Customer Reviews: Notes on the Synthesis of Form (Harvard Paperbacks)
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on September 14, 2001
(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. But the modern, selfconscious designer works entirely from a picture in his mind - a conceptualization of the forces at work and their interrelationships - and this picture is always incomplete and sometimes wrong.

To achieve in a few hours at the drawing board what once took centuries of adaptation and development, to invent a form suddenly which clearly fits its context - the extent of invention necessary is beyond the individual designer. A designer who sets out to achieve an adaptive good fit in a single leap is not unlike the child who shakes his glass-topped puzzle fretfully, expecting at one shake to arrange the bits inside correctly. The designer's attempt is hardly as random as the child's is; but the difficulties are the same. His chances of success are small because the number of factors which must fall simultaneously into place is so enormous.

The process of design, even when it has become selfconscious, remains a process of error-reduction. No complex system will succeed in adapting in a reasonable amount of time or effort unless the adaptation can proceed component by component, each component relatively independent of the others. The search for the right components, and the right way to build the form up from these components, is the greatest challenge faced by the modern, selfconscious designer. The culmination of the modern designer's task is to make every unit of design both a component and a system. As a component it will fit into the hierarchy of larger components that are above it; as a system it will specify the hierarchy of smaller components of which it itself is made.
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on November 27, 2000
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. The topical area of architecture, built spaces for human work and habitation is extremely rich and complex in it's own right. It is not surprising that he would have discovered in this narrow field something as essential and interesting as Kauffman seems to be exposing if not discovering about the mathematical and structural underpinnings of "life itself".
An excellent (pair of) read(s)!
I look forward to Alexander's _Nature of Order_ whose title reminded me of Kauffman's _Origins of Order_ which in turn inspired me to read them together while awaiting Alexander's new books!
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VINE VOICEon August 14, 2005
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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on April 22, 2000
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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on August 30, 2005
Alexanders 'Notes' anticipates the paths that major sciences would take decades after its publication.

This is no mean feat for a work of science but here youre dealing with a book on architecture- or better, on what architecture could and ought to be.

readers with scientific interests will notice Alexander inventing- from purely architectural phenomena - such models as

fitness landscapes, adaptation measures according to 'gene' frequency, evolutionarily stable strategies.

The general system of analysis in the book serves as one of the best guides for understanding cellular automata and the startegy of isolating variables anticipates the justly famous work of Dawkins on selfish genes.

Alexander had almost nothing to work with in the early sixties apart from some pioneering formulations in early AI and a very acute insight into the paradoxes of optimisation strategies.

His foresight is best witnessed by reading the footnotes to the book which are in themselves an uncanny selection of what would come to dominate epistemology, evolution and modelling decades later.

People teaching history and philosophy of science should prescribe this book as the pre-eminent case study 'consilience'

On the strength of this one book, Alexander joins C S Pierce, Boole, Babbage and Minsky as one of the greatest pathfinders in the recent history of knowledge-- too bad that architecture as a discipline hardly rose to his challenge and is now drowning in couture (and more credit to the software makers who have kept this unmined treasure in print).
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on February 17, 2010
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. In Notes on the Synthesis of Form his theories are half-baked. In his later works, The Phenomenon of Life series is a little too over baked.

First, before you begin this book you should understand that this was basically his graduate thesis. He entered the field if Architecture late in his education. Previously he his higher education was sciences and mathematics. He was trying to meld the somewhat disparate fields in his mind. Second, while his work on Pattern Language is exceptional, many of his other works are less so. In portions of Notes on the Synthesis of Form you can see the beginnings of his Pattern Language work. However, his approach at that time was still undeveloped.

I will slightly re-mold his thesis for Notes on the Synthesis of Form: Primitive people don't think much about their design and so their construction is true to nature and therefore good. Modern designers, including most notably architects, are several steps removed from the construction of their structures, depend on symbolic thinking to design, symbolic drawings explain their intent, and are therefore incompetent. Maybe patterns can be overlaid to offer a solution. To prove his thesis he states that "unselfconscious" (somewhat akin to aboriginal) designers succeed. The designs of "Self-conscious" (basically modern man) fail. He attempts to use set theory to offer a solution based loosely on patterns.

The modern architect designing a super high-rise or a biotech manufacturing facility is simply light-years beyond mud and stick huts. To say the design of one is more noble is pure muck. While I will admit that some of Alexander's thinking is useful and quite novel, I also realize that he considers himself on a plane above most in his chosen field of Architecture. He most often begins his books with the premise that architects are stupid and that he will tell them how to mend their ways. This incorrect and sullies the good portions of his thesis.

I recommend that you don't approach Alexander as any kind of god. Realize his is a man who puts his pants on like any of the rest of us. To be sure he is a smart fellow. However, some of his thinking is flawed. This is especially so in this early work.

I am a practicing Architect, but also quite programming savvy (yes, a strange combination). While the idea of Pattern Language as a philosophy for OOP is super cool. Alexander does not speak specifically to programmers in this or any of his early work. His intended audience is architects and builders as designers.

Most importantly, this book is not the Bible, Tao Te Ching, I Ching, or any of the like. It is not immeasurably inscrutable. It does not contain nuances in meaning that will carry you all through life.
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on January 4, 2008
A deep and nuanced analysis of patterns in design failures and successes - the author clearly has astounding comprehension of the modern design situation. I found the "unselfconscious design" vs "selfconscious design" analysis fascinating (although to be politically correct it should be something like "self designer" and "delegated designer" instead). The determination and use of (relatively) independent sub-systems to prune the overall design space is profound.

Part 2 (chapter 6, page 73) is a highly structured "program" for design. I found this section of the book much less compelling, and I'm not sure how it necessarily falls out from Part 1. For me, Alexander's biggest insight is that a good design process involves iterative periods of change and stasis - specifically, designing by modifying single (or small numbers of) factors individually and allowing the design to reach "equilibrium" before making additional changes. From this standpoint, designing a whole village at the beginning (as is started in appendix I) may not ever be a good design approach - even with Alexander's "program"
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on December 22, 2014
Anyone who designs things --even little things like where to put the chair by the bed, or slightly larger things like a skyscraper or the internet-- should read this book. It's architecture: the thought processes of moving through the phases of panic/ignorance to discovery/fascination to the magical moment when your design begins to talk back to you, and tell where YOU need to go, and when you've made a mistake, Or when your design shows you a brilliant idea that never would have occurred to you.

I've designed little tools, rooms, houses, musical instruments and gigantic computer networks. It's scary.

There are virtually no books on the joys and angst of the design thought process, so this book is priceless. Peripherally related are Malraux's "Voices of Silence" and Jacques Maritain's "Creative Intuition In Art And Poetry", both about thought processes/aesthetics across multiple disciplines.. Don Norman's "The psychology Of Everyday Things" is a wonderful exploration of the gut-level design disasters we all deal with all the time. Bottom line: IT'S NOT YOUR FAULT.
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on June 2, 2008
Certainly, this book has produced a great impact on various fields related to design and architecture. The author tells us about the most amazing process in human life -- the conscious process of creating things. He has a good mathematical background and is very practical in his hypotheses.

I bought this book because I heard that his theories led to the concepts of design patterns in programming. As a software developer I think that every modern program is a design problem even if it is a pure server-side software. You have to take into account a huge amount of factors and analyze lots of third party components before you come to a relatively optimal solution. Talking in Christopher's terms, the software is a form which we have to synthesize. And his ideas are still actual after more than 40 years.

If you are a real software developer, you'll certainly be delighted in reading this book. It may even change your life.
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on December 29, 2007
Tip: Start by reading Appendix I. It is an example of the technique that the author spends the whole book explaining. In fact, Appendix I may be all you need to get the gist of the technique.
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