Celebrating the Life and Work of Christopher Alexander

On March 17, 2022, at 85 years of age, Christopher Alexander passed away peacefully in his home in West Sussex, England.

This post celebrates his life, and for me, personally, the sheer magnitude his work has had on the course of my life, including Making Permaculture Stronger as a project. If any of you have been touched by this project, then you have been indirectly impacted by Alexander’s life-long quest toward life, beauty and wholeness. Find out about who Alexander was here and here and here and here. Learn about Alexander’s direct influence on my (Dan Palmer’s) work, and on this very project here and here.

A Poem

Thank you to Ann Medlock, a past client (and hence collaborator) of Alexander’s, for permission to share these photos and this poem here:

Alexander sculpts a building

out of air and wisdom

waving his hands

squinting his eyes

to see what only he and God can see

in this clearing on the bluff.

Listening to something

we cannot hear, he brings into being

a house so solid, silent and calm,

so embracing, consoling and inevitable,

that it draws in and restores

every open soul that finds its way here.

And many do.

Pilgrims who have heard,

who’ve seen a photograph,

who sense that here there is something

mysterious, rare, perhaps even inspired.

On a clear blue afternoon

we sit at a long table in the sun,

the house embracing this garden

and all of us who bask here

amid the calendulas and ferns.

Feasting on tabouli and cold birds,

we talk of poetry and paintings,

of terraces in Tuscany and homemade wine,

of our work, our passions, our quests.

We are friends, gathered here

by the grace that emanates from this holy place.

At Christmas, the clan assembles.

The tree, dressed in familiar ornaments,

touches the coffered ceiling

and sends the scent of balsam to mingle

with fire, roast and cakes.

Thick walls hold out the cold, the wind,

and every danger of the world we know.

Comets cut across the high windows

as we are drawn in and held fast, together,

blessed by the house that Alexander made,

while listening to God.

Three Examples of Directly Alexander-Inspired Design Processes

Some Quotes

Here I share a selection of some of my favourite quotes from Alexander’s many books.

The Timeless Way of Building (1979)

You are alive when you are wholehearted, true to yourself, true to your own inner forces, and able to act freely according to the nature of the situations you are in.

[…] To be happy, and to be alive, in this sense, are almost the same. Of course, if you are alive, you are not always happy in the sense of feeling pleasant; experiences of joy are balanced by experiences of sorrow. But the experiences are all deeply felt; and above all, you are whole; and conscious of being real.

To be alive, in this sense, is not a matter of suppressing some forces or tendencies, at the expense of others; it is a state of being in which all forces which arise in you can find expression; you live in balance among the forces which arise in you; you are unique as the pattern of forces which arises is unique; you are at peace, since there are no disturbances created by underground forces which have no outlet, at one with yourself and your surroundings.

This state cannot be reached merely by inner work.

There is a myth, sometimes widespread, that you need do only inner work, in order to be alive like this; that you are entirely responsible for your problems; and that to cure yourself, you need only change yourself. This teaching has some value, since it is so easy to imagine that your problems are caused by “others.” But it is a one-sided and mistaken view which also maintains the arrogance of the belief that the individual is self-sufficient, and not dependent in any essential way on their surroundings.

The fact is, you are so far formed by your surroundings, that your state of harmony depends entirely on your harmony with your surroundings.

Some kinds of physical and social circumstances help you come to life. Others make it very difficult. (pp. 105-106, edited by me from third into second person voice)

Building designed by Alexander within Eishen Campus in Japan

This next quote changed my whole approach to design:

This [approach to design] is a differentiating process.

It views design as a sequence of acts of complexification; structure is injected into the whole by operating on the whole and crinkling it, not by adding little parts to one another. In the process of differentiation, the whole gives birth to its parts: the parts appear as folds in a cloth of three dimensional space which is gradually crinkled. The form of the whole, and the parts, come into being simultaneously.

The image of the differentiating process is the growth of an embryo.

It starts as a single cell. The cell grows into a ball of cells. Then, through a series of differentiations, each building on the last, the structure becomes more and more complex, until a finished human being is formed.

The first thing that happens is that this ball gets an inside, a middle layer, and an outside: the endoderm, mesoderm, and ectoderm, which will later turn into skeleton, flesh, and skin, respectively.

Then this ball of cells with three layers gets an axis. The axis is laid down in the endoderm, and will become the spine of the finished person.

Then this ball, with an axis, gets a head at one end.

Later, the secondary structures, eyes, limbs, develop in relation to the spinal axis and the head.

And so on. At every stage of development, new structure is laid down, on the basis of the structure which has been laid down so far. The process of development is, in essence, a sequence of operations, each one of which differentiates the structure which has been laid down by the previous operations.

In nature a thing is always born, and developed, as a whole.

A baby starts, from the first day of its conception, as a whole, and is a whole, as an embryo, every day until it is born. It is not a sequence of adding parts together, but a whole, which expands, crinkles, differentiates itself. (pp. 368-383)

Get rid of the ideas which come into your mind. Get rid of pictures you have seen in magazines, friends’ houses …. Insist on the pattern, and nothing else.

The pattern, and the real situation, together, will create the proper form, within your mind, without your trying to do it, if you will allow it to happen.

This is the power of the language, and the reason why the language is creative.

Your mind is a medium within which the creative spark that jumps between the pattern and the world can happen. You yourself are only the medium for this creative spark , not its originator.” (p. 397)

The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe: Book Two: The Process of Creating Life

Our current view of architecture rests on too little awareness of becoming as the most essential feature of the building process. Architects are too little concerned with the design of the world (its static structure), and not yet concerned enough with the design of the generative processes that create the world (its dynamic structure) (p. 4)

In our profession of architecture there is no conception, yet, of process itself as a budding, as a flowering, as an unpredictable, unquenchable unfolding through which the future grows from the present in a way that is dominated by the goodness of the moment (p. 12)

In a living system what is to be always grows out of what is, supports it, extends its structure smoothly and continuously, elaborates new form — sometimes startlingly new form — but without ever violating the structure which exists.

When this rule is violated, as it was, far too often, in 20th-century development, chaos emerges. A kind of cancer occurs. Harm is done. All in modern society succeeded, in the last century, in creating an ethos where where buildings, plans, objects…are judged only by themselves, and not by the extent to which they enhance and support the world. This means that nature has been damaged, because it is ignored and trampled upon. It means that ancient parts of towns and cities have been trampled, because the modernist view saw no need to respect them, to protect them.

But even more fundamental, it came about because the idea of creativity which became the norm assumed that it is creative to make things that are unrelated (sometimes disoriented and disconnected just in order to be new), and that this is valuable–where in fact it is merely stupid, and represents a misunderstanding, a deep misapprehension of how things are. Creativity comes about when we discover the new within a structure already latent within the present. It is our respect for what is that leads us to the most beautiful discoveries. In art as well as in architecture, our most wonderful creations come about, when we draw them out as extensions and enhancements of what exists already.

The denial of this point of view, is the chief way in which 20th-century development destroyed the surface of the earth (p. 136)

At each stage in its evolution the process — when a living one — always starts from the wholeness as it currently exists at that moment. The work is complete in some respects, in some respects incomplete. At the next moment, we take a new step — introducing one new bit of structure… into the whole. The new structure we introduce may be large, medium, or tiny… But the point is that at every stage of every life-creating process, the new bit of structure which is injected to transform and further differentiate the previously existing wholeness, will always extend, enhance, intensify the structure of the previous wholeness… (p. 216)

The enigma is that something new, unique, previously unseen — even innovative and astonishing — arises from the extent to which we are able to attend to what is there, and able to derive what is required from what is actually there… and that all this, then, will lead to astonishing surprises (p. 340)

In each place, a being slowly emerges from the mist (p. 340)

Intellect is too crude a net to catch the whole (p. 388)

A shot of Eishen Campus in Japan – Alexander’s largest project

The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe: Book Three: A Vision of a Living World

Life in nature, and in the humanly constructed world, is generated by a process of unfolding in which living structure grows in stepwise fashion from a current condition (the system of centers which exists) and takes on greater life by a series of structure-preserving transformations, or adaptations (p. 2)

I propose then, that the world should be created by adaptive processes which act as nature does, itself. They allow us to create a harmonious whole that embraces nature and creates buildings, streets, and towns, in a fashion which has the same deep structure as nature, and has the same deep effect on us as a result (p. 3)

What is the character of the kind of world where we experience emotional possession of the places we are in? It is a world in which the fine adaptation between people and their buildings and gardens and streets is so subtle, goes so deeply to the core of human experience, that the people who then live and work and play in that environment feel as if they belong there, as if it belongs to them, as if they are part of it, as if, like an old shoe, it is completely and utterly theirs (p. 43)

My aim for the last few decades has been, through the use of living process, to construct a situation in our world where a deep, profound belonging can exist and does exist. (p. 43)

Living process in a garden depends on people following their own hearts, allowing the call of their own hearts, dreams, feeling, to become actual in that place (p. 235)

In a section entitled positive space in gardens:

Then we build structures in these outdoor areas to differentiate them further, into smaller living centers, animated by the structures – steps, walls, parapets, railings, seats, embankments, bridges, slopes.. that we build in them. And then we allow natural life to rip loose, the plants, the grass, the trees, the bushes — and let these form still further centers, which then animate the positive space even further. That will happen almost of its own accord, if the initial positive space has been correctly made. This is the form the living process takes, in making a garden (p. 243)

If a dynamic process is followed, so that each time the next step follows existing things — preserves the structure, and creates and maintains relationships — we get a harmonious living community.

If, instead, a static master-plan-based approach is followed, and the 20 or 100 things are built according to the original drawing or plan, then they will exist, for the most part, without real functional relationships: the whole is unrelated in its internal elements; there has been no structure-preserving going on, step after step, and the whole remains dead (p. 336)

Here are a few photos from I mention in the episode to accompany a quote from Grabow, Stephen. Christopher Alexander: The Search for a New Paradigm in Architecture. Oriel Press, 1983. I haven’t yet written out here.

Some Videos

Now for a few youtube videos of Alexander.

Note I particularly love this moment.
Chris speaks to the birth of the pattern language idea…
“Really one of the very largest problems that is facing the earth just now is rarely mentioned, and that is the spread of ugliness”

Some Links

PatternLanguage.com – The most developed and resource website I know of that Alexander was directly involved in

Christopher Alexander’s Neglected Challenge to Permaculture – the first time I publicly applied Alexander’s ideas to permaculture

Living Design Process – The emerging hub for one particular development of Alexander’s living process approach

Building Beauty – Alexander-Inspired education run by a bunch of fine folk who knew and worked alongside Alexander

Rob Hopkins interview with Alexander – well worth a read.

Please submit other relevant links in the comments below.

Some Closing Words

I wrote these lines maybe five or six years ago. They feel appropriate to share here now.

Where did living design process start for me?

Well, one image jumps to mind, so I’ll run with that.

It is January, 2014.

I’m standing next to my mother on lush, green grass.

We’re looking across her new vegetable garden.

After almost ten years as a professional permaculture design consultant, this job had been different.

The writings of Christopher Alexander had been on my radar for some years, with a small but significant influence on my design practice.

In particular, in a passage from The Timeless Way of Building, Alexander had helped me move away from seeing sound design as an effectively mechanical process of assembling elements into whole systems.

I was now seeing sound design as an organic process of unfolding parts from within the fabric of an already-existing whole system.

But on this project, I had somehow completed a multi-year, slow-motion jump from the former to the latter way of viewing and practicing design.

Indeed, during the process, I had entered and started applying ideas from Alexander’s later writings. After devouring his 2012 book Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth I dove into his four-volume, 2000-page masterwork The Nature of Order (2002).

Back to my mother and I, standing there. Surveying her freshly planted garden beds. She asked what I was up to.

For in my hands I held open Book Two of The Nature of Order. I had just a few minutes prior read Alexander making an intriguing claim.

He proposed that if one was to design and create using the living process he has been developing throughout his 60-year career, the result will be infused with fifteen specific properties.

Fifteen properties Alexander claims are characteristic, definitive even, of what he calls living structure. Living structure is another way of saying stuff that is as fitted to its context as almost anything we consider part of nature (a tree, for instance, or a jellyfish, wave, or rock).

The properties have names like strong centers, levels of scalegradientsalternating repetition, and echoes. It is for another time and place to list or explain them all (go read his books!). The point here is simply that they exist, and that Alexander claims if you go about creating something in the way he advocates, it will have many if not all these properties in it.

The moment I read this I walked over to the garden, my mother joining me, curious to see what I up to.

“Let’s settle this right now, Christopher!” I was thinking.

I hadn’t been aware of the 15 properties during the process of designing and building the garden. As for my co-designers, mum and dad, they had barely even heard of Alexander.

And yet as process facilitator I had been keeping us as true as I knew to the living process Alexander says will reliably birth these fifteen properties into the world. Being true to the process means that we had been consciously engaging our whole body-minds in letting the parts of the garden emerge from within the context of the whole space as we laid it out and shaped it up.

It was a golden opportunity to empirically test his contention.

I remember my spine tingling as I looked from the list of properties on the open page to the garden and back again.

Every property was there.

I say it again.

Every property was there.

That moment is as good a moment as any to nominate as the moment that living process, and what we’re now calling living design process, really took root in my soul.

I thank you, Christopher Alexander for, in your beautiful writings, helping germinate the seed that lies inside us all.

Dan Palmer


Endnote: For me, the creation and ongoing development of Living Design Process is the primary way I am keeping Alexander’s extraordinary legacy alive in the world. Learn more about it here and sign up for the first ever online course about it here.

2 Comments

  1. I listened to this post, as I have many, whilst working with my garden. What touched me was the joy and gratitude that you shared for Christopher Alexander’s work and the significance he had for your own life’s work. I am deeply thankful for the rich beauty, and the empowering design processes that have flowed from this knowledge and inspired methodology. Thank you Dan, for all your mahi.

  2. Thank you for this loving tribute to Christopher Alexander. The fifteen properties of a living process are something that I’ve been intrigued with for years, though to be honest, I’ve not really engaged with actively however a few of them did ‘stick’ (like positive space, gradients, deep interlock, local symmetry). It was really interesting to hear your personal account of these in your work with your parents.

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