By the point I turned conscious of him, Alexander was a fading legend, roaming someplace within the discursive pantheon however absent from the drama at middle stage. He would quickly retire from his place down the coast at Berkeley, after practically 40 years of educating, and head again to England, finishing a tour of three distinct Anglo-American educational cultures. Alexander was born in Austria however moved along with his mother and father on the age of two to England in 1938; twenty years later, he accomplished levels in structure and arithmetic from the College of Cambridge.
He was forward of a pattern—the Nineteen Sixties could be a blockbuster decade for mathematical and computational analysis in structure—however he was additionally following within the footsteps of a well-known compatriot, the Austrian British thinker Ludwig Wittgenstein. Uncompromising and outspoken, each figures wielded logic within the hope of reconstructing the fallen human world on a foundation of rationality. Simply as Wittgenstein performed “the thinker who learn nothing,” Alexander habitually wore a masks of naivete when delivering slicing criticism that in reality sprang from deep erudition and empathy. “I don’t totally observe what you simply talked about,” he advised Eisenman throughout their epoch-defining debate of 1982, after the latter had completed expounding on post-structuralist concept. Then the pivot: Alexander accused Eisenman of “fucking up the world,” to crowd applause. Equal components hippie-mystic and do-gooder technocrat, Alexander effected a countercultural synthesis that met with fashionable attraction. Few architects can say as a lot.
Alexander has lengthy posed a conundrum for architectural historians. When and why did he fall out of favor? The reply absolutely has one thing to do along with his choice for origins and innocence throughout a interval of nice sophistication in architectural concept. Alexander was at coronary heart a structuralist anthropologist turned builder. His breakout e book, 1964’s Notes on the Synthesis of Type, utilized his novel strategies to the design of a village in India. European cities and home vernacular types loomed massive in his design imaginary. By construing complete sociocultural totalities as his “shoppers” and dealing on behalf of their “pursuits,” Alexander took the architect’s fiduciary obligation to its excessive. This method made sense within the period of Claude Lévi-Strauss and Bernard Rudofsky, however not a lot after Jacques Derrida and Edward Mentioned. By the Nineteen Nineties, Alexander appeared suspiciously paternalistic at greatest. He was an exemplar of what would later be termed “the general public architect”—a conflicted determine in our neoliberal world and easily past the ken of an architectural tradition outlined by the alliance between conceptual artwork, French philosophy, and the determine of the starchitect.
We’re now not in that period, and it could be time to revisit Alexander’s classes. Be warned, nevertheless: He had numerous classes. Alexander’s hesitation to reinvent the wheel of architectural type was paired with a perverse pleasure in tinkering with strategies. For a couple of years he parsed the constructed world into mathematical tree constructions solely to declare a couple of years later that “town just isn’t a tree.” He ultimately landed on the conceptual mannequin of social networks, and his pattern-language method impressed a era of object-oriented programmers. Alexander, one of many first architect-programmers, was additionally among the many first critics to strike a blow towards computation, publishing a diatribe in 1964 beneath the title “A A lot Requested Questions on Computer systems and Design” calling computer-using architects “misguided, harmful, and silly.” (The lesson, on this case, was to not abstain from computation however to keep away from foolishness.)
Alexander did all the pieces to alienate himself from the architectural intelligentsia as a result of he might: In contrast to his friends, he had discovered a big and receptive viewers outdoors the self-discipline. New Urbanism was the ultimate umbrella; Alexander was a fixture on the notorious Prince of Wales’s Institute of Structure towards the tip of his profession. He additionally constructed a whole lot of buildings—someplace within the 100 to 400 vary, apparently. Many are fascinating. The Eishin College on the fringe of Tokyo evokes an imagined northern European village, and its Studio Ghibli high quality feels as up to date as ever.
Whilst Alexander utilized methods that ran afoul of the worldwide architectural elite, his work may very well be equally off-putting, if for various causes. The place “essential structure” of the Eisenmanian selection toyed with individuals’s neuroses by taking part in up the disjunctions of the metropolitan situation, Alexander weaponized architectural nostalgia to generate an exaggerated sense of belonging. He peddled a double fantasy, combining a fantasy of cultural coherence with a dream of benign environmental determinism—as if placing up a couple of buildings of simply the proper sort might one way or the other remedy the ills of the world.
Which is simply to say that, via his excessive partisanship, Alexander effected a form of stability in a tradition of structure trending in the other way, towards particular person inventive innovation. At his greatest, he stood for deep intelligence and wit with which to fight cynicism. Alexander will possible discover a place among the many best-known architectural theorists—alongside Vitruvius, Alberti, and Le Corbusier—with a way well-suited to a world gone systemically awry in so some ways.
Matthew Allen is a visiting assistant professor at Washington College in St. Louis. His first monograph, Structure Turns into Programming: Modernism and the Pc, 1960–1990, will likely be out in 2023.