“The Production of Houses” by Christopher Alexander

This book is about building houses, but it is more about life. There is joy, there is disappointment and sadness, but above all, there is hope.

The Joy of Building

For someone like me, who absolutely abhors construction sites and all the raw materials, Alexander brings them to life in a way that only he can. His “physical love for the buildings and the building materials, … the way a painter understands his paint or a good cook understands his soup by tasting it” is very contagious. By the end, I’m almost tempted to experience “hands getting covered with concrete, lots of joking, even singing”. Perhaps Alexander is right in saying that house construction is a fundamental part of a human life.

It got me thinking. Many other species build their own dwellings, the birds’ nests, the ant hills, the bee hives, the badgers’ setts. If the birds know how to build, surely human beings, with brains much larger than those of the birds, can do better? Perhaps there is something called “the building instinct” (to borrow from Steven Pinker), perhaps deep down we do have the instincts and the natural skills to build houses for ourselves.

The Tyranny of Standardized Housing

Today’s houses, generated by mass housing programs, fail to fulfill, if not downright suppress, the delicate and distinct needs of the people. “Placed and built anonymously, the houses express isolation, lack of relationship, and fail altogether to help create human bonds”.

“The real meaning of beauty, the idea of houses as places which express one’s life, directly and simply, the connection between the vitality of the people and the shape of their houses, the connection between the force of social movements and the beauty and vigor of the places where people live — this is all forgotten.”

Decentralized Architecture

The authors proposed a system in which the control of the house production is put in the hands of the people for whom the houses are built.

In the new system, design and construction are integrated, and done on site, with the active participation of the intended inhabitants. This ensures that the houses are designed and built according to their specific needs. Similarly, building components are also developed and tested on site, in the “builder’s yard”, and not prefabricated by standardized production.

The authors categorically rejected the use of standardized drawings or master plans, which is quite daring and scary. The construction becomes essentially an evolving process, like the unfolding of an embryo. The building is generated by a sequence of building operations. Each operation is a unit of work and a unit of accounting. The price of building a house becomes a product of its area and units of operations required per square meter.

Builder’s yard is a physical anchor point that provides information, credit, equipments, materials, architectural and engineering help, i.e., services of an architect-builder.

The Death of an Architect

The families who participated in the building projects were very happy. “They have become powerful,… they have created their own lives,.. manifestly, out their on their land, they are alive.” The authorities, on the other hand, were unimpressed. “They didn’t like the appearance of the houses, … the plans were rambling, … there were technical difficulties.”

One of the houses, perhaps because of its long, narrow shape and the slightly vaulted roof, somehow strikes me as resembling a coffin. It seems ironic, even bizarre, that a house designed and built to help people live should look like a coffin.

But then I realize it’s not accidental. In a figurative sense, the last part of the book may very well be titled ‘The Death of an Architect”. It relates the disappointments and heartaches Alexander experienced because his project in Mexico was underappreciated and eventually aborted by the Mexican authorities. When the next President of Mexico, who was scheduled to see their project, “fell behind schedule and had to pass us by. That day was a great disappointment.” And the builder’s yard was abandoned, “the buildings which we built first, with our own deeper understanding of the pattern language, were the most beautiful buildings in the project. That is very distressing, perhaps the most distressing thing of all.”

A New Birth of Freedom

As Alexander wisely noted, the introduction of a new paradigm causes pain on the emotional, intellectual and social level. It’s the true mark of a genius to persevere under adversity, having faith that if the new paradigm indeed has the quality of life, it will prevail. To paraphrase Lincoln, we shall have a new birth of freedom, and houses of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

P.S.

After reading his books, I started searching the web for more materials on Alexander, and came across the transcript of an Interview by Wendy Kohn from his “official” website, revealing the enormous struggles he went through as a proponent of the new paradigm. I could not help but wonder how he kept his sanity after all those years of constant struggles and conflicts, both external and internal. In another interview by Katy Butler, he gave a moving account of how, on the verge of a mental breakdown, he found peace and strength.

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