The Sustainable Technology of Christopher Alexander

Sustainability must be much more than a collection of “bolt-on” mechanisms and the parts have to be continuously adapted.

Our technological society faces an almost insurmountable level of complexity: electrical and goods distribution networks, communication networks, health care networks, and more. The modern world relies upon all of these complex networks to function reliably. Not only does it need to build them in the first place, but it frequently needs to go into systems and “re-factor” them (take them apart and put their components back together so they work more efficiently; sort of like a system upgrade). How do we handle this extraordinary complexity? Let’s start by remembering that this “re-factoring” is essentially an adaptive process. In essence, all the parts of the system have to be re-adapted to all the other parts. As they do this, the form of the parts within the whole — their configurations in space — will change, in a process known as “morphogenesis.” We’ve all heard about morphogenesis in biology — the way that organisms grow and transform into endless beautiful and varied shapes. Scientists are beginning to tease out the workings of this process. It doesn’t proceed from scratch, but from the transformation of patterns of previous configurations. The patterns exist within the DNA, and within the protein structures that form cells. They adapt to the environment and to each other as they transform their shape — a process known as “adaptive morphogenesis.”

In a fascinating new area of research, some molecular biologists are now using the concept of a “pattern language” to explain how this adaptive morphogenesis works. Essentially, the patterns get coded within molecular sequences, and transform over time. S. A. Newman and R. Bhat of New York Medical College believe this model can explain the origin of multi-cellular life — one of the great puzzles of biology! Where did this concept of “pattern languages” come from? The architect Christopher Alexander and his colleagues introduced the concept back in 1977. A Pattern is a solution-configuration discovered after many trial and error attempts. It is a lot like a “genetic packet” of DNA, incorporating information about previous evolutionary adaptations, allowing the buildup of complexity over time. (That’s how we can explain the emergence of multi-cellular life, for example).


One of Haeckel's many drawings of the skeletons of radiolarians, tiny one-celled marine organisms with fantastic varieties of form.

As we discussed in a previous post, pattern languages have been successfully used in a dizzying number of modern designs, from iPhones to computer games to the open-source technology behind Wiki. But the idea for them started when Alexander was trying to solve configuration problems in the human environment. In architecture and urbanism, patterns are good and tried solutions for building and living. Alexander recognized that an informal version of patterns already existed, in the traditional practices and concepts that were re-discovered or re-invented over many generations and in distinct geographical locations. They become embedded in inherited oral and written traditions as part of different cultures.

This, too, reflected a complex evolutionary dynamic. It’s safe to say that many architects did not much care for this idea: they thought it diminished their power to create novel and imaginative designs. But in other fields, where effectiveness was valued more than visual theatrics, pattern languages quickly caught on, and became powerful tools. One of those is the field of sustainable development. It’s true also that many leading architects do not care for sustainable architecture, in spite of its prominence. Peter Eisenman, for example, has declared that sustainable architecture is a sham, and the real focus of architects ought to be in blatantly expressing the anxiety and hopelessness of our age. (For a fascinating comparison of his ideas to Alexander’s, there was a famous a 1982 debate between the two, available here)

Alexander, on the other hand, does believe that architects can and must be engaged in sustainable development — but it must be much more than a collection of “bolt-on” mechanisms. Again, the parts have to be continuously mutually adapted or “re-factored.” In particular, Alexander notes that biological systems are sustainable precisely because they follow adaptive morphogenesis. They do not simply create a series of narrow technological mechanisms to solve problems on the one hand, or imaginative novel shapes on the other. What about the human need for art? That is an integral part, says Alexander — but it flows along with the other processes, and does not substitute for them, or hang an imaginative decoration over a too-linear response. That just doesn’t work — and worse, it will surely doom our technology to a series of disastrous failures. But this unsustainable condition is precisely where we are today. The problem is that we are adapting to the wrong things — to images, or to short-term greed, or to the clutter of mechanics. These maladaptations are known as “antipatterns” — a term coined not by Alexander, but by software engineers. An antipattern is something that does things wrong, yet is attractive for some reason (profitable or easy in the short term, but dysfunctional, wasteful of resources, unsustainable, unhealthy in the long term). It also keeps re-appearing. Sounds like our economy and wasteful lifestyle? Building up a patterns catalogue (and the equivalent antipatterns catalogue of things to watch out for) helps us design complex systems by putting the patterns together, in a language-like way. For this we need a Combinatoric language that builds larger-scale entities (e.g. sentences, paragraphs, books) out of elements of tried applications with meaning (e.g. words). A Pattern Language organizes complexity, into a mutually adaptive system.


The morphogenesis of a trilobite, an arthropod that appeared during the Cambrian explosion, showing a pattern-like sequence of generation and transformation.

Sustainable ecosystems, it turns out, do something very similar. They use patterns of adaptive morphogenesis to evolve forms that are not only expressively beautiful, but also exquisitely adapted to their environments. Our technology, too, is evolving, from a crude and primitive phase, to something more like the technology of living systems. The field of pattern language research and development is a fascinating one, and Alexander himself continues to push ahead in original and very intriguing directions. In upcoming posts we will discuss some of these developments in more detail.

Michael Mehaffy is an urbanist and critical thinker in complexity and the built environment. He is a practicing planner and builder, and is known for his many projects as well as his writings. He has been a close associate of the architect and software pioneer Christopher Alexander. Currently he is a Sir David Anderson Fellow at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, a Visiting Faculty Associate at Arizona State University; a Research Associate with the Center for Environmental Structure, Chris Alexander’s research center founded in 1967; and a strategic consultant on international projects, currently in Europe, North America and South America.

Nikos A. Salingaros is a mathematician and polymath known for his work on urban theory, architectural theory, complexity theory, and design philosophy. He has been a close collaborator of the architect and computer software pioneer Christopher Alexander. Salingaros published substantive research on Algebras, Mathematical Physics, Electromagnetic Fields, and Thermonuclear Fusion before turning his attention to Architecture and Urbanism. He still is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonio and is also on the Architecture faculties of universities in Italy, Mexico, and The Netherlands.

Read more posts from Michael and Nikos here.

Categories: Sustainability