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Notes on the Synthesis of Form (Harvard Paperbacks) Later Pr. Edition

4.2 out of 5 stars 15 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674627512
ISBN-10: 0674627512
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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)

About the Author

Chris Alexander is a diplomat and politician who served for eighteen years as an international public servant and Canadian foreign service officer. From 2005 to 2009 he was the UN deputy special representative in Afghanistan, helping to lead the largest UN political mission in the world. Alexander was also the Canadian ambassador to that country and a key contributor to the effort to stabilize and support post-Taliban Afghanistan. He returned to Canada in 2009 and is now the Conservative MP for Ajax-Pickering, where he lives, as well as the parliamentary secretary to the minister of national defense.
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Product Details

  • Series: Harvard Paperbacks
  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; Later Pr. edition (October 24, 1964)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674627512
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674627512
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.6 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #98,424 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Wayne Lobb on 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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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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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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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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