One of my cultural heroes died last month. Christopher Alexander, the British architect, teacher and design theorist, was a touchstone for a humanistic way of imagining the built …
One of my cultural heroes died last month. Christopher Alexander, the British architect, teacher and design theorist, was a touchstone for a humanistic way of imagining the built environment.
In his most popularly successful work, “A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction” from 1977, Alexander proposed approaching architecture and urban design as problem-solving. The answer to a clearly articulated design problem will be found in a pattern that can be endlessly adapted, rearranged and recombined to solve similar problems. As with a language, these design patterns work together to form a coherent and expressive whole.
Alexander’s pattern concept had a profound effect on the design of computer software, smartphones and open source technology used to create Google and Wikipedia, as well as a range of other disciplines, including sociology and biology.
He advocated for a human-centered design movement that accommodates people’s needs, including their need for beauty, no matter how humble a building’s scale, materials or function. He wasn’t interested in buildings as abstract sculpture or as machines for housing advanced technology.
Long before the healthy buildings movement and the concept of regenerative design, he described how buildings could enhance human health and emotional well-being by connecting with nature. In the more than 200 buildings he designed and built, he pursued an elusive attribute he called the “quality without a name,” an ineffable experience of wholeness that makes those who come in contact with it “feel more alive.”
His work contains deeply observed examples of timeless design solutions that convey delight—sheltered entryways, window seats, outdoor spaces, places where people gather, places where they can find solitude, and places that children can transform through imaginative play. He called for buildings that interact with each other and with the street in ways that foster communication and community, and he encouraged architects and builders to keep their minds open to improvised, on-site solutions that connect uniquely with the site and its surroundings.
In stark contrast, Yale Environment 360 ran a thoughtful piece by Jim Robbins last month, titled “Why the Luster on Once-Vaunted ‘Smart Cities’ Is Fading.” Robbins introduces us to some “smart city” projects around the world, such as Woven City, developed by Toyota and located near Mount Fuji. It is described on its website as “an ambitious dream of harmony and happiness.” Similar grand-scale projects are in various stages of development in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Abu Dhabi, China, South Korea and the U.S.
The original smart-city model proposed the use of technology to make existing urban centers more functional. Traffic flows would be coordinated, air and water quality monitored, the electric grid managed, and universal internet connectivity would be provided.
These rarified new projects feature “Jetsons”-inspired futuristic architecture and audacious promises of personal fulfillment and perfect social equity through advanced technology. Most of them have in common an extraordinary level of electronic surveillance, networked sensors designed to make systems run with maximum efficiency and track inhabitants’ movements, purchasing and even their health.
Starting with the extraordinary network of surveillance technology implemented in lower Manhattan after 9/11, the massive collection of personal data has ignited deep concerns about privacy rights, fueling a backlash that may explain why some of these projects have failed to attract residents, been scaled back or abandoned.
Some critics have described this latest extreme iteration of the “smart city” as “enclave capitalism,” an elitist escape to a utopian fantasy. As Robert Hughes once noted, “Nothing dates faster than people’s fantasies about the future.” For me, some of the grandiose marketing language conjured up hints of the Italian and Russian futurist manifestos of the early 20th century, with their violent rejection of the past.
A city built entirely new walks away from the patina of history and our cultural and family connections to place. Building a city from scratch on virgin land may also be the most wasteful, least sustainable thing we can do, diverting resources away from making the cities we already have function more efficiently and equitably for everyone.
For a better model, we might want to remember the work of Christopher Alexander and look deeper into the human psychology of home, town and streetscape. Alexander asked us all to participate in shaping buildings and urban environments that inspire us and make us feel genuinely secure, because we live in functioning communities. The future isn’t about gadgets; it’s about what kind of people we are—and want to be.
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