Christopher Alexander and Systemic Design
by Hans Kaspar Hugentobler
Original text for Systemsorienteddesign.net 2nd March 2023.
Featured image by Jonathan Player for The New York Times
Christopher Alexander was a prominent figure in the fields of architecture and design. Born in 1936, he passed away on March 17, 2022.
In a review for the online magazine Swiss Architects, Ulf Meyer notes that Christopher Alexander was one of the most influential theorists of architecture and systems in the 20th century (Meyer, 2022).
Alexander was a critic of modernism and a leading figure against post-modernism in architecture as demonstrated in 1982 in his “legendary debate” with Peter Eisenmann (Contrasting concepts of harmony in architecture, n.d.). They diverged on the level of principle regarding the idea of architecture that Alexander articulated – based on his Ph.D. thesis – in his book “Notes on the Synthesis of Form” (1964) and his other seminal books.
In their conversation on architectural concepts, Alexander describes his functional idea of architecture around the scale of human beings and in the realm of feeling, while Eisenmann positioned himself in sharp contrast to this approach through his post-modernist view, which reflected a more intellectual and less emotional approach to architecture.
I encountered Alexander again when giving a course on design management theory and history, where we discussed „Notes on the Synthesis of Form.“ Reading chapter 6. The Program again triggered my memories and reminded me of Chuck Owen (1933-2019), my former professor at the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology, where I did a Master’s degree in Strategic Design Planning between 2000-2002.
Alexander and Eisenmann
Owen (2007) taught a series of Structured Planning systems courses whose core idea was based on Christopher Alexander’s „program“ in terms of „the analytical nature of the program“ and the „synthetic nature of its realization“ as outlined in „Notes on the Synthesis of Form“ (1964, pages 93/94).
Chuck and his wife put the concept of Alexander’s „program“ into software and made it part of Structured Planning. One software was used to create a function structure of the observed system (analytical), and the other software helped to generate an information structure (synthetical) containing a hierarchical order of new system elements/concepts.
In “Notes on the Synthesis of Form,” Alexander articulates a case for rationality in the face of increasing complexity of functional problems that the designer needs to address and solve (p. 1). He argues for a way to address the gap between the complexity of a problem and the limited cognitive capacity of the designer in addressing it and proposes to simplify the process by representing the problem in a way that makes it easier to solve.
The proposed representation of the problem is “a complete structural description of the design problem (…) and therefore serves as a program for the synthesis of a form which solves the problem.” (p. 126). The resulting hierarchical tree is an analytical decomposition of the problem into simpler subsets (subproblems) called the program (p. 93).
Alexander presented his central idea of planning by the example of an Indian village that can be regarded as a system composed of social, economic, political, and infrastructural ”misfit variables” (p. 136) that included, among others, religion, employment, water, transportation, education, regional, political, and national development. To plan for “a properly functioning village” (p. 136), these variables and their interactions have to be identified and optimized as a whole system.
From a systems planning perspective, Alexander listed the relevant elements of the variables and defined their interactions with the elements of all other variables. This operation resulted in a hierarchical tree of the village as a system. In other words: a decomposition (function structure) of the village into 4 subsystems or functions, programed on an IBM computer.
Owen (2007) built the Structured Planning method – a planning process for developing concepts before designing begins – on the idea that “any product can be viewed as a system working with users in ways appropriate to its modes of operation.” (p. 3). In a top down analytical process, a hierarchical function structure as an organizational tool is generated that expresses the breadth and depth of a problem area or system of concern.
Charles L. Owen
In the next step, concepts are generated that can relate to functions across the overall function structure, i.e. in other parts of the tree. If associated together because they mutually support, obstruct, or are in a neutral relation to each other, they are then reorganized bottom-up for synthesis, which results in an information structure.
Both function structure and information structure constitute the key outputs of the Structured Planning process methodology.
It is probably no coincidence that around the same time, John Chris Jones (1970) argues for “the need for new methods” (p. 27ff) to address complexity. He promotes the idea of simplifying these through restructuring by transforming a “complicated pattern” of the problem into a “simple pattern” to make the problem solvable. (p. 29).
John Chris Jones
Jones argues for “the extension of the design process to include the planning of systems (i.e. the relationships between products) as well as the products themselves” (p. 31) and in a further extension to the community level “the political and social aspects of user behavior that are relevant to relationships between systems.” (p. 31)
Jones’s contributions have to be seen on the background of a systematization of design processes based on more rational approaches and methodologies aimed at bringing forth new products in a systematic way.
Reasons or at least triggers for such a way of thinking can be seen in the restructuring of the economy and ways of working based on technological developments, which led to a crisis in design.
The new methodological approaches promised to be the answer to address the new emerging problems in more systematic, controlled, and predictable ways. Among many others, Jones was a prominent figure in what became the Design Methods Movement.
The representation of a design problem through a hierarchical program brings together the thoughts of Alexander, Jones, and Owen, 3 leading design and system theorists of their times and in the larger context of cybernetics (Dubberly & Pangaro, 2015).
Alexander, C. (1970). Notes on the synthesis of form (Revised ed. edition). Harvard University Press.
Dubberly, H., & Pangaro, P. (2015, October 23). How cybernetics connects computing, counterculture, and design. http://www.dubberly.com/articles/cybernetics-and-counterculture.html
Jones, J. C. (1992). Design methods. Wiley.
Meyer, U. (2022, March 29). Altmodisch und doch aktuell – zum Tod von Christopher Alexander [Old-fashioned and yet topical—On the death of Christopher Alexander]. [Interview]. https://www.swiss-architects.com/en/architecture-news/gefunden/altmodisch-und-doch-aktuell-zum-tod-von-christopher-alexander
Owen, C. L. (2007). Structured planning: advanced planning for business, institutions, and government. Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology.
Contrasting concepts of harmony in architecture. (n.d.). Retrieved February 25, 2023, from http://www.katarxis3.com/Alexander_Eisenman_Debate.htm