Christopher Alexander

Tags: architecture, agile, patterns,

Being alive
The search which we make for this quality, in our own lives, is the central search of any person, and the crux of any individual person’s story. It is the search for those moments and situations when we are most alive.
– The Timeless Way of Building, p. 41

Last week, Christopher Alexander passed away at the age of 85. Alexander was an architect with profound new ideas on habitable architecture. What’s probably not widely known within IT is that his ideas have had a profound influence on software development as well: he inspired the patterns movement in software in the 90s, and indirectly influenced the rise of agile software development, which grew out of the patterns movement.

For me personally, Alexander’s ideas and work have been a great source of inspiration and influence as well for the last 25 years, ever since I discovered his work.

In the mid 90s, Willem and I were studying Computer Science at the University of Twente. We learned about design patterns in our 4th year I think, while working as a student assistant. We were fascinated by this new concept and started digging into where the the design pattern concept came from, leading us to Christopher Alexander’s work. I wanted to learn more! In the university library I found copies of The Timeless Way of Building and Notes on the Synthesis of Form.

Reading the Timeless Way was a life-changing experience. It is a wonderful book to read, well written, with wonderful, timeless black-and-white photos. The philosophy Alexander wrote about touched me, although at that time I could not yet fully grasp it. But I was hooked! The book introduced the idea of “quality without a name” - the quality that we feel, that we know that is there in a place, but we cannot put this quality in words. Words like ‘whole’ or ‘comfortable’ do not fully capture it.

In the years that followed, I got my own copies of The Timeless Way, A Pattern Language and Notes on the Synthesis of Form. I devoured Richard P. Gabriel’s Patterns of Software - Tales from the Software Community book. I also got my hands on the beautiful A Foreshadowing of 21st Century Art book (the Turkish carpets book) which unfortunately is hard to get hold of nowadays.

Another seminal book that builds on Alexander’s work is Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn, a beautiful book about how buildings evolve over time. Most change takes place after a building is initially built, and there are several shearing layers of change within a building, each moving at its own pace.

These books have had a significant influence on me and on my perspective on software development and how to grow development organizations. When I started my own company in the mid-2000s, I was looking for a name that reflected my perspective. I turned to the Timeless Way for inspiration - re-reading it brings joy every time. I chose ‘Piecemeal Growth’ as the name for my company.

The concept of piecemeal growth refers to the continuous process by which buildings, neighborhoods, cities develop. Habitable places don’t come from some grand design, but from a continuous process of building and repairing any misfits. Complex systems are not designed, but grow iteratively and incrementally, continuously. This also holds for software development and the way teams and organizations develop. They all grow piecemeal.

In 2008, Willem, Rob and I decided to join forces and start working together under a shared name. After several whiteboard discussions, we turned to our shared source of inspiration - Christopher Alexander. We took up the name ‘QWAN - Quality Without a Name’, an aspirational goal for us, a thing we are looking for within software development, together with our clients.

Last week, I finally got round to start reading Alexander’s The Nature of Order, which lays down a novel view on order and life. The four volumes had been on my bookshelf for a long time, but I hadn’t yet found the time to read it. Last week, I finally started in the first volume.

Sadly, Alexander passed away last week. I appreciate him for his contributions to our field and for the influence he has had on me.

Updated 27-03-2022: added links to Dorian Taylor’s post and Alexander’s OOPSLA’96 keynote video

Updated 02-04-2022: added a link to The Guardian’s Christopher Alexander obituary


Do get your copy of The Timeless Way, and read & enjoy! Also have a look at A Pattern Language.

In their Big Ball of Mud article, Brian Foote and Joseph Yoder explain a number of patterns, including the idea of Piecemeal Growth applied to a software context.

Paul Dyson wrote down his story about how he met Christopher Alexander in a series of tweets.

Richard P. Gabriel’s Patterns of Software book is freely downloadable as a PDF.

Dorian Taylor wrote an in-depth review of Alexanders work. He also provides a link to Alexander’s Patterns in Architecture talk at the OOPSLA conference in 1996.

The Guardian published a Christopher Alexander obituary - Architect and theorist who believed in creating human-centred buildings, drawing on new technology and ancient traditions

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