Designing Minds

Net bringing more power to the people

By Lynette Evans

Wednesday, Jan 05, 2000

"One of the most significant transformations of the environment that mankind has ever seen is going to take place."

— Christopher Alexander

Just when suburban sprawl has almost completely pasted over the Bay Area's golden hills with look-alike pastel houses, architect and UC-Berkeley Professor Emeritus Christopher Alexander comes along with a ray of hope that individualism is not dead. The author of "The Timeless Way of Building" and "A Pattern Language" says the Internet and its ability to spread information will bring about the end of mindless conformity in housing, as it will in other areas of human life.

"Two things I believe are of the essence; the most modern technology is going to make them possible and make them happen," Alexander said during an interview on how we will live in the 21st century. "One, I believe we will enter a phase when houses are uniquely adapted to people so that the sense of being lost among a million tract houses will be a thing of the past." Houses of the future will have the capacity "to celebrate a life," he said.

"The second one is actually more profound, I think, and that is that we will enter a phase where — whether it's a house, an apartment, it doesn't matter — each one will grow out of the particular uniqueness of the spot of land on which it sits, will actually be so finely tuned to that place that it will make the place better than it was before." Picturing those rows of suburban houses, glued like so many stucco beads to the perimeter of the Bay Area, I could see the idea of buildings improving their landscape as not only profound but eminently desirable.

"This is the biggest thing the great traditional cultures knew," Alexander said of the builders of Chinese or Swedish small towns, or those of "New England, for that matter. They knew so much about the building that the land is better off. I'm talking about towns and villages where every building is so tuned to the bit of land where it was and the people in it that it has a comity with the land, with the earth.

"This is almost never true in modern times," he added ruefully. "It's a biological thing, like a plant adapting to a bit of earth; it only happens in human society under special conditions which have not been in place most of this century."

Alexander, who says the possibilities opened up by the Internet have made his seminal work, "A Pattern Language," obsolete, sees computer technology and that same Internet as the forces that will allow 21st-century builders to connect once again with the landscape.

"When a daffodil adapts to a particular place in a meadowland bank, it's able to do it because of a set of processes in the genetic material that make it possible," he said. "Something similar is going on in the handcrafted village house in Afghanistan, (for example). It hasn't been happening in our forms of production, (but) we're entering a realm where the possibilities of such fine-tuning are there — the ability to shape the whole.

"We have simply never had a technology (that could do this) and now we have," he said. "Not only do we have the means for the guidance to occur... but the Web increases the possibility that the guidance can be spread to millions of people."

Alexander is optimistic that builders and the public alike will not only go to the Internet to learn how to create houses but will make good choices based on the information they find there. "People are aware that they live in an alienated world," he said. "Artifacts, streets, rooms, windows are not made of the stuff they want them made of. They don't have the mind or soul or heart people would want them made of."

Computers will change all that, he said. "Even things such as tract houses that are earmarked by identical aluminum windows, aluminum sliders and 4-by-8 sheets of plywood that are responsible for the tremendous sameness — the shaping and cutting of these things will be so much easier, there will no longer be a payoff for using things the way we have been for the past 40 years."

With computers, "the customization part is almost free — the customization that comes with the Net," he said, insisting, "Once people realize it's possible, that's where it will go.

"The marketplace will drive this," he continued, noting, "Money is benign rather than malignant" as seen by "the surge in custom-built furniture in the last year or so, obtained via the Net, that is beginning to drive traditional furniture emporia out of business."

Cyberspace is a democratic place, as anyone who has ever surfed the Web has found.

Until now, where architecture is concerned, "people haven't been in a position of power," Alexander said. "All of a sudden, they look on the Web and see that people are offering stuff that is unique to the individual's needs. It becomes a natural way to do things."

Just as we can go into a store and have a computer custom-built to our specifications, Alexander foresees a time when we can go to the Internet for information that will allow us to build custom dwellings. "My organization is about to put out a Web site to help people do this on a massive scale," he said. "The essence of this Web site is to create a means for millions of people to do their own thing.

"We hope to have a nationwide network of builders working together on this thing — a tool for people and designers and builders."

After housing, he said, the Web site will help people move to the layout of neighborhoods, streets and communities.

Although "A Pattern Language" was inspired by similar ends, he said, "In the '60s or '70s, the content of how rooms, or windows, or doors were handled was so badly we put a great deal of emphasis on that (and) lost sight of the generative aspect. The whole emphasis (now) focuses on what your context is and on what you want to do."

The future, he said, is to show people how to "take this aspect, dwell on that, embody it. Now that you have this, take another aspect and dwell on that. The process will enable a person to create a whole.

"The content in 'A Pattern Language' is good, but it has only a glimmering of what we're talking about now. This puts creative power in the hands of the individual to create real, beautiful wholes."