I was reading a book review the other day – an essay on Poetry, by Elisa Gabbert, as it happens – and came across the name of someone I once knew, a fabulously eccentric cult figure of the old school.
She writes of him: “The architect Christopher Alexander thought the big plate glass windows were a mistake, because ‘they alienate us from the view’: ‘The smaller the windows are, and the smaller the windows are, the more intense the windows help connect us with what is on the other side. This is an important paradox. ‘”
It surely is, applicable to… pretty much everything in this life.
Wait a minute, though, I thought to myself. She puts his verb into the past tense. Has Chris died?
Simple Google search on the phone from the Barstool I happened to be sitting on settled that: “Christopher Alexander, the Viennese-born Professor, architect and theorist who believed that ordinary people, not just trained Architects, should have a hand in designing their houses , Neighborhoods and cities, and proposed a method for doing so in writing that could be poetically erudite, frustratingly abstract and breathtakingly simple, died on March 17 at his home in Sussex, England. He was 85. ”
Poetically erudite. There’s your reason Chris belonged, quite unlike your run-of-the-mill starchitect, in a discussion of poems. Architecture, with few exceptions such as him, is the Sole great profession in our time that has remained Hopelessly macho, still led by men with edifice Complexes in ways that, finally, medicine, law, Journalism are not. These men design these cold places for the way they look on paper – on the computer screen, rather – not the way they work in our lives. From Penelope Green’s obit: “Modern architecture, the coin of the realm at the time, horrified him; He thought it Grim-looking and uncomfortable to be in and was convinced that now other people did, too. He often said he felt like the little boy in the folk tale ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes.’ ”
The way Chris approached design instead is almost fully understandable from the simple title of his now famous book: “A Pattern Language,” since 1977. It gets a bit more complex than that – than simply creating human-scaled and pleasing buildings by using the best historical designs from down the centuries. It gets so complex, in fact, that the ideas of Chris and his co-writers Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein were the Foundations of computer software coding, and of the Archives of knowledge known as wikis.
Here’s where Chris’s Legacy is relevant to today’s Southern California. The reason that I knew him, and that he once slept on my couch, is that he and two other Architects – Dan Solomon and, Shameless plug, my wife Phoebe Wall Wilson – in 1989 rewrote Pasadena’s multi-family zoning code, which has another simple and beautiful name: City of Gardens. USC Professor Vinayak Bharne called it “an antidote to nihilistic residential development attitudes in parts of the city… where units were packed into lots without any significant open space and were obstructed by opaque street walls or parking-dominated frontages. The intent of the Ordinance was to allow denser development within such Transitional areas, but in a form sensitive and compatible to their largely single-family Neighbors. ”
Our Neighborhoods in the future will be denser. There will be more multi-family projects throughout our Megalopolis. With our climate, using this Andalucian template as our pattern language, our descendants can still live well, often outdoors, or at least with the doors thrown open, as Chris would do – of the natural world instead of in opposition to it.
Larry Wilson is on the Southern California News Group editorial board. [email protected].