Interview with Christopher Alexander

Christopher Alexander’s recent work, The Nature of Order, is a 2,000 page, four-volume masterpiece that lays out a holistic view of how space, and especially built space, impacts our humanity. I summarize, as Vice President Dick Cheney once said, Big Time.

The Phenomenon of Life: The Nature of Order, Book 1
The Process of Creating Life: The Nature of Order, Book 2
The Luminous Ground: The Nature of Order, Book 4
A Vision of a Living World: The Nature of Order, Book 3

I have been browsing these books for over four years, and I’m still not ready to actually read them, because I’m concerned that they will be so engrossing that I will have to drop everything in obsessive consumption. Like all of Alexander’s works, they have a very high reverie quotient, and it takes long, enjoyable afternoons and evenings to move through the spreads.
Kenneth Baker, a SF Chronicle art critic, reviews the books and then interviews Alexander at home in England.

Reading the first book of Christopher Alexander’s four-volume magnum opus “The Nature of Order” reduced me to silence. I went about my business for weeks afterward, unable to tell anyone how exciting and dismaying I found the ideas it contains.

The succeeding volumes as they appeared hammered home my conclusion that I would have to reckon professionally and publicly with this work and its author, whom I had met already once or twice.

This sort of philosophical crisis happens seldom, probably too seldom, to critics. It happened to me because Alexander, a practicing architect who taught at UC Berkeley for 35 years, explained more to me about the world I see, and the potential place of the arts in it, than anyone else has.

For best results, read Alexander subtracting all literalism. This quote from the interview, for instance, can be applied to architecture, as well as many other aspects of life:

“If you start something, you must have a vision of the thing which arises from your instinct about preserving and enhancing what is there. … If you’re working correctly, the feeling doesn’t wander about. If you have a feeling-vision of the thing — a painting, a building, a garden, a piece of a neighborhood — as long as you’re very firmly anchored in your knowledge of that thing, and you can see it with your eyes closed, you can keep correcting your actions. … It’s not a question of holding onto every little detail, but of holding onto the feeling.”

Baker’s pieces are a fine overview to the work, and I highly recommend the books as part of any practice of long-term reflection on large-scale systems.
As an aside, for a guy who has devoted his life to the impact of space on consciousness, and are two of the worst websites on the entire Internet. It’s like they totally missed the fact that the web is a spatial medium. There’s a lot of information there, but good luck navigating it. Somebody send him a copy of Weinberger’s book.