I first heard about Christopher Alexander in 2008 in an Object Oriented Software Design course. As part of the course, we discussed Alexander’s 15 Properties of Wholeness. (You can read more about his Properties here, here and here.) Alexander’s work is special. His ideas are abstract, yet tangible, clear and powerful. He seems to transcend disciplines. Alexander isn’t a software engineer; he’s a building architect. But his ideas have been applied to a number of fields: software, visual design, religion.

I find myself constantly coming back to Alexander’s concept of Strong Centers. To me, a Strong Center is a simple, cohesive form that exists to serve some purpose. The idea of simple and cohesive design following a clear purpose is critical for me, in systems design, writing and business.

I recently came across Alexander’s 2009 Scully Prize Acceptance Speech. I think it’s an amazing talk and wanted to pass it along to you here. (hat tip to Ryan Singer for tweeting out the clip)

(The speech starts at 25 mins, 29 seconds.)

Transcript:

Thank you Michael, and I’m very sorry that Chris could not be here and I’m glad to have the chance to read a message to you from him.

When the Scully Prize Committee approached me with the news that they hoped I would accept the 2009 prize, I agreed and expected to provide them and the audience at the 2009 ceremony with a brief lecture that expressed a deep seated and probing discussion of the nature of building form. It was my intention to make this discussion almost entirely visual, an essay governed by the content and character of the buildings I have built over the last 40 years. I have for years been selecting slides of my work with the purpose of drawing attention to the interior morphological character of those buildings that come closest, in my opinion, to my own aspirations as an architect. I now suspect too that these are similar to the aspirations of the Scully Prize itself. I’ve been thinking long and hard for the stated purpose of the Scully Prize, the goals of this prize and the intentions that were set forth by Professor Scully himself.

Whether I’ve hit the target in that regard, the future will perhaps let us know. But these intentions as they are reflected in the human character of the slides have now also come in my mind to be identified with my own aspirations during my working life as an architect.

Unfortunately, tonight I’m not able to be with you in person, due to the devastating case of pneumonia which I have still not overcome. I very much regret missing the opportunity to speak with you directly; instead I have prepared a written summary of my lecture and have asked my colleague, Randy Schmidt to read this summary to you.

My fundamental proposition in the lectures is that our environment – our built world – must originate with the ideas and feelings and relationships that brings society to life. We need to construct our environment in such a way that the environment itself, its structure, its relationships, its internal configurations must always derive from the living structure of society, of human action, the geometry of human configurations and of our relationships to the land and to our own private and public personai. That means that the environment, viewed as a microcosm, must consist of many small relationships among things. And these highly personal relationships exist at a variety of scales.

The environment will come to life for us if and only if it is built from generating relationships inherent in the acts of our daily lives. The more we are able to rehearse our social and psychological relationships and reinforce them, the more we will be comfortable, at ease and whole within the fabric of all that we have made for ourselves. That is because it is, above all, a human endeavor.

In contrast, the less well we succeed in fitting our environment to the small details of the social and human relationships of our society and culture, the more misfitted we shall be in our world and the more unfortunate we shall continue to become. Logically this is a very simple scheme. We need to assess and reckon up the human and physical relationships on which we thrive. Then we need to construct realistically the physical relationships which, when built into the fabric of our environment, will nourish our social and emotional lives.

Each physical circumstance produces a different way of feeling and being. Each provides a direct and profound relationship between the physical configuration and the experience of feelings that are generated by it. In the most positive environments, the effect is that the physical configurations cause people to release their capacity for life in specific and spontaneous terms. For example, in order to simplify this idea, I shall refer to a number of configurations which can appear in our environment. In particular I shall call these configurations which are most profound, most trenchant, the more archetypal configurations. They do the most work in making connections with human beings or, in reverse, we may say that people make the most profound connections with those configurations where the connections are the most archetypal.

At present and at the time of this writing, I have identified about 20 of these archetypal configurations. Each of these configurations pulls on the emotions of the people who are living or taking part in the configurations. The physical configuration pulls out from the people who experience the place, some complex of emotions, images in archetypal forms. The words that follow are all similar but they are not the same. They show how the mind activates itself in the context of the environment. As these examples will show, the environment activated by these configurations depends on certain kinds of words such as engenders, begets, spawns, provokes, brings about, elicits, gives rise to, prompts, stirs, initiates, instigates, sets up, stimulates, produces, mobilizes, sparks, arouses, energizes. The elements which participate in any one of the 20 given configurations will pull forth from the emotions of the people who take part whatever total and holistic response which arises typically in that kind of archetypal configuration.

These configurations – and in a more complete version of this paper that will be on the order of 250 discernable and different configurations – create a baseline of possible archetypes which mobilizes people’s reaction, their visceral and psychological responses. I ask you now to look at about 250 pictures. You will see these pictures one after the other with short time interval between them. The pictures will take 5 or 6 minutes to run. All the configurations describe ways in which the physical environment releases and activates our feelings. The pictures you will see are not the high style photographs typically practiced and presented by architectural photographers. They are rather pictures caught on the wing, caught in the moment where the content of the picture and its feeling are the all important thing. These pictures demonstrate very simply the kinds of structure that support life. They show a morphology in our surroundings that supports humanity and allows it to thrive along with other inhabitants of this world.

Life is never fixed. It’s not perfect but it is always recognizable and it always shares a certain essence. I hope these pictures show a taste, a savor, an atmosphere that is the essence of living structure. It is always imperfect, just as it is, in part, perfect. These forms express life and come from life and encourage life in what is built next-door to them. In some of the slides you will see mockups and construction work going on. That is because the emphasis in all our works is on the making of things. We do not believe that a living environment can be created from drawings or from machine-like activities, rather the work and the beauty of the work, the inner feeling of the building will come from a dedication to using a making process that engenders life.

In every case shown here, the Center for Environmental Structure controlled the construction process as a process and could therefore maintain this emphasis directly. I’ll just the slides play for a few minutes. [slides run]

Many of these pictures show archetypal configurations. Looking at these pictures does something to us inside. Being in the presence of the configuration touches us for reasons that are not entirely clear, yet are none-the-less powerful in the way they work on us. They touch our core. As we walk around the world, we find that certain buildings have a direct power to touch us, to involve us. Such configurations have a direct power to attach themselves to us. Our emotions, our thoughts, our feelings are mobilized by these configurations. We find ourselves bewitched, affected, moved. These are the spaces to which we gravitate. We come back to them again and again. This is similar to the experiences we have in nature, in a grove of trees on a hilltop, in a canyon next to a broad river or a gentle valley, the shore of a quiet lake, the same feeling can come from a door which has wide frames or borders, a long table for 6 to 12 people, a niche where people sleep, a window seat, an avenue, a gate, a small tree which stands purposely and collects people, gatherings, meetings, music through its configuration. For emphasis I will show two of these pictures again.

How many such places exists in the environments you know? It is rare, isn’t it, to find such places. Yet it is the activity of making the environment with these archetypal qualities that gives depth to the places and what people feel there. I hope you can see the powerful role they play in our surroundings. These elements need to be brought out and used more carefully. I will attempt to be more precise about them in a more detailed follow up piece to these remarks.

My deepest wish is to support people’s deep core by helping them to build bridges, public places, that supports each person’s strength and elasticity with the intention of creating places that engender well being. If we try our best to make all the places in our contemporary world with such vivid depth of feeling, surely then something will happen that changes our lives. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much.

Facebooktwitterlinkedinmail