“The Timeless Way of Building” by Christopher Alexander

The Timeless Way of Building

One of the most delightful and insightful books I’ve ever read, written with the fluidity of a poet and the preciseness of a scientist.

Being Alive

“Yet still there are those special secret moments in our lives, when we smile unexpectedly –when all our forces are resolved. … When we know those moments, when we smile, when we let go, when we are not on guard at all — these are the moments when our most important forces show themselves.” (Reading this was one of those moments for me)

But what does it have to do with architecture? I found myself wondering, even checking the cover at one point just to make sure I was reading the right book.

The answer was so simple and yet so profound:

“We need only ask ourselves which places — which towns, which buildings, which rooms, have made us feel like this — which of them have that breath of sudden passion in them, which whispers to us and lets us recall those moments when we were ourselves.”

“Places which have this quality, invite this quality to come to life in us, And when we have this quality in us, we tend to make it come to life in towns and buildings which we help to build. It is the self-supporting, self-maintaining, generating quality. It is the quality of life. And we must seek it, for our own sakes, in our surroundings, simply in order that we can ourselves become alive.”

I was quite amused in a perverse kind of way when the author later related that his office was “an ugly place, terrible, dark and dead”, and the place where he worked, University of California at Berkeley, “A campus that was once beautiful, is now a litter of fragmented buildings”(The Oregon Experiment)

Pattern Language as the grammar rules of spoken languages. 

The Creative Process

Pattern Language, as the genetic code, as the seed that grows of its own accord. The creative process is the process of sowing seed, cultivating, watering and growth.

Patterns of Our Lives

A person’s life is governed by a number of patterns of events which s/he takes part in over and over again. Those patterns of events are “habits”, and we’re constantly shaped and ultimately governed by our habits. It is therefore necessary to examine our habits, change the ones that are bad and cultivate the ones that are good.

We are also transformed by our relationships with other people, nature and our surroundings, i.e., the context of our existence. People and places that make us feel more alive, free and happy, who share the same unspoken language. and those who cause conflicts to arise in ourselves.

“The element itself is not just embedded in a pattern of relationships, but is itself entirely a pattern of relationships and nothing else.” Even the elementary particle, the electron, is a wave, both a pattern and an entity. So are human beings. “For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19)

What is Genius?

“A great architect’s creative power, his capacity to make something beautiful, lies in his capacity to observe correctly, and deeply.” The genius of great architects and painters lies in the depth of observation, to perceive the invariant patterns underneath the infinite combinatorial elements and the relationships between the elements. The patterns can be shared among people from all walks of life because they relate the forces that are in play in all of us, they strike to the core of our existence. And by adopting the patterns as our own, we are also making a variation of the pattern that incorporates our individuality.

The genius of Christopher Alexander also lies in his profound depth of perception, and his natural ability to articulate his observations in a simple, beautiful and coherent manner. His use of images (photographs and diagrams) and rich narratives also make it easier for the readers to grasp the concepts, to see what he sees and feel what he feels, to contemplate and understand. After all, he is not describing something that is strange to our nature but simply reminding us and shedding light on the things that are already there, deep in us and in nature.


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