Customer Reviews: The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth: A Struggle Between Two World-Systems (Center for Environmental Structure)
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on October 12, 2012
The 1977 book A Pattern Language remains a classic in humane and sustainable design, along with series companions including The Timeless Way of Building and A New Theory of Urban Design. But the books left many readers wanting to know more. How do we actually build such places? What are the challenges, and how do we overcome them? In this long-awaited response - over 25 years in the making - the authors deliver the goods, and then some.

The book is a fascinating case study of a remarkable project "from the trenches" - the authors' design and construction of the Eishin School campus near Tokyo, Japan. But it is, more broadly, a moving and compelling essay on what has happened to our built environment over the last century. It joins other cautionary books of recent years - Jane Jacobs' Dark Age Ahead comes to mind - warning that we have a choice, and indeed a struggle, if we want to avert an unfolding planetary disaster. The choice is between a more beautiful, more humane, and more sustainable basis for design, or a continuation of the status quo - a default option that looks increasingly untenable.

The principal author, Christopher Alexander, knows a little something about the subject of design, having played a major role in several design fields including software, urban planning and architecture. Indeed, he is widely regarded as one of the most influential design theorists and practitioners of the last century, as principal author of Notes on the Synthesis of Form, "A City is Not a Tree," the aforementioned A Pattern Language, and other landmarks. Here he offers concrete ideas about what will be required for a sustainable future, and his case study is an acid test, vividly illustrating the complex issues we face. His co-authors are his former student and close collaborator in the project, Hans Joachim Neis, and his wife and collaborator, Maggie Moore Alexander.

The construction of the remarkable project at the heart of the book, the Eishin School, is richly illustrated with more than 200 color photographs. The school is certainly a masterpiece - winner of the "Best Building in Japan" award by the Japanese Institute of Architects - but more than that it is an extraordinary piece of geography, a small town of almost 30 buildings set in a beautiful landscape of some 20 acres.

Alexander is first and foremost an architect, but the discussion here goes far beyond architecture and into the nature of technology itself. Alexander points out that at heart, technology is simply "the knowledge of making" - and as mounting evidence suggests, something in the way we make things in the modern world has gone deeply awry. To repair it - as we can and must - we will need to change the fundamental way we go about designing, organizing, and paying for, the making of our world.

There is a fundamental difference, Alexander points out, between the processes that give rise to living structures - adaptation and differentiation - and the processes that we have put to work in relatively recent history to make our modern world: especially, the standardization and replication inherent in mass production. We have made an entirely new global production system from these approaches, he says, which he dubs "System-B"; and with it we have almost entirely replaced an earlier system based upon local adaptation, which he calls "System-A."

While we have gained in quantity, Alexander argues, we have lost immeasurably in quality, and as a result, in the very sustainability of our built world. We have created a world of things that are abstract, and therefore disconnected from life - and the result has been a slow but catastrophic deterioration of environmental quality. For architects, this means we must recover the practical means to ensure that the environments we construct have the crucial capacity to provide life-giving situations - the purpose of all architecture in the end.

A few architects might find this book off-putting, since Alexander (a highly decorated and accomplished architect himself) clearly has no patience for the willful, image-based architecture that serves as cover for the rapacious industrialization of the built environment. Nor is he a cheerleader for the artistic achievements of a nihilistic avant-garde (as his famous debate with "starchitect" Peter Eisenman some years ago demonstrates).

Fortunately, a new generation is showing it is eager to challenge this insular orthodoxy, and groups like Architects for Humanity are putting a new focus on socially and environmentally relevant architecture and construction. Others are pushing a similarly holistic, reformist agenda in other areas (tactical urbanists, permaculturists, open-source innovators and others) and Alexander seems to have become an inspiration for many of them.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I am one of them, as well as a friend and collaborator of Alexander over the years, along with many others. I did not have a role in this book, other than to make some minor comments, as many others did.

In the end, this book is not so much about architecture and construction, but about technology, and about a way forward for civilization - told from the perspective of an insider who is also a fierce critic and, perhaps for some in the old guard, traitor to the cause. Some may find Alexander's David-and-Goliath ideas quixotic, even grandiose. But the story documented in this book, like his previous achievements, shows otherwise. This is a guy who has always been concerned at heart with the same practical issue: how we make things, and how they (and we) can, in a real and practical sense, be made healthier and more whole.

Out of that essential quest, Alexander's ideas have been astonishingly fruitful, leading directly (if not always recognizably) to pattern languages, design patterns, Wiki, Agile software and other major innovations. In considering the reforms we now so urgently require, it seems these are just the kinds of practical new human-centered technologies that we will need.
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on January 26, 2013
I am not a professional architect, although when I was young, that was my aim. I could not hope to write a better review than Mr. Mahaffy's about this book. I do, however, own every book Amazon sells (and some they didn't) by Christopher Alexander. They are never-ending sources of wisdom and hope for me. They live on my wisdom shelf, apart from the majority of my thousands of other books, and I turn to them for the sort of deep-seeing that is found in this book. I also find myself near weeping for joy at the depth of seeing, expressed in carefully-chosen words, that reveals the respect for the humans whose lives intertwine with the buildings, and the respect for a building that supports the leading of humane life.

There are some "experts" who arrogantly assume that they, and they only, know what the rest of us "should" do, but Alexander makes the assumption that we are all experts in our own lives, and that we all have the ability to create truthfully and beautifully. We may lack the skills and processes to do so in the contemporary world, but we do not lack the impetus or talent. The work described in this book, as in his others, is essentially the very detailed equivalent of a sculptor's identifying and removing all the bits of marble that are not The Piéta, of getting deeply in to where the truth and beauty live. In describing the processes, both physical an mental, so minutely, Alexander gives us a blueprint or road map for manifesting our own abilities.

I am saying this badly, and I'm sorry for that, but so much of what this book gives to me is not-yet-speech-ripe. This book, as have its predecessors, leaves me overwhelmed with joy. Instead of acting individualistically to put another silk suit in their closets, the authors appear to be struggling with how best to cooperate with the structure of the Universe. I can't tell you how very much I hope that many follow them in that undertaking.
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on May 28, 2013
Alexander is a visionary. Battle reads like the rantings of somebody at the end of a frustrating career. At one level, it is about the design and building of a school campus in Japan in the 1980's. He spends over 300 pages providing a blow-by-blow history of the project. By his own accounts, he had extreme difficulty working with the (rather corrupt) Japanese construction companies. He blames this on their 'System B' methods, focused on engineering and profit (and pretty pictures in architecture magazines). However, it seems to me Alexander is intolerant of anybody, and any company, which doesn't have his extraordinary vision. This excessive expectation lessens the practicality of his vision.

At another level, the book is about 'the old way' of building, 'System A'. In this system, the goal is creating an environment (buildings, benches, foliage, light, etc.) which is highly livable - a place people want to be. It requires constantly adjusting during construction, feeling how the pieces work together and making decisions and changes as you go. Obviously, this is an uncertain and expensive proposition. I admire the vision, but Alexander's constant ravings at the failings of the construction company to work within this system (and on a fixed budget, no less) is a great distraction.

After reading hundreds of pages of Alexander complaining about how impossible it was to work correctly with tight timelines, limited budget, constant politicking, and especially 'System B' construction companies, one would expect a conclusion about how the result was a mediocre campus. Quite the opposite: Chapter 19 is dedicated to extolling the virtues of the finished product. Which is fine, except: doesn't that rather weaken the argument? He lost the battles but won the war? If so, how bad is System B, really?

Alexander's most famous book, A Pattern Language is, to me, a great and completely unique work. 35 years later, it is still expensive and still entirely worth it. My friends and I turn to it all the time for inspiration and guidance. Curiously, Alexander's firm has had minimal success with Pattern building. A page in Battle lists every project they have done from 1961 to 2005 - yes, it all fits on one page. (Details of each project are in The Nature of Order book 3 'Visions', which itself is eighty dollars. I have not read it, however, their work appears to be a mix of houses and small developments, not all of which were built.)

Battle documents what I gather is the one big project they saw through from beginning to end. It is sad that the creator of such a seminal work as Pattern only had this one highly stressful and troubled major project in his career. As a case study of what it can take to actually work with a client and contractors, Battle is a good book - somewhat messy, but a good portrayal of 'life in the professional trenches'.

As an academic work, as a visionary work on architecture, or as a go-to book similar to Pattern, Battle is disappointing. The book suffers from a major lack of good editing. Whereas Pattern has a certain crispness about it, Battle rambles. Battle has new ideas not in Pattern, however, they are harder to pull out of the book and much less supported - if you must have them the ideas are there, but I think the reader deserves a better exposition. Battle is much less enjoyable to read (or to peruse) than Pattern. The final section of Battle attempts to lay out a framework for 'System A'. While this has great potential, the presentation is incomplete - I found it much less believable and much less usable than Pattern.

The (public library) copy I had appeared to be a 'print on demand' edition. The quality of the photographs was mediocre, the 'hard' covers were flimsy, there were type layout issues, and overall it felt cheap.

On another note, I take issue with Alexander's overuse of construction materials. I have no objection to building for 200 years durability. However, I think a good architect balances design with engineering. For example, insisting on solid massive columns when thin columns, or hollow columns which look massive, would work is just wasteful. Cutting ancient redwood trees is inexcusable. There are times when technological improvements and environmental concerns beat out tradition and style.
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on May 19, 2013
Ever since Christopher Alexander produced NOTES TOWARD A SYNTHESIS OF FORM, his publications and lectures have been both provocative and constructively valuable to architects, students and theorists. You cannot be neutral when it comes to his strong, clear positions on questions of architecture. He can antagonize you intellectually, inspire you professionally, or assist you to escape into a different zone of the creative spirit. This reviewer has had both difficult and delightful encounters with Alexander's thoughtful assertions about how and why we should modify our design incursions on this singular planet.
His latest book, "THE BATTLE for The Life and Beauty of the Earth: A Struggle Between Two World Systems", documents in both technical and philosophical detail the design, construction and occupation of the Eishin School, just outside Tokyo. The book discusses the importance of an approach which is different yet the same; new, yet age-old.
It incorporates, but not intentionally, some of the most important architectural ideas of the second half of the 20th century. The rift between those who espouse architecture as the making of "place" ( including in their approach everything from preservation of community to historical symbolism to social reform) and those digital formalists who seem to care little for the former has increased in the past few decades. Alexander's school signals a transcendence of both of these and almost everything in between. Having visited the school long before this volume arrived from Amazon, this reviewer confesses to having experienced real pleasure, both sensory and intellectual. I ordered the book as soon as it was announced and I was not disappointed.
I find it to be both challenging and assuring. Oddly enough there is a spiritual aspect to both the book and the built complex that will probably be difficult for some critics to digest, but if you want to recharge your intellectual batteries, read it.
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on October 1, 2014
Christopher Alexander's theory that our system of building creates lifeless, cheerless mediocrity seems proven simply by looking around at our buildings as they exist.

At the same time, most of his problems seem to come from specific situations he faced in this project, which quite honestly seem pretty unique to it. For example, he wanted to start onsite design work before the land purchase was nailed down, by putting flags on the property. Understandably, landowners didn't much like this, and negotiators for the University felt it was disturbing their efforts to keep the price down. They eventually forged a compromise. Hardly the stuff of blood and guts-level fighting between two world views!

Most of the real fighting was thanks to the unique structure of the project, where he had to deal with a general contractor unsympathetic to the way he preferred to work. The lesson is that if you want to do things his way, have a combined architect/contractor hybrid do the work. In this case, the architect takes the contractor's fee, and can use some of that money to contribute back to the project instead of pay inflated contractor profits. There doesn't seem to be much reason not to do something like this for Alexander-style projects, and that would eliminate nearly all the actual fighting faced by this one.

The problems I was expecting to see, like regulatory agencies wanting very specific plans, and people misunderstanding his approach, seemed nearly nonexistent. Probably great deference was given to a major school who wanted to design its own campus, but similar behavior might exist for any major real estate developer with a good reputation.

It is clear, from the numerous examples of feedback from users, that students, teachers and administrators alike love the project and the approach used to design and build it. System-A, whatever its faults, can work brilliantly and be a fantastic success. It takes a lot of work, but it is surely possible to hire Alexander's firm to create your own masterpiece.

So why hasn't the Alexander-predicted revolution happened? Why hasn't he been able to design more than a handful of buildings since? This is a question he doesn't even ask, and to me, this is the greatest mystery presented by the book - if his approach works so well, why hasn't it spread after he's wrote millions of highly influential and persuasive words on the subject, participated in numerous projects, etc?

He won the battle over the Eshin campus, but appears to be losing the war.

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on June 18, 2014
Christopher Alexander and his team have written another amazing book I have read quite a few of his books. Because Christopher Alexander and the team at the Center for Environmental Structure often experiences first what he writes about it is often a very inspiring experience to read what he is recommending and what he has gone through on the way to the conclusions he is sharing with us in his many books. This book is no different, however the fact that he waited so long to write this book after the events of the actual experience said a lot about the topic and the impact of this subject not only on architecture but the whole of our built environment. It is my hope that Life and Beauty wins out as we continue to design and construct our built environment. Thanks Christopher for another inspiring experience and book. Your books have had a profound affect on my designs.
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on November 27, 2015
Despite Alexander's dense prose, this is a must read for anyone interested in design, and the relationship of art and nature and us meddlesome humans.
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on February 25, 2015
Good Information
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on September 4, 2014
This book has changes my life.
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