I was reading a book review the other day – an essay on poetry, by Elisa Gabbert, it turns out – and I came across the name of someone I once knew, a fabulously eccentric cult figure in old school.
She writes about it: “The architect Christopher Alexander thought that large bay windows were a mistake, because ‘they keep us out of sight’: ‘The smaller the windows, and the smaller the panes, the more the windows help us connect. with what is on the other side. It is an important paradox.
Surely it’s applicable to… pretty much everything in this lifetime.
Wait a minute, though, I thought to myself. She puts her verb in the past. Is Chris dead?
A simple Google search of the phone from the bar stool I was sitting on established that: “Christopher Alexander, the Viennese-born professor, architect and theorist who believed that ordinary people, not just trained architects, should participate in the design of their homes, neighborhoods and cities, and proposed a method of doing so in writing which could be poetically scholarly, frustratingly abstract and breathtakingly simple, died March 17 at his home in Sussex, England, he was 85 years old.
Poetically clever. That’s why Chris belonged, unlike your ordinary architect, to a discussion of poems. Architecture, with few exceptions like himself, is the only great profession of our time that has remained hopelessly macho, still led by men with edifice complexes in a way that, ultimately, medicine, law, journalism are not. These men design these cold places for how they look on paper – on the computer screen, rather – and not for how they work in our lives. From Penelope Green’s obituary: “Modern architecture, the currency of the kingdom at the time, horrified her; he thought it was grim and uncomfortable to be inside and was convinced that most other people were too. He often said that he felt like the little boy from the folk tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.
The way Chris approached design instead is almost entirely understandable from the simple title of his most famous book: “A Pattern Language”, from 1977. It gets a bit more complex than that – than just creating human-scaled and enjoyable buildings using the best historic designs across the centuries. It’s getting so complex, in fact, that the ideas of Chris and his co-authors Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein have been the foundation for coding computer software and knowledge repositories known as wikis.
It is here that Chris’ legacy is relevant to today’s Southern California. The reason I knew him, and he once slept on my couch, was because he and two other architects — Dan Solomon and, shamelessly taken, my wife Phoebe Wall Wilson — in 1989 rewrote the zoning code multi-family house in Pasadena, which has another simple and beautiful name: Garden City. USC professor Vinayak Bharne called it “an antidote to the nihilistic attitudes of residential development in parts of the city… where units were crammed into lots with no meaningful open space and were obstructed by walls opaque street facades or facades dominated by the parking lot. The intent of the ordinance was to allow denser development in these transitional areas, but in a form that is sensitive and compatible with their largely single-family neighbors.
Our neighborhoods in the future will be denser. There will be more multi-family projects in our megalopolis. With our climate, using this Andalusian pattern as pattern language, our descendants can still live well, often outdoors, or at least with the doors open, as Chris would – from the natural world instead of against it .
Larry Wilson is a member of the editorial board of the Southern California News Group. [email protected]