Notes from ‘Notes on the Synthesis of Form’

April 4th 2004

From Notes on the Synthesis of Form

by Christopher Alexander

When I read a book, if I find a passage that is some way relevant to my work, I tend to fold over the page so that the corner of it points to the relevant section. I’ve just finished this famous book on design theory by the Cambridge educated mathematician and architect and I have nineteen folded pages, which is pretty good for a book that only numbers 130 pages. I could have just folded over every page, given the amount of stuff which is relevant, but that would have been a bit silly.

To be honest the best recommendation I can make is that you read the book, but I’ll pick some of the passages the page-corners are pointing to so I can illustrate the recommendation. Bear in mind this book was written in 1964, two years after the creation of the first videogame Spacewar by Stephen Russell and others at MIT, an event that Alexander was doubtless completely unaware of. The book manages to discuss design in such a brilliantly general way that it can be applied not only to kettle makers and architects (its intended audience) but also people like us sitting in front of LCD monitors forty years later. Some of it is a bit bizarre, it’s certainly a little difficult to read, but there are some real gems for those willing to stick it out. I’ll keep the comments to a minimum, because the quotes really speak for themselves.

The use of logical structures to represent design problems has an important consequence. It brings with it the loss of innocence. A logical picture is easier to criticize that a vague picture since the assumptions it is based on are brought out into the open. Its increased precision gives us the chance to sharpen our conception of what the design process involves. But once what we do intuitively can be described and compared with non-intuitive ways of doing the same things, we cannot go on accepting the intuitive model innocently. Whether we decide to stand for or against pure intuition as a method, we must do so for reasons which can be discussed.

I wish to state my belief in this loss of innocence very clearly, because there are many designers who are apparently not willing to accept the loss. They insist that design must be a purely intuitive process: that it is hopeless to try and understand it sensibly because the problems are too deep.

I wish to state my belief in this loss of innocence very clearly, because there are many designers who are apparently not willing to accept the loss. They insist that design must be a purely intuitive process: that it is hopeless to try and understand it sensibly because the problems are too deep.

Now we are at a second watershed. This time the loss of innocence is intellectual rather than mechanical. But again there are people who are trying to pretend that it has not taken place. Enormous resistance to the idea of systematic processes of design is coming from people who recognize correctly the importance of intuition, but then make a fetish out of it which excludes the possibility of asking reasonable questions.

24 Carat solid gold.

The modern designer relies more and more on his position as an “artist”, on catchwords, personal idiom, and intuition – for all these relieve him of the burden of decision, and make his cognitive problems manageable. Driven on his own resources, unable to cope with the complicated information he is supposed to organize, he hides his incompetence in a frenzy of artistic individuality. As his capacity to invent clearly conceived, well-fitting forms is exhausted further, the emphasis on intuition and individuality only grows wilder.

Hands up who recognizes people they have worked with or perhaps notable ‘rockstar’ designers?

There is much more I will come to at a later date, but Alexander makes some excellent points on the need for a synthesis of artistic and analytical thinking, the dangers of using verbal categories to organise problems rather than categories that are fundamental to the problem itself, and a brilliant contrast of ancient (unselfconscious) methods of design with modern (self-conscious) ones. He’s evangelical but cautionary on the use of process over intuition and he illustrates his ideas with mad diagrams (and linguistics-influenced hierarchies and tree diagrams).

Looking at Alexander’s other work, I find he has written a four volume series called the ‘Nature of Order’. that costs about a hundred and fifty dollars in total. Where’s my credit card?

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