The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth

A Struggle Between Two World-Systems. A long-awaited capstone to Alexander's “Pattern Language” series, by Christopher Alexander, HansJoachim Neis, Maggie Moore Alexander.

Review by Michael Mehaffy, Better! Cities & Towns

The 1977 book A Pattern Language remains a perennial best-seller and classic in the field, along with series companions including The Timeless Way of Building and A New Theory of Urban Design. But the books left many readers wanting to know more. How do we actually build such places? What are the challenges, and how do we overcome them? In this long-awaited response – over 25 years in the making – the authors deliver a rich, fascinating and provocative answer.

The book, on sale October 24, is a riveting case study of a remarkable project “from the trenches” – the authors' design and construction of the Eishin School campus near Tokyo, Japan. But more broadly, it's a moving essay on what has happened to our built environment over the last century. It joins other cautionary books of recent years – Jane Jacobs' Dark Age Ahead comes to mind – warning that we have a choice, and more than that, a struggle, if we want to avert an unfolding planetary disaster. The choice is between a more beautiful, more humane, and more sustainable basis for design, or a continuation of the status quo – a default option that looks increasingly untenable.

The principal author, Christopher Alexander, knows something about the status quo, having played a remarkably large (if not always recognized) role in several design fields including architecture, urban design, product design and computer software. Alexander was author or principal author of Notes on the Synthesis of Form, “A City is Not a Tree,” the aforementioned A Pattern Language, and other landmark documents of 20th Century design.

Alexander is sometimes wrongly described as “only a theorist,” when in fact he has built over 300 buildings around the world, and wrestled “in the trenches” more than most. His projects have included landmark social housing projects, design-build systems, innovative new engineering approaches, and much more. Here he offers ideas about what will be required for a sustainable future, grounded in an acid-test case study – vividly illustrating the complex issues and barriers we face, and some techniques and strategies for overcoming them (and no small measure of fierce tenacity). His co-authors are his former student and close collaborator in the project, Hans Joachim Neis, and his wife and collaborator, Maggie Moore Alexander.

The construction of the remarkable project at the heart of the book, the Eishin School, is richly illustrated with more than 200 color photographs. The school is a recognized masterpiece – winner of the “Best Building in Japan” award by the Japanese Institute of Architects – but more than that it is an extraordinary piece of geography, a small town of almost 30 buildings set in a beautiful landscape of some 20 acres. The project was ambitious, complex, innovative – a perfect illustration of Alexander's ideas in practice.

Alexander is first and foremost an architect, but the discussion here goes far beyond architecture and into the nature of technology itself. Alexander points out that at heart, technology is simply “the knowledge of making” – and as mounting evidence suggests, something in the way we make things in the modern world has gone deeply awry. To repair it – as we can and must – we will need to change the fundamental way we go about designing, organizing, and paying for, the making of our world.

There is a fundamental difference, Alexander points out, between the processes that give rise to living structures – adaptation and differentiation – and the processes that we have put to work in relatively recent history to make our modern world: especially, the standardization and replication inherent in mass production. We have made an entirely new global production system from these approaches, he says, which he dubs “System-B”; and with it we have almost entirely replaced an earlier system based upon local adaptation, which he calls “System-A.”

While we have gained in quantity, Alexander argues, we have lost immeasurably in quality, and as a direct result, in the very sustainability of our built world. We have created a world of manufactured “things” that are abstract, and therefore disconnected from life – and the result has been a slow but catastrophic deterioration of environmental integrity and quality. For architects, this recognition carries an imperative for reform: namely, he says, we must recover the means to ensure that the environments we construct have the crucial capacity to provide life-giving situations – the purpose of all architecture in the end.

I am sure there are architects who will find this book off-putting, since Alexander (a highly decorated and accomplished architect himself) suffers no professional foolishness gladly. He clearly has no patience for the willful, image-based architecture that serves as cover for the rapacious industrialization of the built environment. Nor is he a cheerleader for the artistic achievements of a nihilistic avant-garde (as his famous debate with “starchitect” Peter Eisenman some years ago demonstrates).

Fortunately, a new generation is showing it is eager to challenge this insular orthodoxy, and groups like Architects for Humanity are putting a new focus on socially and environmentally relevant architecture and construction. Others are pushing a similarly holistic, reformist agenda in other areas (tactical urbanists, permaculturists, open-source innovators and others) and Alexander seems to have become an inspiration for many of them.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I am one of them, as well as a friend and collaborator of Alexander over the years, along with many others. I did not have a role in this book, other than to make some minor comments, as many others did.

In the end, this book is not so much about architecture and construction, but about technology, and about a way forward for civilization – told from the perspective of an insider who is also a fierce critic and, perhaps for some in the old guard, traitor to the cause. Some may find Alexander's David-and-Goliath ideas quixotic, even grandiose. But the story documented in this book, like his previous achievements, shows otherwise. This is a guy who has always been concerned at heart with the same eminently practical issue: how we make things, and how they (and we) can, in a real and practical sense, be made healthier and more whole.

Out of that essential quest, Alexander's ideas have been astonishingly fruitful, leading directly (if not always recognizably) to pattern languages, design patterns, Wiki, Agile software and other major innovations. In considering the reforms we now so urgently require, it seems these are just the kinds of practical new human-centered technologies that we need.

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