A comparison of “Notes on the Synthesis of Form” by Christopher Alexander and “The Thinking Hand” by Juhani Pallasmaa
“Notes on the Synthesis of Form” was the first monograph, published in 1964, by Christopher Alexander, the Vienna-born British architect who first studied mathematics at Cambridge University and then spent most of his career at the University of California at Berkeley. “The Thinking Hand” was written in 2009 by Juhani Pallasmaa, the Finnish architect and long-time professor of architecture at the Helsinki University of Technology. They were born within a few weeks of each other in 1936. Both have undertaken major projects, but while Pallasmaa’s look familiar to student’s of modern architecture, Alexander’s are idiosyncratic and widely dismissed by his peers, though as a theorist he has been influential. (My copy of “Notes on the Synthesis of Form” comes from Upper Iowa University Library, and the return card shows its having been taken out only once, in 1968.) Alexander has had considerable influence in computer science: both “Notes on the Synthesis of Form” and his later “A Pattern Language” have shaped developments in programming languages and techniques.
Art vs craft
What particularly fascinates me about these books and their authors is that a summary of their arguments gives completely the opposite impression to the character of their authors’ works. Pallasmaa calls for a reconnection with embodied thinking in an era that has become too visual and virtual, while Alexander demands a formal approach to design in a world that has become too complex for intuitive approaches; but it is Pallasmaa’s architecture that is modern and Alexander’s that is traditional.
The key to this apparent paradox is in the authors’ characters: Pallasmaa is unabashedly modern in his insistence on the architect’s central importance as a visionary artist–engineer, while Alexander is much more cautious: he argues that architects, and designers in general, largely fail to cope with the problems with which they are faced: their “intuitive ability to organize physical form is…reduced to nothing by the size of the tasks”, and that instead they “hide [their] incompetence in a frenzy of artistic individuality”.
The respective orientations pervade and structure the books. Pallasmaa draws largely on other artists for his inspiration, and takes a thematic approach, with chapters including “The Mysterious Hand”, “The Working Hand”, and “Embodied Thinking”. He illuminates his argument with copious illustrations and fulsome references, with a full page of endnotes at the end of several of the short chapters (eight in 140 pages, with generous margins and the afore-mentioned frequent illustrations). Alexander by contrast offers a programme, and divides his 200-page volume into three main parts: first, an analysis of the problem, with chapters that define the design problem and the traditional “unselfconscious” and modern “selfconscious” design processes; secondly, an exposition of his formal analytic–synthetic process based on the extraction of a “program” or decomposition of the problem from formal–functional “constructive diagrams”; and thirdly two appendices which respectively give an extended example of the approach and the mathematical justification of the formal process. He draws on a similarly wide range of sources, overwhelmingly scientific, from disciplines as diverse as biology, mathematics and anthropology.
In summary, Alexander’s approach emphasizes science and craft, while largely taking artistry for granted (when it’s not part of the problem), while Pallasmaa insists on the need for an embodied artistic vision.
Conscious vs unconscious: a step forward
Both authors observe the limitations of abstract intellectual effort, but for different reasons and in different ways. Alexander defines the problem of design as one of dividing an “ensemble” into “form” and “context”, and then designing the form to as to ensure “good fit” between the two parts. He then observes that in traditional societies design is an “unselfconscious process”, that is, neither codified nor formally taught, but rather encoded in the patterns of the society and its objects. Crucially, he says, the learned skills consist simply of attempting to correct “bad fit”. A maker who has come across the problem before may use a learned solution; otherwise, a random change may be made, and effective solutions may become part of the tradition. Alexander does not mention natural selection, but in fact this is what he is describing. As in nature, it is tremendously powerful, and matches the structure of the design problem itself. It is impossible to give an exhaustive list of what constitutes “good fit”, but only a partial list of “misfits” that have arisen in past experience: the tradition consists of a series of adaptations to past problems.
For the unselfconscious process to work, two conditions must be met: the design problem must be decomposable into problems that can be solved separately, and neither the culture nor the physical environment must change too quickly to allow the tradition to reach an equilibrium of good fit. The need for selfconscious design in the modern world has arisen, Alexander says, because both conditions have been broken: society has become too complex and changes too fast for unselfconscious processes to work (though there are also counter-forces which exacerbate the problem, for example, “buildings are more permanent”). (It might be interesting to reflect on cause and effect here, in particular, whether unselfconscious processes actually broke down, or whether they were abandoned for other reasons as modern society developed, but Alexander doesn’t; however, his later work such as “A Pattern Language” strongly suggests that he reconsidered the applicability of unselfconscious processes to the modern world, which given the successes of free-market capitalism seems only sensible.)
Alexander claims that selfconscious design doesn’t work at present because of a combination of sheer complexity (the classic “five plus or minus two” phenomenon) and the human tendency to analyse in linguistic terms which don’t fit reality. His solution is to boost human cognitive abilities with formal methods. He describes this as a loss of innocence, but says that “whether we decide to stand for or against pure intuition as a method, we must do so for reasons which can be discussed”. He contrasts this attitude with designers who “insist that design must be a purely intuitive process: that it is hopeless to try and understand it”.
The defence of silence: a step back
Pallasmaa implicitly contradicts this view by insisting on the primacy of embodied wisdom over intellect: “I cannot perhaps intellectually analyse…what is wrong with my work during the design…process”. Yet later he says: “In my view, the discipline of architecture has to be grounded on a trinity of conceptual analysis, the making of architecture, and experiencing…it”. He asserts that “creativity is always linked with the happy moment when conscious control can be forgotten”, yet later that “great artists…emphasize the role of restrictions and constraints”. These positions can be reconciled: the restrictions and constraints must be internalized so that they are no longer conscious. It is then possible to imagine using Alexander’s formal techniques as a framework within which to design, while the actual design work is carried on in Pallasmaa’s embodied, intuitive mode.
Pallasmaa, however, concentrates on the embodied mode of thought, which he sees as neglected, and does little to show its place in the larger picture. This is a pity, because this emphasis unbalances the picture he paints: rather like the hand itself, which contains no muscles, divorced from the body, his argument, by paying insufficient attention to its context, fails to persuade. It suffers itself from a frequent lack of connection: despite an approving quotation from Berger describing van Gogh at work, in which “the gestures come from his hand, his wrist, his arm”, at no point does Pallasmaa explicitly acknowledge the hand’s dependence as a mechanical component; and similarly, though he quotes Heidegger saying “only a being who can speak, that is, think, can have hands”, he repeatedly gives the impression that he believes the hand can literally think, separately from the brain. Again, he fails to acknowledge the irony, having quoted Henry Moore on the danger of analysing creative work, of his reliance on artists who have no such qualms.
This lack of selfconsciousness is precisely what Alexander warns against. Pallasmaa asserts that “an established and successful professional would hardly stop to ponder questions such as, what is the floor, the window, or the door”, exactly what Alexander has spent his career doing. Pallasmaa says “the true artist…collaborates with the silent tradition of the craft”, but fails to acknowledge the problems with this position, or indeed, his lack of balance in concentrating on the artistic side of architecture.
In his penultimate paragraph, Pallasmaa says, beautifully, “architecture has to slow down experience, halt time, and…maintain and defend silence”. This is true, though it is no less the task of every designer, and each person who would live aright. It seems, though, that Pallasmaa has confused means and ends: his defence of silence has become a silent defence.
Now and then: another step back
The 1960s was in many ways a more optimistic time than now: the world was a larger place, technology was less powerful and our knowledge relatively undeveloped, but there was a greater sense of progress in the face of more tractable problems. The limits to growth were yet to appear. Alexander’s notes are very much in the spirit of the times, using the latest research to propose a way to address the problems of the day. Pallasmaa’s work is also arguably very much in the spirit of the times in its more personal, inward focus, and its more partial gaze; but in the fifty years that separate the books not only our problems but our ability to solve them are vastly greater, which makes Pallasmaa’s work look at best pessimistic or unambitious, and at worst out of touch navel-gazing. “The Thinking Hand” is elegiac and beautiful in places, but its call to mysticism, often shrouded in academic turns of phrase, does the profession no favours, while the occasional overconfidence of the young author of “Notes on the Synthesis of Form” is excused by his directness, vitality and enthusiasm.
Where I live, in London, the problems are only getting worse: the prestige projects are now overwhelmingly for private clients, the public purse is stretched as never before (regulations for schools were recently relaxed to make it possible to build them smaller), as the state continues to abdicate its traditional client roles. The result is a generation of architects whose interests lie in exclusive engagement with the rich and powerful, to design investment fortresses that are privately-owned, privately inhabited (or, in many cases, uninhabited) investment vehicles which continue to swallow up previously public land. Public use increasingly means shopping, which excludes those without the means to over-consume, and so the vast majority of citizens are left as powerless spectators of the urban landscape, unable to affect or afford anything, at best gawp at the attractions and buy something in the gift shops of this enormous private gallery.
Under these conditions, Pallasmaa’s response is an entirely understandable one from an evidently humane person, but it is Alexander that speaks to our need.
Thanks to Thomas Impiglia and Donna Mairi Macfayden respectively for recommending the books to me.