these were all being tested as they were going along — changes were made along the way, consistent with the budget that we carried

[72:00]  The yakuza, the Japanese mafia were connected with the large construction organizations

  • The companies are huge, larger than American construction companies
  • It was said that they could swing a motion in Japanese parliament, on almost any issue
  • Mr. Hosoi, our chief client, was called to a meeting in Shinjuku, and sat down with some of the Japanese contractors and their representatives
  • They wanted him to get Alexander out of Japan
  • The reason wasn’t because we were doing better work
  • The reason was our work was lower in price than the going rate
  • It was a colossal potential embarrassment for the Japanese construction industry.
  • The failed to get me out of Japan
  • They were not incompetent from an engineering point of view
  • They feared the whole industry would collapse from its present form, if they were not able to stop the types of activities were were engaging in.
  • They knew we were responsible people
  • We had to make a number of political deals to continue and complete the work
  • It wasn’t quite completed, as there were 2 college buildings and a library that were not built

[79:20] We had been writing a book — it’s about 500 pages — describing this production system we created, and how it worked

  • They did manage to force us to a compromise

This book might have the effect of altering the path of construction companies in all of the countries of the world

  • It’s possible, but I doubt that I’ll see it in my lifetime

[81:40] The real issue is life is the only criterion for the construction of the environment

  • That’s not what is happening today

[82:20] I’m getting tired now

I’m going to read you a short page

The creation of life and of the living is and must be the fundamental criterion for our activities when we build the environment

  • Whether they be freeway building, housing projects, tracts, etc.

Now, can we truthfully say that the Eishin campus is a living structure, and that any structure that is living (like the Eishin campus) is a very rare event, difficult to achieve in practice, a kind of structure not easy to replicate?

  • The theory of replicating this structure, an achievable structure, can be made actual, practical, and workable.
  • We must make this available in our present day society
  • Even though it is hard, it is useless for us to see it only as a target, not realizable in practice
  • The non-living structures which have surrounded us on earth for about a hundred years have undermined human society at a gigantic cost to us, our fellow beings
  • The paradigm of the robot, or simulation of living structure, do not have the attributes of living structure, and are not and cannot be living environments.
  • This must be achieved, now.
  • Social disorder, mental illness, failure to keep pace with spiritual understanding, children, animals, plants form a rich fabric.  This rich fabric does not its own bill of rights
  • Although artificial, complex layered structure of our environment are forms of life, and useful semi-living machines are helpful in medicine.
  • But we are not yet living as living soulful creatures and will not be until the necessary structures of living society and living environments are soulfully present.
  • This is not only a criticism of the physical structure of buildings and towns.
  • We have the information to reach this state.
  • Many books written in the last 100 years have by now spelled out detailed information about living structure, how the structure must be supported, cared for, regulated, how the structure can be maintained in vibrant and living state of hell.
  • We have no excuse for neglecting our knowledge.
  • We must act on what we know, and we must make use of the rich field of architecture with the information that is now available.

I’ve tired myself out.


I was curious about how can buildings create unconditional love.

  • Did I say that?  I said some pretty crappy things, but I don’t think that I said as bananas as that.
  • Unconditional?
  • When a building is being properly made, its internal organization — its human organization — that means that whoever the people are that are working on that building, are in a position where they speak and make from love.
  • This does not mean some soupy romanticism.
  • If we love honesty, our fellowing beings and the places where we are, then the kinds of things that you see on the screen will arise.
  • It’s not magic, it has to do with the intensity and dedication to which you do your best

I had a girlfriend that I loved intensely, and it went horribly wrong.  I wish for something passionate and lasting.

  • Of course it can go wrong.  You think I’m a magician?

In computer programming and in art, to get people to spend the time with passion, it will be a type of spiritualism?  I hear what you’re saying, it’s hard, we’re trying.

  • Trying takes certain forms.
  • It just depends how far you’re willing to go.
  • People who have experienced this way of making things won’t give it up

Where do you see the next 200 years?

  • Attention to detail.
  • If you want to make a room — a livingroom in a house — can you concentrate enough to make that room a nest or something.
  • It’s a real task
  • It’s not nonsense
  • It’s not, generally speaking, being taught by architecture professors
  • It’s a perfectly feasible and practical venture

[96:00] Examples of how the campus was built with love? Materials or design?

  • Fairly ordinary, but put together in somewhat unusual ways.

Structural plan, different for each environment?  Carry over to architecture.

  • In an organism, there are wholes at many different levels.
  • There are wholes within those wholes.
  • It’s not possible to attempt to build a structure by just arranging these things
  • They butt up against their context, they butt up against the container.  If the container can not give up flexibly, you’ll be looking at a monkey’s ass.
  • You need the positions of the doors, and the windows, and the nature of the floor:  there is give-and-take between the larger wholes, and the wholes you’ll fill them up with.
  • If you say, let’s have the container be a rigid factory-made entity, the size of a house, then how are going to place the front door, given this lunatic shell, because this isn’t where the door wants to be.
  • The small wholes and the large wholes have to be in a give and take relationship.

#christopher-alexander, #pattern-language