I discovered Christopher Alexander around 1986 when I read A Pattern Language and The Timeless Way of Building. A Pattern Language was our guide in designing our strawbale house, built in 1997. I fell in love with him then, and these books simply increased my profound admiration for him and joy in his work.
Christopher Alexander is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an architect, a builder, and the author of many books and technical papers. He is the winner of the first medal for research ever awarded by the American Institute of Architects, and after 40 years of teaching is Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. He trained in Physics and Mathematics at Cambridge and was part of the group of scientists who developed systems theory along with Herbert Simon. He has been investigating the interaction between science and architecture all of his life, and this beautiful four-volume work contains the results of his research.
Although many of Alexander's ideas are subtle and require thoughtful reflection, the basic thesis of these four volumes might be stated: everything that exists contains "life," and the degree to which "life" is manifest in any particular can be "objectively" determined by probing one's "subjective" world.
Book Three provides a practical guide to creating great places based on his concepts of "centers," "wholeness," and "structure-preserving transformations." Page after page of photos (many in color) and diagrams give weight to Alexander's process-oriented approach to building. If you have wondered whether there is a way to reinvent our cities and suburbs away from "sprawl" and into vibrant, living places - here is how. In the preface, Alexander says it will require many people acting individually and in small groups to make that happen. At the risk of appearing naive, Alexander claims that human beings are happier in the midst of "living" structure and that we have almost forgotten what it means to be a person within the "dead" structures of the 20th-21st century environment. Unlike the dead shiny slickness of contemporary design, living places have a kind of rustic beauty, and we feel we belong. Another aspect of building with "life" is that the building form is "interwoven in some fashion with nature itself. In the best cases, it will seem, almost indistinguishably, to be part of nature, thus forming a seamless whole."
Christopher Alexander's tireless work, his brilliance, his humility, his humanity give me deep hope in a time when it is so easy to lose heart. These are books to be read slowly, savored. One reviewer suggested that this is one of the few works to be remembered 500 years hence. I suggest that it is one of the works to be read and absorbed now in order for there to be a 500 years hence for us.
I have reviewed Books One, Two, and Four at their respective sites.