Christopher Alexander, architect who humanized urban design, dies at 85


Consider pattern 187, the marital bed. “It’s crucial that the couple choose the right time to build the bed, not buy one off the cuff,” Alexander wrote. “It’s unlikely the bed can have the right feel until the couple have been through some tough times together and their experience has some depth.” He suggested placing the bed in an alcove, rather than leaving it floating, unmoored and unprotected, in the bedroom.

Or Model 190, Variety of ceiling height: “A building in which all the ceiling heights are identical is practically incapable of making people comfortable.”

The book is a delightful, if exhausting, grammar of architecture that has nothing to do with style or historicism and everything to do with what makes people feel good – warm colors, pools of light, low ceilings, overhanging roofs – a guide to comfort, in essence, which Mr. Alexander and his colleagues have tried to wrestle with in some sort of formula using all sorts of sources, from empathy studies to the ideal proportions found in a Japanese house.

“He was one of the few people who systematically thought about architecture,” said Witold Rybczynski, author, architect and professor emeritus of urban planning at the University of Pennsylvania, in a telephone interview. “And he tried, in a sometimes laborious way, to understand why we like what we like. I have never tried to design anything using ‘A Pattern Language’; I think that would be impossible. But when my wife and I built our own house, I realized how many Alexander motifs were present.

Mr Rybczynski recalled being smitten by Mr Alexander when they first met: ‘I finally met him in 1994, when he won the Seaside Award’ – an award given by the New Urbanist community in Florida – “and he said something that I’ve never forgotten: “Everything that we see in our environment either lifts our spirits a little or depresses it a little.”

“His work is full of these kinds of ideas,” Mr. Rybczynski added.

Christopher Wolfgang John Alexander was born on October 4, 1936 in Vienna, the only child of Ferdinand Johann Alfred Alexander and Lilly Edith Elizabeth (Deutsch) Alexander, who were archaeologists. The family left Austria in 1938, when Nazi Germany began its occupation, and settled in Oxford, England, where Chris’ parents found work as German teachers. Chris, gifted in mathematics and chemistry, won a scholarship to Cambridge, where he studied mathematics and architecture and, next to it, beauty.


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