Christopher Alexander, Architect Who Humanized Urban Design, Dies at 85

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.

The cause was pneumonia, his wife, Margaret Moore, said.

Mr. Alexander was a fierce anti-modernist who found traditional and indigenous structures — the beehive-shaped huts of North Africa, for example, or medieval Italian villages — more aesthetically pleasing than highly designed contemporary ones, which he saw as ugly and soulless.

He was a math prodigy turned counterculture guru who influenced other counterculture gurus, like Stewart Brand, the futurist and founder of the magazine Whole Earth Catalog, and whose 1994 book, “How Buildings Learn,” was directly inspired by Mr. Alexander’s writing.

Like the urbanists Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte, Mr. Alexander encouraged city planners to think in human — and humane — terms, giving rise to the New Urbanists, who designed communities based on his principles: walkable neighborhoods, houses with front porches to encourage socializing, and lots of green space.

His ideas found a broad audience. Software designers applied them to computer programming. Brian Eno, the cerebral British rock star, thought the architect’s works were essential reading for anyone hoping to cure societal ills. And when Prince Charles began his sustained, and much ridiculed, attack on modern architecture in the early 1990s, he turned to Mr. Alexander for guidance on opening a school devoted to traditional classical styles.

“I am trying to make a building which is like a smile on a person’s face,” Mr. Alexander told Stephen Grabow, author of “Christopher Alexander: The Search for a New Paradigm in Architecture” (1983), “and which has that kind of rightness about it, and which is really like that and not just saying it is like that.”

Mr. Alexander spent his lifetime cataloging and analyzing the built and the natural environment. He studied mathematics, philosophy, cognitive psychology and architecture, and he used all of these disciplines to argue in favor of the handmade and the homespun.

At the University of Cambridge, though he was a scholarship student, he hired his own aesthetics tutor because he wanted to understand, and quantify, beauty. He helped build a school in an Indian village and low-income housing in Peru. He spent a year in Mexicali, Mexico, creating housing for government workers and their families with their participation, for a cost of about $3,500 a house. He developed a building system that included concrete blocks that could be stacked together like Legos without mortar, enabling families not only to design their houses but also to build them.

But it was his writing that became a touchstone for many, particularly his signature work, “A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction” (1977). Devotees found it radical; critics dismissed it as nostalgic and regressive. It is still in print and, unusually for an architecture book, continues to sell extraordinarily well, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of copies in English and nearly a dozen other languages.

“A Pattern Language” has been compared to “Joy of Cooking” for its homey insights and encyclopedic range, and to the I-Ching for its sagacity. Patricia Leigh Brown of The New York Times called it “a wise old owl of a book, one to curl up with in an inglenook on a rainy day.” (Mr. Alexander was pro-nook.)

Written with Mr. Alexander’s colleagues at the Center for Environmental Structure, the design laboratory he founded in the late 1960s in Berkeley, Calif., the book clocks in at more than 1,100 pages and describes 253 patterns — think of them as qualities — that might be considered in designing a home, neighborhood or city. They are laid out it in 253 short, evocative chapters illustrated with Mr. Alexander’s idiosyncratic drawings and diagrams, which recall Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s sketch of a hat that wasn’t a hat in “The Little Prince.”

Mr. Brand, speaking by phone, called “A Pattern Language” “perfect, and highly original, in content and in form.”

“It was clear when it came out that it was a shortcut to designing and making a place you would like to be in,” he said.

Consider Pattern 187, the Marriage Bed. “It is crucial that the couple choose the right time to build the bed, and not buy one at the drop of a hat,” Mr. Alexander wrote. “It is unlikely the bed can have the right feeling until the couple has weathered some hard times together and there is some depth to their experience.” He suggested tucking the bed into an alcove, rather than letting it float, unmoored and unprotected, in the bedroom.

Or Pattern 190, Ceiling Height Variety: “A building in which all ceiling heights are the same is virtually incapable of making people comfortable.”

The book is a delightful, if exhausting, grammar of architecture that has nothing to do with style or historicism and everything to do with what makes people feel good — warm colors, pools of light, low ceilings, overhanging roofs — a guide to coziness, in essence, that Mr. Alexander and his colleagues tried to wrestle into a kind of formula using all manner of sources, from empathy studies to the ideal proportions found in a Japanese house.

“He was one of the few people who thought systematically about architecture,” Witold Rybczynski, the author, architect and professor emeritus of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a phone interview. “And he tried, in a sometimes laborious way, to understand why we like what we like. I never tried to design anything using ‘A Pattern Language’; I think it would be impossible. But when my wife and I built our own house, I realized how many of Alexander’s patterns were present.”

Mr. Rybczynski recalled being struck by Mr. Alexander during their first encounter: “I finally met him in 1994, when he won the Seaside Prize” — an award given by the New Urbanist community in Florida — “and he said something I’ve never forgotten: ‘Everything we see in our surroundings raises our spirits a bit or lowers them a bit.’”

“His work is full of these kind of insights,” Mr. Rybczynski added.

Christopher Wolfgang John Alexander was born Oct. 4, 1936, in Vienna, the only child of Ferdinand Johann Alfred Alexander and Lilly Edith Elizabeth (Deutsch) Alexander, who were archaeologists. The family left Austria in 1938, when Nazi Germany began its occupation, and settled in Oxford, England, where Chris’s parents found work as German-language teachers. Chris, gifted in math and chemistry, won a scholarship to Cambridge, where he studied mathematics and architecture and, on the side, beauty.

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 most other people did, too. He often said he felt like the little boy in the folk tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” pointing out what was only obvious. Nonetheless, after Cambridge he went on to architecture school at Harvard, where he earned a Ph.D. in the subject in 1963. His dissertation, “Notes on the Synthesis of Form” — a prequel of sorts to “A Pattern Language” — promptly earned the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal; it was his first book, and Mr. Alexander was barely 30.

That same year, he was appointed a professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, a position he held until 1998.

Although Mr. Alexander is better known for his written work, he did design some 200 structures on five continents, including a community health center in Modesto, Calif.; a homeless shelter in San Jose, Calif.; a cafe in Austria; and, most notably, a portion of a private university in Tokyo called the Eishin Campus with a stunning great hall.

The Alexander method, boiled down, was participatory, emotional and adaptive — he didn’t like to design on paper, preferring to create in three dimensions, on site — and not all clients had the patience for such things. Mr. Alexander liked to say that a measure of a house’s success was the client’s well-being.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his daughters, Lily and Sophie. An earlier marriage, to Pamela Patrick, a classical singer, ended in divorce.

Mr. Alexander was the author of nearly 20 books, including what he considered his magnum opus, “The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe,” a four-volume door stop published between 2003 and 2005.

That book scoops up, in photos and illustrations and inscrutable but tantalizing text involving a lot of math and physics, the entirety of the natural and built world, to make the argument that beauty is a quantifiable quality that most people can agree upon, and is not, in fact, in the eye of the beholder. To do so, Mr. Alexander used a universe’s worth of examples, among them Moroccan tiles, soap bubbles, snowflakes, meandering rivers and dewdrops on a spider’s web.

When the first volume was published in 2003, the cultural critic Laura Miller, writing in The New York Times, described Mr. Alexander as a prophet without honor in his own profession whose books should be required reading.

After gamely making her way through the volume, Ms. Miller wrote, she found herself looking at familiar objects with new eyes: “Not as momentous as a new science, I’ll grant you, but a revelation all the same.”

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Christopher Alexander, Architect Who Humanized Urban Design, Dies at 85