Notes on the Synthesis of Form

Notes on the Synthesis of Form, by Christopher Alexander, is quite possibly my favorite book. This book came before his epic Pattern Language series. Similar to how Tolkien’s Hobbit is an early version of the Lord of the Rings series. In it’s brevity, it captures something that the longer version can’t.

It has often been claimed in architectural circles that the houses of simpler civilizations than our own are in some sense better than our own houses. While these claims have perhaps been exaggerated, the observation is still sometimes correct. 

Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes have solved the weight problem of spanning space, but you can hardly put doors in them. Again, his dymaxion house, though efficient as a rapid-distribution mass-produced package, takes   no account whatever of the incongruity of single free-standing houses set in the acoustic turmoil and service complexity of a modern city.

Laymen like to charge sometimes that these designers have sacrificed function for the sake of clarity, because they are out of touch with the practical details of the housewife's world, and preoccupied with their own interests. This is a mis­  leading charge. What is true is that designers do often develop one part of a functional program at the expense of another.   But they do it because the only way they seem able to or­ganize form clearly is to design under the driving force of some comparatively simple concept. 

On the other hand, if designers do not aim principally at clear organization, but do try to consider all the requirements equally, we find a kind of anomaly at the other extreme. Take the average developer-built house; it is built with an eye for   the market, and in a sense, therefore, fits its context well, even if superficially. But in this case the various demands made on the form are met piecemeal, without any sense of the overall organization the form needs in order to contribute as a whole to the working order of the ensemble

Instead of orienting the house carefully for sun and wind, the builder conceives its organization without concern for orientation, and light, heat, and ventilation are taken care of by fans, lamps, and other kinds of peripheral devices. Bedrooms are not separated from living rooms in plan, but are placed next to one another and the walls between them then stuffed with acoustic insulation. 

While it is true that an individual problem can often be solved adequately without regard for the fundamental physical order it implies, we cannot solve a   whole net of such problems so casually, and get away with it. It is inconceivable that we should succeed in organizing an ensemble as complex as the modern city until we have a clear enough view of simpler design problems and their implications to produce houses which are physically clear as total organizations. 

If we look at a peasant farmhouse by comparison, or at an igloo, or at an African's mud hut, this combination of good fit and clarity is not quite so hard to find. Take the Mousgoum hut, for instance, built by African tribesmen in the northern section of the French Cameroun. Apart from the variation caused by slight changes in site and occupancy, the huts vary very little. Even superficial examination shows that they are all versions of the same single form type, and convey a power­ful sense of their own adequacy and nonarbitrariness.   Whether by coincidence or not, the hemispherical shape of the hut provides the most efficient surface for minimum heat transfer, and keeps the inside reasonably well protected from the heat of the equatorial sun. Its shape is maintained by a series of vertical reinforcing ribs. Besides helping to support   the main fabric, these ribs also act as guides for rainwater, and are at the same time used by the builder of the hut as footholds which give him access to the upper part of the out­side during its construction. Instead of using disposable scaffolding (wood is very scarce), he builds the scaffolding in as part of the structure. What is more, months later this "scaffolding" is still there when the owner needs to climb up on it to repair the hut. The Mousgoum cannot afford, as we do, to regard maintenance as a nuisance which is best for­gotten until it is time to call the local plumber. It is in the same hands as the building operation itself, and its exigencies are as likely to shape the form as those of the initial con­struction. 

This example shows how the pattern of the building oper­ation, the pattern of the building's maintenance, the con­straints of the surrounding conditions, and also the pattern of daily life, are fused in the form. The form has a dual coherence. It is coherently related to its context. And it is physically coherent. 

It is true that our func­tional standards are higher than those in the simple situation. It is true, and important to remember, that the simple cul­tures never face the problems of complexity which we face in design. And it is true that if they did face them, they would probably not make any better a showing than we do.


When we admire the simple situation for its good qualities, this doesn't mean that we wish we were back in the same situation.


I believe that only careful examination of their success can give us the in­sight we need to solve the problem of complexity. Let us ask, therefore, where this success comes from.


The technology of communication is underdeveloped. There are no written records or architectural drawings, and little intercultural exchange. This lack of written records and lack of information about other cultures and situations means that the same experience has to be won over and over again gen­eration after generation - without opportunity for develop­ment or change. With no variety of experience, people have no chance to see their own actions as alternatives to other possi­bilities, and instead of becoming selfconscious, they simply repeat the patterns of tradition, because these are the only ones they can imagine. In a word, actions are governed by habit. Design decisions are made more according to custom than according to any individual's new ideas. Indeed, there is little value attached to the individual's ideas as such. There is no special market for his inventiveness. Ritual and taboo discourage innovation and self-criticism. Besides, since there is no such thing as "architecture " or "design," and no ab­stractly formulated problems of design, the kinds of concepts needed for architectural self-criticism are too poorly developed to make such self-criticism possible; indeed the architecture itself is hardly tangibly enough conceived as such to criticize. 


The second kind of teaching tries, in some degree, to make the rules explicit. Here the novice learns much more rapidly, on the basis of general "principles." The education becomes a formal one; it relies on instruction and on teachers who train their pupils, not just by pointing out mistakes, but by incul­cating positive explicit rules. A good example is lifesaving, where people rarely have the chance to learn by trial and error. 


In the informal situation there are no "teachers," for the novice's mistakes will be corrected by anybody who knows more than he. But in the formal situation, where learning is a specialized activity and no longer happens auto­matically, there are distinct "teachers " from whom the craft is learned.