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The Alexander Technique : Berkeley Architect Christopher Alexander Is Passionate About Making Buildings Where People Feel ‘Whole’

New York writer Laurence B. Chollet last wrote for the magazine about French screenwriter Gerard Brach

To understand Christopher Alexander’s ideas about architecture, and to understand the man himself, it helps to know something about the Julian Street Inn--a shelter for the homeless in San Jose. Alexander designed the shelter in 1990, and he still drives down from his Berkeley home to talk with residents and collect their impressions of how the building works as a living space. Before even starting his design, in fact, he interviewed dozens of homeless people about what they wanted; they were, after all, going to live there.

“I’ve always found their comments to be extremely instructive,” the architect says in a faintly British accent. “I remember once sitting with a (homeless) guy and saying, ‘What do you think of the place?’ And he said, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever been in a building where absolutely everything is necessary.’ He meant it. It’s about the highest praise I ever had.”

For the last 30 years, Christopher Alexander has been on a self-ordained mission to create an architecture in which man is at home with himself and his environment. Along the way he has developed a reputation as something of a maverick. In the 1960s, he preached a gospel of “every man is his own architect,” and in a protest against man’s destruction of nature, took his classes at UC Berkeley out to rip up asphalt streets. In the 1980s, he became a relentless and outspoken critic of postmodernism, denouncing it as nothing more than a morally bankrupt game of image, ego and greed that was creating a world of dead architecture.

But always at the heart of Alexander’s theories was the belief that every building must be carefully shaped as it is being built, so that its true nature can unfold, like a blooming flower, and so that it will be in harmony with the site and the user. Now, in the ‘90s, as architectural fashion is splintering into various “isms,” Alexander is arguing that architecture must get back to a sense of “wholeness,” and that responsible architects must have more hands-on involvement with their buildings. Alexander himself has long practiced this, serving as architect, contractor and builder on his projects. Every decision--from the overall design to the color of the decorative tile in the kitchen--is confirmed on the building site and changed if it’s not working.

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Alexander considers all of his projects, large or small, “made objects,” as carefully wrought as a piece of fine sculpture. He has utilized this method in some 50 projects, from a quaint back-yard studio in Berkeley in 1973 to the sprawling 36-building New Eishin University campus that was begun in 1985 and is still being developed near Tokyo. “The essential thing has to do with the relation of these projects to people,” Alexander says of his buildings. “When they’re successful, people feel wholesome in them. . . . People feel they actually own these buildings, in the emotional-psychological sense that is so rare today.”

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A Cambridge University-educated math prodigy, Christopher Alexander spent the first decade of his career studying architecture: He says now he didn’t know how to make structures “live.” He took a job teaching at UC Berkeley in 1963, where he is still a professor of architecture. He also conducted a massive inventory of architecture that resulted in the groundbreaking book “A Pattern Language,” published in 1977, for which Alexander won the first medal for research awarded by the American Institute of Architects.

The book, which lists more than 250 “patterns” of building and design, was intended to supply a grammar that anyone--be they layman or big-name architect--could use to create a house, office building, or even a city. Since then, Alexander has published six books for Oxford University Press that outline what he calls “a complete working alternative to our present ideas about architecture, building, and planning.” A seventh book, “The Mary Rose Museum,” is a look at Alexander’s recent plans to build a museum for Henry VIII’s 16th-Century flagship of the same name, which is stored in Portsmouth, England. The book is due out in March.

At the same time he was turning out books, Alexander was erecting projects around the globe, including the Linz Cafe, built in 1980 outside Linz, Austria; the Emoto apartment building in Tokyo, constructed in 1987; the Julian Street Inn, and a 1993 project of student dormitories at the University of Oregon in Eugene.

Over the years, Alexander has been called everything from a kook to a Communist, and “much worse,” as he likes to say. To some he seems argumentative and intransigent in his beliefs.

“It’s very possible he might have mellowed, but as I remember he is very definite. There is a right and a wrong (with him),” says Wes Jones, a young, up-and-coming San Francisco architect who took Alexander’s class while he was at Berkeley in the late 1970s. “If you are not with him, you are evil and will go to hell. It’s like communism; (his philosophy) is an absolutist philosophy.”

Others have criticized Alexander as being more of a social theorist than an architectural visionary. But his work has long served in his defense.

“Whatever one thinks of Alexander’s writings and teachings, his work must stand on its own, and it is a compelling work indeed,” architecture writer Pilar Viladas remarked in Progressive Architecture magazine. “If ever any work was not copied mindlessly, this is it.” To fans of the architect, his way of thinking is a beacon in muddled times. He has attracted an eclectic group of proponents, from cyberpunk writer William Gibson to rock musician Brian Eno to His Royal Highness Prince Charles. What’s more, his six books from Oxford University Press continue to sell at the rate of 20,000 copies a year.

“In one sense, Chris has done for buildings what Jane Jacobs has done for cities--really understanding what makes them come to life,” says Stewart Brand, the ‘60s guru whose most recent book, “How Buildings Learn,” was shaped by Alexander’s thinking. “He’s treated by many of the high-style architects as a kook, an aberration. But most of the world that thinks seriously about architecture thinks those architects are kooks, and that Chris is the real thing. He’ll tell them the heights of ceilings make a difference in how a room feels, that small-pane windows are important. This is all good stuff.”

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Given Alexander’s reputation, one expects to meet a wild-eyed prophet or contentious old codger after knocking on the door of his rose pink house in the Berkeley Hills. So it’s a surprise when this spectacled, genial bear of a man appears in the door and introduceshimself affably as “Chris.” He looks a decade younger than his 58 years and is polite and friendly in an English sort of way. (He still holds British citizenship).

But 30 years of living in Berkeley have left their mark. He favors oversized denim shirts and khaki pants, and he isn’t afraid to speak his mind. “The whole gist of modern architecture was to exorcise feeling from the environment,” Alexander says. “You had to draw your lines specifically to create nasty feelings. You think I’m making this up, but it’s true.”

Alexander is famous for his loves and hates. He’s a big fan of Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Gropius but has little time for modernists like Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. He calls them “ad men,” co-opted by 20th-Century industrialism to produce buildings of glass, steel and concrete that “would somehow convince people everything was all right.” As for postmodernism, Alexander considers it an “evil,” more about selling real estate than making livable spaces, let alone art.

Spend a few days with Alexander, however, and what sticks with you is not his anger, but his passion for bringing buildings to life. His own house is a case in point. Over the years, he has rebuilt the 1920s-style, three-story house into a testament to “A Pattern Language.” His living room, for example, has light coming in from two sides (Pattern 159), sports long casement windows that open out on the lush outdoors (“windows overlooking life,” 192), and is full of “things from your life” (253), including selections from his extensive collection of rare Turkish and Persian rugs.

The whole house is as comfortable and familiar as a favorite tweed jacket--and a zoo of activity. It serves as home to Alexander, his wife, Pamela, and their two children, Lily, 13, and Sophie, 11. It is also an administrative office for his 10-person firm, the Center for Environmental Structure, which has its headquarters in Oakland, and it is a war room for projects being built around the globe. Phones ring constantly. Workmen appear in the kitchen, discuss foundations and vanish. His daughters dart about like blond sprites, while Pamela, a professional singer, practices every afternoon at the piano, filling the house with classical music.

The house is so carefully designed that you don’t recognize how the design has propelled this hum of activity, just that it has. It aspires to be the perfectly shaped “object” that Alexander talks to his classes about. “I gave a lecture this morning, talking about life in objects,” Alexander says. “I showed a couple of positive examples in the slides (a Mycenaean red pot, a 6th-Century Buddhist tower, a 19th-Century Shaker bench) and everyone nods their heads, and says, ‘Yeah, I get it.’

“So I said, ‘OK, now I want everyone to come in here with a drawing of a flower’ . . . . I just said make it have as much life as possible. We’re going to essentially rank (these drawings) from those that actually make you feel more to those that make you feel nothing. And then I’ll say, ‘OK, what’s causing it?’ At the moment, they just think, ‘Oh, that person’s just a really good artist.’ When they begin to understand it’s the structure of the thing that causes whether or not you feel wholesome in yourself, that’s a huge revelation.”

Alexander’s emphasis on feeling and comfort has given rise to structures that look unconventional but are somehow familiar. The Marin County house that Alexander remodeled in 1987 for Dan Potash and Maureen McCabe is a case in point. The kitchen is a striking blend of yellows, greens and pinks; the colors should startle but instead have a calming effect, and also draw the eye to the cabinets, shelves and windows. These are handmade objects, precisely fitted to their location, each with their own life. They, in turn, help draw the eye to the terrazzo floor, which is composed of stunning gray, yellow and red patterns.

“Working with Chris was very special,” says Potash, an investment banker. “It was like living inside a work of art that was being created. . . . After it was finished, it was a very magical place. The only place like it I have ever been is a villa in Italy in the hills outside Florence.”

In talking out a project with clients, Alexander will sometimes use “A Pattern Language” as a guide to help focus the clients’ thoughts. At other times, he will ask his clients to describe the most beautiful and comfortable room they can remember. That room becomes the start of the building.

Once he has some general ideas about a project, he will test them out, physically staking them out on a site, then drawing some rough sketches or perhaps building small models. But the actual design takes shape as a structure is being built, in hundreds of decisions on site.

Alexander and CES are currently rebuilding a small brown-shingle house in Berkeley for a retiring couple, Elizabeth McCue and her husband, Jerry Tunis. The cottage, built in the early 1900s, has sprouted an L-shaped extension with a dining room and kitchen, and is centered around a new wooden deck that will function as an outdoor room. All this creates a sense of space and ease, and places the new house in the midst of a small Eden of existing trees and neighboring rose bushes.

But the real gems are the windows. They look out from the living room, dining room and kitchen. Each set is different in size and style; they have been individually fitted to their location and made by hand. They create a house that is strangely timeless.

“The process of watching how something can take shape--sometimes really subtly--has been really fun,” said Elizabeth McCue. “It’s sort of thrilling, the creative process. It’s not ‘Step A, Step B, Step C’ and you end up with this thing. Our house is emerging!”

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In one sense, Christopher Alexander’s major achievement has been in formulating a process of building that blends a handmade touch like that of the 19th-Century Arts & Crafts Movement with the best aspects of modern architecture, such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s obsession with site-driven design.

Right now, there are several projects being built in the “Alexander method,” including a summer residential retreat in Wisconsin; a visitors center for the College of West Dean in Sussex, England, and three houses outside Austin, Tex.

But perhaps a better indication of his impact are the phones at the CES basement office on Shasta Road. They’re ringing these days as calls come in from across the country asking for “The Book.” That’s what Berkeley architecture students are calling “The Nature of Order,” which Alexander has been writing for nearly 20 years. It sums up his thinking to date on how we got into the “dead” architecture of today, and how we can get back to an architecture based on “life.”

Oxford University Press is scheduled to publish it later this year, but Alexander is already using copies in his architecture classes. Word got out (by e-mail, it seems) and the phones began ringing, at CES and at the Elite Copy Center on Telegraph Avenue, which has the Herculean task of copying the thing. The book, you see, is 1,000 pages long and weighs in at nine pounds, two ounces. And it’s all Alexander’s baby.


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