Building Bad: How Architectural Utility is Constrained by Politics and Damaged by Expression
Jonathan Ochshorn

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To propose a theory of architectural functionality in a comprehensive manner is, indeed, a daunting task, and I know of only one such attempt in modern times—Christopher Alexander's systematic investigation and compilation of "patterns" that address specific functional issues and interrelationships.1 The idea of patterns as the basis of an all-encompassing functionality was not invented by Alexander; Frank Lloyd Wright used the term decades earlier to evoke a type of organization in which "purpose" (function) aligned with the sense of being "alive." Alexander's patterns respond explicitly to functional utilitarian considerations and are also intended to be "alive," echoing Wright's definition of "organic" as something that "applies to 'living' structure—a structure or concept wherein features or parts are so organized in form and substance as to be, applied to purpose, integral. Everything that 'lives' is therefore organic. The inorganic—the 'unorganized'—cannot live."2

Although Wright was far less precise and comprehensive than Alexander, his increasing reliance on the word "pattern" to describe his architectural intentions is striking. In his 1939 Sir George Watson Lectures in London, Wright asked rhetorically why civilization "is everywhere so jittery and miserable" and responded that—with the exception of his own vision of an organic architecture that acts as "a pattern for a free communal life"—"there has been no great vision, no real thought, which wisely accepted the law of change and went along with it, making patterns for life so free that to the life concerned the law of change need not mean unhappiness and torture."3

Wright had already written about patterns in the first edition of his Autobiography, published in 1932, but radically extended the scope of the term in the second edition, published in 1943; "pattern" now applied to everything from the smallest house (which "must be a pattern for more simplified and, at the same time, more gracious living"4) to the entire culture ("Civilization is this affair of Pattern"5). In fact, at least one passage from the first edition was consciously edited in the second edition, not only to replace an ellipsis with an em dash, but to clarify that the pattern of reality ("And—after all you will see that the pattern of reality is supergeometric"6), and not merely reality itself ("And … after all, reality is supergeometric"7), could cast "a spell or a charm over any geometry, and is such a spell in itself."8

Alexander, too, wrote about patterns years before formalizing his "pattern language," beginning with Community and Privacy (co-authored with Serge Chermayeff) in 1963: "Forces have a characteristic pattern, and the good form is in equilibrium with the pattern, almost as though it were lying at the neutral point of a vector field of forces … The first step in the process of design, therefore, involves an explicit statement of the forces at work and the pressure pattern the form is to reflect."9 In Notes on the Synthesis of Form (1964), Alexander argued that mathematics "can become a very powerful tool indeed if it is used to explore the conceptual order and pattern which a problem presents to its designer."10 Alexander's patterns, in their mature form, emerged out of the diagrams he created in this earlier book: "These diagrams, which, in my more recent work, I have been calling patterns," he wrote in the preface to the 1973 edition of Notes, "are the key to the process of creating form."11

But whereas Wright refused to speculate about how such patterns might evolve in the future ("As for the definite future pattern of the community life in such circumstances, who knows just what any community life of the future is going to be like? The old relationships are bound to change"12) and never systematically articulated an inventory of functional patterns for contemporary life, Alexander tackled the problem of functionality head-on:

Each pattern is a three-part rule, which expresses a relation between a certain context, a problem, and a solution. As an element of language, a pattern is an instruction, which shows how this spatial configuration can be used, over and over again, to resolve the given system of forces, wherever the context makes it relevant. The pattern is, in short, at the same time a thing, which happens in the world, and the rule which tells us how to create that thing, and when we must create it. It is both a process and a thing; both a description of a thing which is alive, and a description of the process which will generate that thing.13

According to Edward De Zurko, this strategy of isolating and logically compiling problems and solutions has its roots in the "rational mathematico-syllogistic method recommended by Leibniz and applied … to architecture among other disciplines"14 by the 18th-century German philosopher Christian Wolff, whose eighth theorem in his book, Elements of Architecture, states:

A window must be wide enough to allow two persons to place themselves conveniently at it. … It is a common custom to place one's-self at a window, and look from it in company with another person. As now it is the duty of the architect to consult in all respects the intentions of the builder … he will necessarily make the window wide enough to allow two persons to place themselves at it—q.e.d.15

A comparison with Alexander's Pattern No. 180 for a window place is instructive, not because Alexander's recommendation is the same as Wolff's, but because both Alexander and Wolff first identify a functional window "problem" and then propose a logical solution to that problem, based on empirical observation. Alexander writes: "These kinds of windows which create 'places' next to them are not simply luxuries; they are necessary. A room which does not have a place like this seldom allows you to feel fully comfortable or perfectly at ease. Indeed, a room without a window place may keep you in a state of perpetual unresolved conflict and tension—slight, perhaps, but definite."16

Functional problems emerge where patterns are not followed, for example in seminar rooms at University of California Berkeley's College of Environmental Design that, according to Alexander, are

functionally defective in a number of ways. First of all, a long narrow table, and the long narrow group of people which form around it, are not suitable for intense discussion; this is a seminar room—it should be more nearly square. Second, the position of the blackboard with respect to the window means that half of the people in the room see the window reflected on the blackboard, and can't read what is written there—the blackboard should be opposite the window. Third, because the window is so large, and so low, people who sit near it appear silhouetted to those who are sitting further away. It is extremely difficult to talk properly with someone seen in silhouette—too many of the subtle expressions of the face get lost. Seminar communication suffers. The windows should be above the height of a sitting person's head.17

While Alexander's compilation has ambitious and somewhat mystical goals—to describe a "quality without a name" that "provides a subtle kind of freedom from inner contradictions"18—and while his thorough and nuanced examination contains much useful guidance, it also has two major flaws. First, his recommendations rely on "feelings," based on the experience of what currently exists, to justify certain patterns. Yet such a "truth" is inherently limited. Alexander's contention that "people who come from the same culture do to a remarkable extent agree about the way that different patterns make them feel"19 not only abstracts from the diversity of "cultures" in increasingly heterogeneous contemporary societies, but also from well-known variations in how humans—even from within the same cultural group—actually experience form and space. For example, people with phobias (e.g., acrophobia, agoraphobia, claustrophobia) or with conflicting tolerances for noise vs. quiet, or light vs. dark, or day vs. night, may well have specific and contradictory spatial preferences.20

It is true that some of these conflicts might be resolved precisely through the kind of methodology developed by Alexander, but the enormous variation in human responses to environmental conditions makes it likely that at least some individual preferences may fall through the cracks in someone else's pattern language. For example, compare Alexander's claim that "high buildings make people crazy"21 with Louis Sullivan's counter-claim that "loftiness is to the artist-nature its thrilling aspect" and constitutes "the very open organ-tone in its appeal."22 Of course, Sullivan's defense of tallness is not a scientific refutation of Alexander's claim, but it does point out the difficulty of creating functional patterns intended to be applied more or less universally (or even within a single subculture) .

Moreover, as Herbert Marcuse writes in Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory, truth is never merely about facts (that exist in the present), but about human potential and the freedom to reach that potential: "Man alone has the power of self-realization, the power to be a self-determining subject in all processes of becoming, for he alone has an understanding of potentialities and a knowledge of 'notions.' His very existence is the process of actualizing his potentialities, of molding his life according to the notions of reason."23 Hegel, according to Marcuse, thought of truth as being something "not only attached to propositions and judgments … but of reality in process. Something is true if it is what it can be, fulfilling all its objective possibilities. In Hegel's language, it is then identical with its 'notion.'"24 Alexander's patterns, in opposition to this view, are rooted in what currently exists rather than in what could or should exist. In fact, Alexander considers it futile or non-productive to say, "It should be otherwise." Instead, "the fact that [one of his patterns] is capable of making us feel at one with ourselves is based on thoroughgoing acceptance of these forces as they really are."25

Second, Alexander's focus on spatial or formal relations alternately relies upon, and abstracts from, destructive and exploitative social relations. On the one hand, and as an example of the former, Alexander justifies racial and cultural separation by arguing that

when subcultures are separated from one another by communal land, each one can grow in its own way … this certainly comes from the fact that we feel good in places where this pattern does exist. In places like the Chinatown of San Francisco, or in Sausalito, which are vivid with their own life because they are a little separate from the nearby communities, we feel good.26

This justification of racial or cultural separation on the basis of "feeling good" with one's "own kind" is an argument shared by both white separatists (such as Iraq war veteran Kynan Dutton, who explains to a New York Times journalist that "they're a normal family who just want to live with their own kind—in this case, other white people"27) and Black separatists (such as Malcolm X, who, before leaving the Nation of Islam in 1964 and renouncing such views, spoke of "complete separation or some land of our own in a country of our own"28).

Alexander specifically denies that his attitude is racist, arguing that "a great variety of subcultures in a city is not a racist pattern which forms ghettos, but a pattern of opportunity which allows a city to contain a multitude of different ways of life with the greatest possible intensity."29 And it is true that enthusiasm about cultural identity—a position consistent with spatially distinct ethnic or racial neighborhoods—is hardly a deviant position within U.S. political discourse:

Nobody finds it objectionable when politicians on the campaign trail seek the 'Latino vote' or the 'African-American vote,' i.e., address people as members of an ethnically defined 'community' to whose particular interests they vow to give priority attention as office holders. Regarding and treating people in terms of their race like this is seen to have nothing to do with racism, as if ethnic characteristics could be appropriately taken into account without there being such a thing as unequal treatment. For all sides, ethnic distinction is fully consistent with America's highest principles of all citizens being free and equal.30

On the other hand, and as an example of how Alexander's "patterns" abstract from social relations, consider how he understands "stress" as the outcome of bad spaces, ignoring other societal sources. For example, he writes that "the 'bad' patterns—the window which does not work, the dead courtyard, the badly located workplace—these stress us, undermine us, affect us continuously. Indeed, in this fashion, each bad pattern in our environment constantly reduces us, cuts us down, reduces our own ability to meet new challenges, reduces our capacity to live, and helps to make us dead …"31 Later, Alexander describes the "morphological feeling" underlying all pattern generation:

A pulsating fluid, but nonetheless definite entity swims in your mind's eye. It is a geometrical image, it is far more than the knowledge of the problem; it is the knowledge of the problem, coupled with the knowledge of the kinds of geometries which will solve the problem, and coupled with the feeling which is created by that kind of geometry solving that problem. It is above all a feeling—a morphological feeling. This morphological feeling, which cannot be exactly stated, but can only be crudely hinted at by any one precise formulation, is the heart of every pattern.32

And how does anyone know if a pattern works? "To do this, we must rely on feelings more than intellect … The fact is that we feel good in the presence of a pattern which resolves its forces."33 In other words, Alexander sees societal "stress" as fundamentally formal and spatial, rather than having anything to do with property, competition, capitalist relations of production, and the entire range of destructive outcomes that come about on this basis.

Alexander's use of the generic pronouns "we," "us," "our," and "your" is symptomatic of his abstraction from the class society where such all-inclusive pronouns mask essential divisions between those that own and control necessary social resources, and those forced to sell their labor-power in order to survive. Furthermore, he insists that creating harmony and making people feel good—rather than creating disharmony and inducing people to feel strange ("making strange," the concept of defamiliarization, is discussed in Chapter 9)—are essential functions of architecture. On the one hand, this attitude abstracts from social conditions that have produced an epidemic of anxiety and depression within contemporary society,34 by arguing that harmonious formal or spatial qualities are the necessary and sufficient conditions such that "urban man may once more find his life in equilibrium."35 On the other hand, Alexander acknowledges the ubiquity of anxiety in contemporary society, but evinces neither interest in its sources nor sympathy for its aesthetic manifestations. "Don't you think there is enough anxiety at present?" he asks fellow architect Peter Eisenman. "Do you really think we need to manufacture more anxiety in the forms of buildings?"36 Alexander thus not only conflates dissonant aesthetic expression—in some cases reflecting an anxiety-producing culture—with the anxiety itself, but also abstracts from the competitive forces which both trigger anxiety and marginalize his own architectural ideas.37 We revisit this conversation in Chapter 9.


1 Alexander, Ishikawa, and Silverstein, A Pattern Language. See also Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building.

2 Wright, Modern Architecture, 27.

3 Wright, An Organic Architecture, 336 (my italics).

4 Wright, An Autobiography, 2nd edition, 489.

5 Wright, An Autobiography, 2nd edition, 395.

6 Wright, An Autobiography, 2nd edition, 157.

7 Wright, An Autobiography, 1st edition, 160.

8 Wright, An Autobiography, 2nd edition, 157.

9 Chermayeff and Alexander, Community and Privacy, 114–15.

10 Alexander, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, 7 (my italics).

11 Alexander, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, v.

12 Wright, An Organic Architecture, 34.

13 Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building, 247.

14 De Zurko, Origins of Functionalist Theory, 811.

15 Wolff, Elements of Architecture, quoted in De Zurko, Origins of Functionalist Theory, 181.

16 Alexander, Ishikawa, and Silverstein, A Pattern Language, 834.

17 Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building, 234.

18 Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building, 17 ("quality without a name") and 26 ("subtle kind of freedom").

19 Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building, 292.

20 Beck, Emery, and Greenberg, Anxiety Disorders and Phobias.

21 Alexander, Ishikawa, and Silverstein, A Pattern Language, 115.

22 Sullivan, "The Tall Office Building," 406.

23 Marcuse, Reason and Revolution, 9.

24 Marcuse, Reason and Revolution, 25.

25 Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building, 301 (my italics).

26 Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building, 88.

27 Michael Nichols and Christopher K. Walker, "'Separatist,'" New York Times, September 9, 2015, here.

28 Malcolm X, "Racial Separation," 57.

29 Alexander, Ishikawa, and Silverstein, A Pattern Language, 76.

30 Gegenstandpunkt, "Racism in the USA."

31 Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building, 114–15 (ellipses in original).

32 Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building, 265.

33 Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building, 86.

34 Jean Hannah Edelstein, "Young People Are Growing Ever More Depressed. Is Modern Life to Blame?" The Guardian, March 16, 2016, here.

35 Chermayeff and Alexander, Community and Privacy, 236.

36 Steil et al., "Contrasting Concepts."

37 Steil et al., "Contrasting Concepts."

contact | contents | bibliography | illustration credits | ⇦ chapter 7 | chapter 8 | chapter 9 ⇨