Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language: Analysing, Mapping and Classifying the Critical Response | Dawes and Ostwald | 2017

While many outside of the field of architecture like the #ChristopherAlexander #PatternLanguage approach, it’s not so well accepted by his peers. A summary of criticisms by #MichaelJDawes and #MichaelJOstwald @UNSWBuiltEnv is helpful in appreciating when the use of pattern language might be appropriate or not appropriate.

A distinction is made between Alexander’s first theory of architecture (1964), and a second theory (1975-1979) for which he is mostly widely known, and then a third theory (2005-2007).

Christopher Alexander’s ‘first theory’ of architectural beauty was presented in his Harvard doctoral thesis and later published as Notes on the Synthesis of Form (Alexander 1964). The inspiration for this work is Alexander’s belief that the buildings of traditional societies are inherently more beautiful than contemporary architecture. [….]

When applied in practice, Alexander discovered that this process was too demanding for all but the largest design projects.

This led to a second theory, coauthored with collaborators in the Center for Environmental Structure.

Alexander’s second theory, itself a collaborative process, was developed across three canonical books; The Oregon Experiment (Alexander et al. 1975), A Pattern Language (Alexander et al. 1977) and The Timeless Way of Building (Alexander 1979). Collectively these three works constitute one of the 1960s and 1970s most sustained criticisms of modernism. [….]

… intuitive and unconscious processes were vital components of traditional and vernacular architecture … [and] the importance of cognitive cohesion, vitality and piecemeal growth as part of a vibrant built environment … All of these concepts were central to Alexander’s second theory of architecture, which again focused on the inherent beauty of traditional urban spaces and buildings.

The third theory has been less popular, but well known to disciples following Alexander’s work.

Ultimately however, Alexander rejected his second theory of architectural beauty as he felt it had too little generative power and too little focus on geometry. Three decades later he proposed a ‘third theory’ of beauty, which replaced patterns with the generic concept of ‘centres’ and their transformations, in addition to removing much of the neatly packaged social and architectural content that makes his second theory so compelling (Alexander 2002b, c, 2004, 2005; Adams and Tiesdall 2007).

The second theory, particularly A Pattern Language, has had the most influence outside of the built environment. It is on this work that the criticisms are analyzed.

Following the publication of his second theory, Alexander bemoaned a lack of engagement from architectural and design professionals which might be partially explained by criticisms of the development and documentation of this theory (Kohn 2002). The barriers preventing architects from engaging with Alexander’s theory can be broadly categorised into three groups (Table 2).

Fig. 3
Criticism connections and groupings of Alexander’s second theory of architecture: Implementation and outcomes. Numbers correspond to criticism numbers in text and tables, dotted lines indicate groups and sub-groups of criticisms, arrows point from antecedent criticisms to secondary criticisms or groups of criticisms

The first group [5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12] arise from Alexander’s idiosyncratic understanding of ‘science’ (4) and subsequent issues including an absence of explicit definitions which makes practical engagement with the theory difficult.

The second group [9, 13, 14] focus on Alexander’s ambivalent use of the term ‘empirical’ to describe his theory, the progenitors of which include both his definition of ‘science’ [4] and belief in one ‘right’ way of building [3] (Fig. 2).

The final group [15, 16, 17, 18, 19] contains criticisms primarily related to the development of Alexander’s theory, including issues such as faulty reasoning that arise primarily from his argument that there is only one right way of building [3]. The problems identified in the second and third groups contribute to further criticisms of the implementation and outcomes of Alexander’s theory.

The pursuit of beauty is admirable. The science behind it is difficult.


Dawes, Michael J., and Michael J. Ostwald. 2017. “Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language: Analysing, Mapping and Classifying the Critical Response.” City, Territory and Architecture 4 (1): 1–14.


#nature-of-order, #pattern-language