A Search for Beauty / A Struggle with Complexity - Christopher Alexander

Essay by Richard P. Gabriel and Jenny Quillien

Abstract: Beauty. Christopher Alexander’s prolific journey in building, writing, and teaching wasfueled by a relentless search for Beauty and its meaning. While all around him the world was intenton figuring out how to simplify, Alexander came to embrace complexity as the only path to hisgoal. The Beauty and life of that which he encountered and appreciated—an Indian village, a city,a subway network, an old Turkish carpet, or a campus—lay in its well-ordered complexity. As adesigner and maker he found that simplicity came from choosing—at every step—the simplest wayto add the necessary complexity. The failure of so much of our modern world, in Alexander’s eyes,was oversimplification, wantonly bulldozing context, misunderstanding the relationships of part andwhole, ignoring the required role of time in the shaping of shapes, and ultimately dismissing, likeEsau, our birthright of Value in favor of a lentil pottage of mere Fact. Ever elusive, Beauty demandsof her suitors a constant return of attention to see what might be newly revealed, and Alexanderduly returned again and again in pursuit of the mystery. In this essay—essentially biographical anddescriptive of one man’s endeavors—we examine the full arc of his work from dissertation to mostrecent memoir. We don’t shy away from his failures, and we don’t simplify his journey. We leavework done by other scholars for another day. We reach no conclusion, rather, we invite readers toreflect on what Alexander ’s lifelong effort suggests to them about their own path, their own sense ofaesthetics and order, innate cognitive shortfalls, and professional blind alleys.

Philo van Kemenade