Notes on the Synthesis of Form

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"These notes are about the process of design: the process of inventing things which display new physical order, organization, form, in response to function." This book, opening with these words, presents an entirely new theory of the process of design.

In the first part of the book, Mr. Alexander discusses the process by which a form is adapted to the context of human needs and demands that has called it into being. He shows that such an adaptive process will be successful only if it proceeds piecemeal instead of all at once. It is for this reason that forms from traditional unselfconscious cultures, molded not by designers but by the slow pattern of changes within tradition, are so beautifully organized and adapted. When the designer, in our own self-conscious culture, is called on to create a form that is adapted to its context he is unsuccessful, because the preconceived categories out of which he builds his picture of the problem do not correspond to the inherent components of the problem, and therefore lead only to the arbitrariness, willfulness, and lack of understanding which plague the design of modern buildings and modern cities.

In the second part, Mr. Alexander presents a method by which the designer may bring his full creative imagination into play, and yet avoid the traps of irrelevant preconception. He shows that, whenever a problem is stated, it is possible to ignore existing concepts and to create new concepts, out of the structure of the problem itself, which do correspond correctly to what he calls the subsystems of the adaptive process. By treating each of these subsystems as a separate subproblem, the designer can translate the new concepts into form. The form, because of the process, will be well-adapted to its context, non-arbitrary, and correct.

The mathematics underlying this method, based mainly on set theory, is fully developed in a long appendix. Another appendix demonstrates the application of the method to the design of an Indian village.

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Editorial Reviews

Progressive Architecture
Christopher Alexander has outlined an ambitious proposal that could revolutionize the approach to architectural design...His method cannot help but become "a very powerful tool indeed" for those who would deal with projects of the complex present and the growing complexity of the future.
American Institute of Architects Journal
The success or failure of the designed environment will remain, as always, a human responsibility...Alexander's assertions are not only challenging and stimulating but informative.
Industrial Design
One of the most important contemporary books about the art of design, what it is, and how to go about it.
Journal of the American Institute of Planners
An important book for the urban designer and planner... stimulating and certainly controversial...It may one day prove to be a landmark in design methodology.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674627512
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 7/7/2008
  • Series: Harvard Paperbacks Series
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 704,026
  • Product dimensions: 5.34 (w) x 8.22 (h) x 0.62 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 6: The Program

Here is the problem. We wish to design clearly -conceived forms which are well adapted to some given context. We have seen that for this to be feasible, the adaptation must take place independently within independent subsystems of variables. In the unselfconscious situation this occurs automatically, because the individual craftsman has too little control over the process to upset the pattern of adaptation implicit in the ensemble. Unfortunately this situation no longer exists; the number of variables has increased, the information confronting us is profuse and confusing, and our attempts to duplicate the natural organization of the unselfconscious process selfconsciously are thwarted, because the very thoughts we have, as we try to help ourselves, distort the problem and make it too unclear to solve.

The dilemma is simple. As time goes on the designer gets more and more control over the process of design. But as he does so, his efforts to deal with the increasing cognitive burden actually make it harder and harder for the real causal structure of the problem to express itself in this process.

What can we do to overcome this difficulty? On the face of it, it is hard to see how any systematic theory can case it much. There are certain kinds of problems, like some of those that occur in economics, checkers, logic, or administration, which can be clarified and solved mechanically.1 They can be solved mechanically, because they are well enough understood for us to turn them into selection problems.2

To solve a problem by selection, two things are necessary.

1. It must be possible to generate a wide enough range ofpossible alternative solutions symbolically.
2. It must be possible to express all the criteria for solution in terms of the same symbolism.
Whenever these two conditions are met, we may compare symbolically generated alternatives with one another by testing them against the criteria, until we find one which is satisfactory, or the one which is the best. It is at once obvious that wherever this kind of process is possible, we do not need to "design" a solution. Indeed, we might almost claim that a problem only calls for design (in the widest sense of that word) when selection cannot be used to solve it. Whether we accept this or not, the converse anyway is true. Those problems of creating form that are traditionally called "design problems" all demand invention.

Let us see why this is so. First of all, for physical forms, we know no general symbolic way of generating new alternatives, -or rather, those alternatives which we can generate by varying the existing types do not exhibit the radically new organization that solutions to new design problems demand. These can only be created by invention. Second, what is perhaps more important, we do not know how to express the criteria for success in terms of any symbolic description of a form. In other words, given a new design, there is often no mechanical way of telling, purely from the drawings which describe it, whether or not it meets its requirements. Either we must put the real thing in the actual world, and see whether it works or not, or we must use our imagination and experience of the world to predict from the drawings whether it will work or not. But there is no general symbolic connection between the requirements and the form's description which provide criteria; and so there is no way of testing the form symbolically.3 Third, even if these first two objections could be overcome somehow, there is a much more conclusive difficulty. This is the same difficulty, precisely, that we come across in trying to construct scientific hypotheses from a given body of data. The data alone are not enough to define a hypothesis; the construction of hypotheses demands the further introduction of principles like simplicity (Occam's razor), non-arbitrariness, and clear organization.4 The construction of form, too, requires these principles. There is at present no prospect of introducing these principles mechanically, either into science or into design. Again, they require invention.

It is therefore not possible to replace the actions of a trained designer by mechanically computed decisions. Yet at the same time the individual designer's inventive capacity is too limited for him to solve design problems successfully entirely by himself. If theory cannot be expected to invent form, how is it likely to be useful to a designer?

Let us begin by stating rather more explicitly just what part the designer does play in the process of design. I shall contrast three possible kinds of design process, schematically...

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Table of Contents

1. Introduction: The Need for Rationality

Part One

2. Goodness of Fit

3. The Source of Good Fit

4. The Unselfconscious Process

5. The Selfconscious Process

Part Two

6. The Program

7. The Realization of the Program

8. Definitions

9. Solution


Appendix 1. A Worked Example

Appendix 2. Mathematical Treatment of Decomposition


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