Christopher Alexander's philosophy — useful for tools for thought?

As a student in the Building Beauty program and the Beautiful Software Initiative, I’m currently working my way through Christopher Alexander’s four-book magnum opus The Nature of Order. I’m more than half-way in, so I finished books 1 and 2 and have just started with book 3.

Many of you have heard of Alexander before. His name usually comes up in the context of software design patterns, which are an adaptation of his concept of pattern languages, which he invented for architecture and wrote about in his book A Pattern Language.

Turns out, what we value design patterns in software for (if we still do that…), was just a tiny part of Alexander’s work, and it has been misinterpreted in such a way that what most people think they are about isn’t really what they were invented for — sort of like what happened with Alan Kay’s object-oriented programming. Just like OOP is supposed to be about “objects”, but is really about messaging, many like to think design patterns are about reuse, while in fact they are about a generative language that allows us to describe problems in a specific enough way to describe their solutions, while leaving enough space for different implementations that can still fully adapt to the target environment.

But that’s not the point here…

The philosophy and design theory Alexander describes in The Nature of Order offers a new perspective on the art of building (not just buildings, but anything, really) and the nature of the universe (he’s not afraid to touch on mathematics and physics).

I do think there is a lot in there that is super useful for designing tools for thought. And I’d love to discuss that further. For instance, if you’re into the concept of digital gardens (see other threads in this forum), they work in a remarkably similar way to what Alexander describes as the process of generative unfolding.

The problem is: reading four books with ~2000 pages total to get up to speed on the theory is a huge barrier of entry for some who aren’t yet fully convinced that an architect would have anything useful to say about software.

That’s what I’m trying to change. I want to make his work more accessible to other domains, so that you can get a basic understanding with a much smaller time investment.

There’s no great master plan, just a few little ideas I’d like to develop further with those of you who are interested or intrigued, whether you are already familiar with Alexander or not.

It doesn’t feel right to spam this group with all the details as that’s arguably borderline off-topic, so I’ve been looking for a good way to have a discussion with those all-in on Alexander elsewhere. This will also enable me to bring people together across a few different communities.

Recently, I had a good experience with a pop-up Telegram chat group that was hosted temporarily after an online event for further discussion. This seems like a good light-weight format for the purpose I have in mind.

If you are interested in upcoming activities around Christopher Alexander, his magnum opus The Nature of Order, and how to apply his theories to other domains (software and technology in particular), I’d like to invite you to join me here:

This is a low-volume announcement-ish channel if you just want to stay up to date on what’s happening. And there is a linked chat if you want to engage in a more active capacity — asking questions, discussing concepts, suggesting ideas, and more.
Looking forward to seeing you there!

I’m obviously also paying attention to what’s going on here, so please feel free to discuss this here as well, if you like. Can’t wait to hear your comments, questions, ideas, suggestions…

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I’ve written some more about How to adopt Christopher Alexander’s ideas in the software industry on my blog. Gives you a few ideas of which many different directions this can take…

His work sounds very interesting and I very much so agree with many of his points that you co-sign in this post, Stefan. I would love to learn more about his work, as it seems quite relevant to this space.

It seems as though his work overlaps with humane design, but moreso emphasizing beauty and natural design qualities from an artistic/mathematic/philosophic perspective than just logical right and wrong. I can’t say I’m at that intersection, but I would love to learn more about his work. Thank you for sharing this :slight_smile:

I have hesitated to bring this up in general but I can’t resist the temptation here: Alexander was a profoundly religious (Catholic, though not traditional church-going) man and his design philosophy is deeply intertwined with his spiritual side, by his own admission. However, I never come across discussion of this aspect. I’m quite surprised something he considered so fundamental is ignored or shunned. I don’t have any light to shine myself upon why this is never discussed. I wonder if people are simply uncomfortable bringing this up, especially admirers from the suggested world.

Alexander was a profoundly religious (Catholic, though not traditional church-going) man and his design philosophy is deeply intertwined with his spiritual side, by his own admission.

That’s a great point to bring up, thanks!

One of the reasons I refrained from reading The Nature of Order for a long time is that I had this impression that Alexander, a trained mathematician, started his career with an extremely rational approach of explaining complexity (his earlier publication Notes on the Synthesis of Form), and then over time changed into a more spiritual person, until he went “completely bonkers” — from my agnostic perspective — on this “spiritual nonsense”, culminating in the fourth book The Luminous Ground.

Let me be clear: that was the opinion of a stupid former version of myself. And I haven’t even read the fourth book yet. (I will until April.)

One thing that fascinates me about Alexander, is how true he stays to his mathematical and scientific desire to figure this all out. Yes, on a surface level it all seems to drift into a spiritual realm in his later works, because he is touching a lot of topics that were previously only ever comfortable to bring up in the context of religion. But he does so in the most scientific way imaginable. I wouldn’t read his works if that wasn’t the case.

Nothing (so far) in The Nature of Order strikes me as religious at all. In fact, everything is grounded either in mathematics directly — he talks a lot about geometry — or relates to physics, chemistry, biology. As he climbs up the ladder towards more complex interactions between more complex dynamic systems, getting to the realm of communities, culture and society, he still stays firmly grounded in empirical science.

One of the most difficult concepts for me to understand was what he calls “feeling”, which has nothing to do with emotions although that is what we would naively assume (I did). It’s what you feel when you look at some source code and just know it’s the most beautiful version of that code you are capable to come up with. Or what you feel when you use the right tool for the job, and you know that tool has been well designed. It’s before you start to explain why that is to someone (or yourself) intellectually. If you develop software, or if you build or create things, perhaps do some woodworking or bake a bread, you must have had that feeling where you look at the result and just know it turned out good.

Even with something as spiritual as this, he goes through great lengths to pull this concept into a scientific realm, partly because his argument is that we humans, even across cultures, are mostly aligned on being capable of identifying this particular kind of feeling, which becomes the basis for his suggested solution of how we can fix the most difficult problems in architecture, which turn out to also be some of the most pressing problems in society in general (and in tech in particular — precisely why I think more people need to know about this, and specifically more people who build large interactive systems with lots of users).

There’s a lot more to say about this. Perhaps that’s the most important discussion to have about this. But please don’t let your rational, scientific, perhaps atheist/agnostic worldview prevent you from approaching this material. I guarantee you that you will be positively surprised by some profound, precious, and scientific thinking.