4 months, 26 days ago

Christopher Alexander 1936-2022

Link: http://rvsoapbox.blogspot.com/2022/03/christopher-alexander-1936-2022.html

The architectural theorist Christopher Alexander, who has died at the age of 85, had a major influence on software architecture as well as buildings.

His first book Notes on the Synthesis of Form (1964) was referenced by the structured methods gurus of the 1970s (Ed Yourdon, Tom deMarco). This was followed by A Pattern Language (1977), which was adopted as a core text by the Object Oriented school of software engineering.

In 1987, Alexander and a few colleagues published an account of a design experiment under the title A New Theory of Urban Design, showing how order can be created without top-down planning, by a governance process that imposes some simple structural principles on all design activity. I believe I was one of the first to apply this approach within the software world, and he remains a major influence on my thinking on SOA and enterprise architecture. See for example the following posts

I also drew on Alexander in my books Component-Based Business (Springer 2001) and Next Practice Enterprise Architecture (LeanPub 2013). 

In 2004, Pat Helland, who was then a senior architect at Microsoft, wrote an article entitled Metropolis, in which he suggested computer system architects could learn something from city planning. Philip Boxer and I wrote a reply, mentioning Christopher Alexander. Microsoft subsequently flew me over to the USA for a closed workshop (SPARK), sending all attendees copies of The Timeless Way of Building in advance. However, although Microsoft had recognized Alexander’s importance, I’m not sure all the other attendees at the workshop did, and I don’t recall much discussion of his work. I think we spent more time discussing Stewart Brand’s notion of shearing layers / pace layering.

My observation was that it had taken around 15 years for the ideas in Notes on the Synthesis of Form to be taken up in the software world in the late 1970s, and another 15 years from the publication of A Pattern Language to the popularity of pattern thinking for software in the early 1990s. So in the early 2000s, I was publishing ideas taken from A New Theory of Urban Design, in the hope that the software world would now be ready for them. Unfortunately it wasn’t. For many people in the software world, Alexander continued and continues to be seen as the man who invented Design Patterns. Alexander’s material from this period is also credited as having been an inspiration for The Sims game.

Perhaps the same is true of people in the architecture world. A book was published last year called Relational Theories of Urban Form, in which Alexander was represented by an extract from A Pattern Language, plus a few papes of Timeless Way.

Alexander initially expressed some ambivalence and suspicion about the use of his work by software engineers. Later he was persuaded to make occasional keynote speeches at software conferences and to write prefaces for software books. It is possible that some software practitioners understood his work better than most architects. However, I believe he remained concerned that software practitioners mostly only picked up fragments of his work, and ignored the holistic aspects of his thinking that he regarded as crucial.

I was once privileged to observe Christopher Alexander teaching first year students at the Prince of Wales Institute of Architecture in London. An amazing experience. Click here for the full story >> Christopher Alexander as Teacher.


Most of the tributes on Twitter mention Notes on the Synthesis of Form and A Pattern Language. Some mention The Timeless Way of Building. But the culmination of his work was the four-volume Nature of Order. I’m not sure how much I understood when it first came out, but I’m now re-reading. More than 15 years have passed since its publication, so maybe its time has come?

Good sources of material on Christopher Alexander include Architecture’s New Scientific Foundations (Architexturez) and New Science, New Urbanism, New Architecture (Katarxis 3, September 2004)

David Brussat, Christopher Alexander RIP (Architecture Here and There, 20 March 2022)

Howard Davis, Christopher Alexander Obituary (The Guardian, 29 March 2022)

Pat Helland, Metropolis (Microsoft Architecture Journal, April 2004)

Daniel Kiss and Simon Kretz (eds) Relational Theories of Urban Form (Birkhäuser, March 2021) Review by John Hill (9 July 2021)

Mae-Wan Ho, The Architect of Life (Science and Society, 4/11/2003)

Bin Jiang and Nikos Salingaros (eds), New Applications and Development of Christopher Alexander’s The Nature of Order (Urban Science Special Issue, 3/1, 2019)

Ben Sledge, Home comforts: how The Sims let millennials live out a distant dream (The Guardian, 5 February 2020)

Richard Veryard and Philip Boxer, Metropolis and SOA Governance (Microsoft Architecture Journal,. July 2005). See also Philip Boxer and Richard Veryard, Taking Governance to the Edge (Microsoft Architecture Journal, August 2006)

updated 29 March 2022