Where tech aligns

Designs for Mercy

Against the synthetic industriousness of modern building, Christopher Alexander advocated for slow and patient attention, for stillness and care.

There’s something biblical about A Pattern Language, the best known book of the architectural theorist Christopher Alexander, who died in March of this year. Specifically, the book is biblical because it handles like a Bible. It is heavy for its size. When the book is opened, it will lie flat on a table. The pages are noticeably thinner than those of a normal book, and the text is set more densely. Removing the dust jacket, you discover that the book is clad in a handsome dark burgundy material, which I believe bears some genealogical relation to Morocco leather, traditionally used in bookbindings of the highest quality. The title is in gold text, and appears to have been stamped into the burgundy material, sitting a fraction of a millimeter lower than the book’s surface.

I used to keep a copy on top of a low bookshelf in my apartment when I lived in New York. The bookshelf was about as tall as a kitchen counter, so the books displayed there were a visually prominent feature of the apartment. I kept a number of odd volumes there for the amusement of my guests, but it was A Pattern Language that received the most attention and love. Something about the book’s physical presence on a shelf makes people want to pick it up, open, browse.

Its remarkable physical beauty is not due to any generalized excellence of its publisher, Oxford University Press. I had the misfortune to find a copy of their “Classical Texts” edition of the complete untranslated works of Virgil. I was captivated by the cover design, which, fitting for the text, contained no English other than the name of the series. Everything about the cover suggested canonicity, sobriety and excellence – quite a neat bit of graphic design. I could not resist buying the edition.

I came to regret the purchase upon returning home. On sitting down to explore the text, I noticed that the book offered significant resistance to my hands as I opened it to a random page. The book would simply not open properly, flapping shut like a lethargic mousetrap unless I held it open with a hand on each side. I closed the book again and held it so that I could look down at the top of its spine. I already knew what I would find there, but, like a character in a horror movie, I felt compelled to see it for myself.

Despite its pretenses, the book was in fact a paperback, and not a nice one. The covers boasted the rigidity of a hardback, but the book’s pages were bound in what is called “perfect” binding (a darkly ironic term), which is the cheapest form of binding to produce, and also the least functional. To make a perfect binding, the pages of a book are ground around the edges, so that stacked together they make a perfect rectangular prism, just like a tiny ream of computer paper. Next, the pages are stuck together with a strip of glue applied along one of the sides of this stack of paper. Unsurprisingly, this glue does not do a great job of keeping the pages stuck together as a single book. Perfect bindings fall apart after a few reads, and sometimes sooner if the reader isn’t ginger with them, or if they get too hot or cold, which can dry out the glue and make it brittle. Because of the rigidity of their spines, perfect bindings also make it difficult to read a book except the way you read a paperback novel, namely straight through from beginning to end, twenty or more pages at a time. Few people read Virgil in this manner.

The appeal of Christopher Alexander and his work lies in the contrast between these two books – the fake Virgil and the genuine Alexander.

In Christopher Alexander’s view, the homes we live in are fake homes. The cities where we build these homes are fake cities. They offer the image of home, the image of citizenship, but no more. Behind the image is something alien and synthetic – glue-strip architecture, designed to last only as long as it takes to make a sale, oriented around the needs of machines and therefore hostile, in the end, to human life.

This thesis is not original to Alexander. Attacks on industrial society are an integral element of industrial society itself. What is original, and admirable, about his work, is not this critical aspect, which it shares with the Romantics, the Arts-and-Crafts Movement, Distributists, Hippies, and innumerable paleo-bros, but rather the complexity and specificity of his proposed solutions. 

Take, for instance, one of his suggestions in A Pattern Language

Wherever children play, around the house, in the neighborhood, in schools, make small “caves” for them. Tuck these caves away in natural left over spaces, under stairs, under kitchen counters. Keep the ceiling heights low – 2 feet 6 inches to 4 feet – and the entrance tiny.

This suggestion is an example of what Alexander calls a “pattern.” A Pattern Language describes a set of these patterns, which range in scale from the city to the doorknob. The patterns vary widely in how abstract they are, too. Pattern 18 is “Networks of Learning;” pattern 240 is “Half-Inch Trim.”

A Pattern Language is the middle part of a trilogy of books he published in the 1970’s, with a work of theory, The Timeless Way of Building, preceding it, and a case study, The Oregon Project, following. The change in articles – The in the titles of the first and last volume, A in the titles of the middle volume – is significant. In A Pattern Language, Alexander and his co-authors outline what they believe is a coherent set of design principles, but they do not claim that this particular set is the only possible such set, or universally valid. It is in this mode – that of noticer – that Alexander is at his best. As he wrote in an essay for First Things shortly before he died:

[M]y studies were based on the most ordinary, miniscule observations about usefulness and the effect of buildings on the people who lived in them, always keeping the observations modest, ­reliable, and detailed – small enough and solid enough that I could be sure that they were true.

I am sure that his observations, or at least the modest and detailed ones, are true. As it happens, I have a child cave in my house. I didn’t design it, and I don’t know if the architect who did was consciously influenced by Alexander, though I’m inclined to think that she was. The cave is beneath the stairs, and the entrance is easy to miss. You have to crawl under a built-in desk to find it. Once inside, the space opens up, though it is still far too short for an adult to stand up in. The ceiling is sloped, to align with the underside of the stairs. I climbed in there recently – I don’t remember why – and my two-year-old zipped in after me, eager to see what my overlarge frame looked like in the cave, yelling “Mine house! Papa house!” I was sitting when she arrived (I had to be sitting, since there was no room to stand up), and once in the cave she forcefully pushed my torso back until I was lying down, or something close to it, with my legs up against the far side of the cave. With me sufficiently recumbent for her purposes, she aligned her small body parallel to mine and adopted the same position. “Sleeping,” she announced. That is, I suppose, what one does in houses.

Alexander imagines a world of spaces like this one. Even more grandly, he imagines a world of spaces that are for people of all ages what the cave under the stairs is for a two-year-old, where even the ordinary parts of life, like sleeping, become playful and ceremonious.

The vision is a beautiful one. Alexander tells us how he thinks we should achieve it, too. In his book The Production of Houses, first published in the mid-1980s (and retroactively tacked on to the original trilogy as a fourth volume), he offers a detailed program for the construction of small houses, using a real project in northern Mexico that he consulted on as an example.

The characteristic Alexandrian attentiveness is everywhere in evidence, at multiple scales of design, from the overall plan of a house to the fabric used for adding tensile strength to small site-cast vaults. When he begins to discuss how house production fits into larger economic structures, however, I find myself growing skeptical. He begins a chapter with a description of how house-building, in industrial society, relies on standardized components:

Today’s systems of housing production almost all rely, in one form or another, on standardized building components … buildings are understood to be assembled out of these components … as anyone who has intimate knowledge of building knows, these components are merciless in their demands.

His characterization of contemporary building practices is quite accurate, and I suspect Alexander is right that this “mercilessness” is close to the heart of why contemporary buildings are so unsatisfactory to so many. He follows this passage with what I take to be his main prescription for a different and superior mode of production:

We therefore intend to replace the idea of a building system as a system of components to be assembled, with a step-by-step system of building operations, each one capable of making immediate, low-cost, high-speed, on-site adjustment to the emerging building as it is being built, so that detailed control over the building’s shape and details passes into the hands of the builder and out of the hands of the designer of components.

Reading this, you begin to understand why the book’s example project was built in Mexico rather than in the United States. It’s true that a construction process based on the hyper-local field judgments of skilled builders will, in general, produce more beautiful buildings than a construction process based on the assembly of standardized components. Much of what first strikes the eye as beauty just is the appearance of having been labored over carefully. The buildings that strike the eye as ugly and new have not been labored over carefully in the same way, because it is no longer economical to do so. The reason it is no longer economical to do so is that as societies grow richer via industrial processes, which lower the cost of goods, labor becomes proportionally more expensive.

Alexander addresses this objection, or tries to, in some interesting ways, but the proof that his proposed system does not scale up in the way he hoped is that no one seems to have built a project using Alexander’s system without Alexander himself. He gives the game away in The Production of Houses, when, at various points in the book, describing how the project ran into an unanticipated problem, with material sourcing, for instance, or foundation subsidence, he explains that he himself invented a solution that allowed the project to continue without cost overruns. Invariably these solutions are described as if they would have been obvious to any thinking person in a similar position; in fact, the reader is presented with one of those vanishingly rare cases in which a man has been deceived by his own humility. No building system will work at the scale of a whole society if it requires the constant, in-the-field attention of someone as extraordinarily clever as Christopher Alexander.

But Alexander’s project is far from a failure, even if the architectural movement he hoped to found never took off. His books have earned him an enduring reputation, almost a cult following, mostly of non-architects. His writing and his vision are an example of what the late cultural theorist Svetlana Boym would call “reflective nostalgia.” Alexander does not aim for a simple restoration of the past so much as recognition that architecture must recognize and acknowledge longing, including longing for the past. His work will remain compelling for as long as people in industrial society continue to feel alienated from their physical surroundings.

His project is also a success in a different, and more unexpected way. Alexander’s books — the physical books — are themselves industrial artifacts. But unlike the industrial artifacts he decries, the books are anything but ugly, inauthentic, or soulless.

The books are beautiful. So are the buildings. But unlike Alexander’s buildings, his beautiful books are reproducible by means of a known, scalable process. Bookbinding, like house-building, evolved over several centuries from a craft to an industrial process. In both cases, the result of this change has, in general, been an aesthetic disaster. Old books are more beautiful than new books. Old houses are more beautiful than the awful brick-and-vinyl things they put up at Deer Grove Acres or whatever.

But this ugliness is not a law of physics. It is not without exception. There is a way, evidently, to wrestle with the tentacular industrial apparatus of the Oxford University Press and win. There is a configuration of words you can write down and people you can convince such that the same press that spits out glued-up ersatz Virgils will yield a supple, elegant, perfectly constructed book, readily available for sale at a reasonable price.

The irony here, too, is dark. Christopher Alexander is the prophet of slow and patient attention, of stillness and care. He was himself an exemplar of this attention, noticing what others did not and condensing his observations into simple English sentences of great power. In another age, he might have been Isaac Newton, or Izaak Walton. For some few individuals who seek to build houses, possessed of sufficient discipline or humility, maybe Alexander is indeed their prophet. Patient attention to physical reality never goes unrewarded, least of all in architecture. But I fear that what the reception of his work demonstrates is that there is a much larger appetite for reading about such patient attention than there is for patient attention itself.

But how did he do it, I wonder? The only trace I could find of what must have been a difficult negotiation is a brief mention in the acknowledgments of A Pattern Language. “During the production of the book,” Alexander wrote, “we have often created severe difficulties for Oxford; but they have stood by us throughout.”

Could there be a building built the way A Pattern Language is built? My copy was fabricated by machines, after all. If there is a Christopher Alexander of bookbinding, advocating a return to handiwork methods, he or she was not involved in the making of my copies of the book. Someone, or some set of people, knows how to operate the machines so that they produce beautiful books and not ugly ones.

There is no machine like this for buildings. But maybe there could be. As the physical character of A Pattern Language shows, industrial society can produce objects of enduring excellence, not just glue-strip horrors. When I was younger I was more pessimistic about the future of beauty than I am now. Too much under the influence of the Frankfurt School critic Theodor Adorno, I saw how easily deep longings for beauty are diverted into purchasable commodities. Instead of building beautiful things, people buy books about building beautiful things. They like Instagram posts about the simple joys found in Nature. They read Substacks about unplugging from the internet. But it goes the other way, too. Weird pop culture fandoms produce writing of genuine emotional force. Advertising agencies sometimes generate images of arresting loveliness. The longing behind the back-to-nature Instas is real even if the lifestyle isn’t. Even Las Vegas has its aesthetic depth, real if unexpected, vibing just as electrically with the universe, in its own exploitative way, as Velasquez.

My two-year-old loves the child cave below the stairs, but she doesn’t need it. She has made caves for herself out of couch cushions, discovered caves behind bushes and in kitchen cabinets. She has tried, though so far unsuccessfully, thank God, to make a cave of the washing machine.  There is no way to unwind industrial society, or walk back modernity. But beauty grows everywhere, even in the most barren and commercialized of places. Not all gardens are green.