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Notes on the Synthesis of Form (Harvard Paperbacks) [Paperback]

Christopher Alexander
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)

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Book Description

January 31, 1964 0674627512 978-0674627512

"These notes are about the process of design: the process of inventing things which display new physical order, organization, form, in response to function." This book, opening with these words, presents an entirely new theory of the process of design.

In the first part of the book, Mr. Alexander discusses the process by which a form is adapted to the context of human needs and demands that has called it into being. He shows that such an adaptive process will be successful only if it proceeds piecemeal instead of all at once. It is for this reason that forms from traditional unselfconscious cultures, molded not by designers but by the slow pattern of changes within tradition, are so beautifully organized and adapted. When the designer, in our own self-conscious culture, is called on to create a form that is adapted to its context he is unsuccessful, because the preconceived categories out of which he builds his picture of the problem do not correspond to the inherent components of the problem, and therefore lead only to the arbitrariness, willfulness, and lack of understanding which plague the design of modern buildings and modern cities.

In the second part, Mr. Alexander presents a method by which the designer may bring his full creative imagination into play, and yet avoid the traps of irrelevant preconception. He shows that, whenever a problem is stated, it is possible to ignore existing concepts and to create new concepts, out of the structure of the problem itself, which do correspond correctly to what he calls the subsystems of the adaptive process. By treating each of these subsystems as a separate subproblem, the designer can translate the new concepts into form. The form, because of the process, will be well-adapted to its context, non-arbitrary, and correct.

The mathematics underlying this method, based mainly on set theory, is fully developed in a long appendix. Another appendix demonstrates the application of the method to the design of an Indian village.


Frequently Bought Together

Notes on the Synthesis of Form (Harvard Paperbacks) + A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction (Center for Environmental Structure) + The Timeless Way of Building
Price for all three: $103.85

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Editorial Reviews

Review

Christopher Alexander has outlined an ambitious proposal that could revolutionize the approach to architectural design...His method cannot help but become "a very powerful tool indeed" for those who would deal with projects of the complex present and the growing complexity of the future. (Progressive Architecture)

The success or failure of the designed environment will remain, as always, a human responsibility...Alexander's assertions are not only challenging and stimulating but informative. (American Institute of Architects Journal)

One of the most important contemporary books about the art of design, what it is, and how to go about it. (Industrial Design)

An important book for the urban designer and planner... stimulating and certainly controversial...It may one day prove to be a landmark in design methodology. (Journal of the American Institute of Planners)

Product Details

  • Series: Harvard Paperbacks
  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (January 31, 1964)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674627512
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674627512
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.3 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #336,301 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
112 of 118 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A summary September 14, 2001
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
(Below is a series of quotes from the book, some of them slightly modified, plus a small number of "glue" sentences I've added to make transitions smoother. My goal was to distill the key ideas in this exceptional book.)

Every design problem begins with an effort to achieve fitness between two entities: the form in question and its context. The form is the solution to the problem; the context defines the problem. We want to put the context and the form into effortless contact or frictionless coexistence, i.e., we want to find a good fit.

For a good fit to occur in practice, one vital condition must be satisfied. It must have time to happen. In slow-changing, traditional, unselfconscious cultures, a form is adjusted soon after each slight misfit occurs. If there was good fit at some stage in the past, no matter how removed, it will have persisted, because there is an active stability at work. Tradition and taboo dampen and control the rate of change in an unselfconscious culture's designs.

It is important to understand that the individual person in an unselfconscious culture needs no creative strength. He does not need to be able to improve the form, only to make some sort of change when he notices a failure. The changes may not always be for the better; but it is not necessary that they should be, since the operation of the process allows only the improvements to persist. Unselfconscious design is a process of slow adaptation and error reduction.

In the unselfconscious process there is no possibility of misconstruing the situation. Nobody makes a picture of the context, so the picture cannot be wrong.
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53 of 54 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars More relevant than ever across many disciplines November 27, 2000
Format:Paperback
I bought this book at the same time as Stuart Kauffman's recent Investigations (from a local independent) and began reading them in parallel.
While this was intentional, serendipity happened as it is wont to do and I found more parallels than I could follow. These two books come from radically different fields (Architecture and Complexity theory) and were published nearly 40 years apart yet are highly resonant with eachother.
Alexander effectively discusses the synthesis of form in the context of functional goals and/or constraints. He draws from architecture for his examples and ideas but the results are much broader.
He outlines the ideas which will eventually become his Pattern Language and "The Quality Without a Name".
Meanwhile Kauffman is speaking contemporarily of the underpinnings of "life itself" also from what is essentially a structural arguement.
Both are essentially speaking to the same thing: How form emerges from functional constraints in the context of evolving systems. In one case it is the artifacts of living spaces we build while in the other, it is the more intimate artifacts of the phenotype of a species or more generally, evolving complex systems such as our universe in all of it's glory.
Many have criticized Kauffman's work as being unoriginal in the sense that most of what he says has been said before, only separately and differently. In some sense, all works are "derivative".
I believe that the parallels between these two books are more an example of parallel evolution. Alexander was studying the essential qualities of a design discipline as old as man and therefore highly evolved.
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61 of 71 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A design classic April 22, 2000
Format:Paperback
Chris Alexander is the 60s architect who invented Patterns (which have since been resurrected by object-oriented designers, making Alexander a cult hero). This is the short, beautifully written book in which he outlines his design theory. (The later books are more practical and more architecture-specific.)
Alexander has an obvious soft-spot for buildings from bygone times but, in contrast to like-minded Prince Charles, he is focused on process not materials (and he makes sense). Primitive societies had no architects, but created successful designs that lasted centuries. Alexander's suggestion is that we can harness a similar approach and get similar results.
It all gets a little involved -- and a little mathematical -- towards the end. But that doesn't alter the fact that anyone interested in how to create wonderful things must read this book. And anyone who isn't should purchase a copy anyway, for those occasions when they want to look cool while waiting in a coffee shop or bar for a friend who's late.
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The first book of design for all designers August 14, 2005
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Design is a difficult process that is often associated more with art than science. With principles of style, concerns about how design works.

While many wring their hands about this, Alexander breaks the problem down, organizes it and then provides a framework for design that is relatively design neutral. That is a feat in deed.

By thinking about how one structures a problem space and the bias that creates -- Alexander give the practioner a powerful tool for setting up the design process and scope. He then goes on to discuss the design process and he makes important distinctions between concious and unconcious design.

Notes on Synthesis and Form are the foundation for Alexander's work on design patterns. This is the must read book before spending time on these other works.

For the practioner, this book provides a powerful and applicable framework for addressing problems in multiple disciplines.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars excellent
This book is written in a clean, approachable style, absent the usual academic gobbledygoop. It presents concepts that are still relevant across multiple disciplines.
Published 28 days ago by shenka
5.0 out of 5 stars Form described
Arriving at a suitable form for a design problem is a challenge even for design professionals. This book provides a clear process to approach this need.
Published 18 months ago by Nathan Custer
2.0 out of 5 stars Not what you think it is
After reading this book, I went back to read the amazon reviews, and was rather confused. This book has a very narrow focus, and is not targeted at the typical person reading about... Read more
Published on July 1, 2010 by Mark Radulovich
3.0 out of 5 stars There are better books by Alexander
Alexander is better in his later work where the theory is more refined. Read "Timeless Way of Building" and "Pattern Language," which are his best works. Read more
Published on February 17, 2010 by George T. Macknight
1.0 out of 5 stars Complicated
When I first encountered the author Christopher Alexander thru Amazon.com and read the 5 star reviews, I couldn't understand why after all the many years in the field of... Read more
Published on November 30, 2009 by Patrick Curren
5.0 out of 5 stars A life-changing book
Certainly, this book has produced a great impact on various fields related to design and architecture. Read more
Published on June 2, 2008 by Pavel Uvarov
4.0 out of 5 stars deep insights, bold suggestions
A deep and nuanced analysis of patterns in design failures and successes - the author clearly has astounding comprehension of the modern design situation. Read more
Published on January 4, 2008 by Kevin Collins
3.0 out of 5 stars Read Appendix I first, to see if you need to read the rest of the book
Tip: Start by reading Appendix I. It is an example of the technique that the author spends the whole book explaining. Read more
Published on December 29, 2007 by Jonathan Aquino
5.0 out of 5 stars Art anticipates Science?
Alexanders 'Notes' anticipates the paths that major sciences would take decades after its publication. Read more
Published on August 30, 2005 by J-P Delaporte
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