S K Y L I N E | Christopher Alexander was ready to change the world...
…But the world kept him waiting.
Issue 72. But our issues tend to sell out, so don’t wait to secure your copy of #29. Start a subscription today.
In this week’s Skyline, we highlight three pieces from NYRA #29 commemorating architect, design theorist, and educator Christopher Alexander, who passed away in March.
An influential but controversial figure, Alexander sought to codify concepts usually thought of as subjective—beauty, harmony, “wholeness”—as design principles. As MISHA SEMENOV writes in “Pattern Makers,” Alexander’s was a quest to find a “generative rule set, akin, perhaps, to a genetic code” for architecture and urbanism. It’s not mere linguistic coincidence that Alexander generally found a much more receptive audience for his ideas among computer scientists. Semenov talks to some of Alexander’s younger pupils who have built their start-up development companies on the basis of his teachings. Yet the article also reveals Alexander’s frustration at having failed to influence the design and planning disciplines to the extent that he had hoped.
That’s due to change if political commentator, Current Affairs editor, and vocal Alexander fan NATHAN ROBINSON has his way. While I am often skeptical of Robinson’s architecture takes—and I am not alone on that front—his tribute to Alexander, free of the usual editorializing, is touching. In it, Robinson makes the case for the radical politics implicit in Alexander’s vision: a kind of design that not only responds to the needs and desires of those that use it but also involves them in the process of its making. Robinson also references the infamous 1982 debate between Alexander and PETER EISENMAN, during which the former accused the latter of “fucking up the world.” (In the garbled recording, he actually can be heard saying, “screwing up the world.”) Alexander went on to predict that people would wake up—any day now!—and demand beautiful places brimming with life. Well, it hasn’t happened yet.
NYRA contributor Matthew Allen and publisher Nicolas Kemper revisited the debate with Eisenman to see if he had warmed any to Alexander’s position over the years. The short answer: no. Eisenman remains committed to architecture as an intellectual project, but in the course of the conversation, he puts forward a radical political statement of his own. For him, the pursuit of beauty—especially beauty incarnated in the traditional forms of Alexander’s favored pitched roofs—is a bourgeois ambition, synonymous with the conservative liberalism that his architecture and writing seek to disrupt.
But let’s return to Robinson. He longs for a future world that “unfolds in accordance with Alexander’s patterns, a world of hand-painted ornament, lush gardens, eclectic traditions, walkable neighborhoods, cozy dens, cheerful colors, enchanting caves, lively street cafes, tranquil lakes, hidden passages, windy staircases, trellised walks, sunlit window seats, and, of course, animals and old people everywhere.” A comfortable, but possibly naive vision. For as Jeffrey Kipnis writes in a commentary on Eisenman’s work: “The very qualities we most admire in great works of architecture—intimacy, repose, spirituality, transcendence, stateliness, majesty, awe—while not in and of themselves to be despised, are nevertheless also the very architectural instruments that authority uses to belittle, to subject.”
When the conversation turns to beauty, skeptics of utopia(s) rightfully ask: do we agree on what’s beautiful? But the better question might be: even if we did, would we like it?
— Palmyra Geraki
Click the links below to read the pieces in full. To support NYRA’s work and receive the print issue, please consider a subscription.
“Indeed, [Alexander] thought classical architecture was vastly superior to anything built today. But he had contempt for those who mindlessly recreated the architecture of the past. He once sent a critical message to a listserv for classicists, arguing that by giving priority to European architecture over the ancient building practices of other cultures, they were engaging in a kind of aesthetic colonialism and missing the beauty to be found around the world…”
MISHA SEMENOV: PATTERN MAKERS
“In a 1996 lecture, [Alexander] expressed his exasperation: ‘I really thought that I would be able to influence the world very fast. Especially when I got to the pattern language. I thought, boy, I’ve really done it.… The patterns are self-evident and true. They will spread. And, as a result, the world of buildings will get better.’ However, he admitted, ‘it hasn’t yet worked out like that…’”
“It turned out to be a classic debate; it became rather heated. And it really gained momentum over the years—it was photocopied and spread around, etc. It was a good part of what I was doing at Harvard. Chris Alexander certainly wasn’t a household figure at the time, and neither was Peter Eisenman…”
NYRA ON THE TOWN
6/2: Style As Form
Misha Kahn at Friedman Benda, Style Without Substance
With his vibrant fourth solo-show with the Chelsea gallery Friedman Benda, MISHA KAHN, exuberant formalist, maker of sculptural furniture and furniture-as-sculpture, and creator of adorable masses at rest, seeks to “look into the essence of a material and help to style its ‘thingness’ to be apparent to humans” (per the project statement).
The term “thingness” is radically appropriate for the work on display; Kahn assembles things until their sum thingness overwhelms the constituent parts to become one thing, gooping and flopping and mashing together. Despite working across a multitude of materials—from glass and plastic to felt and bronze—he achieves an alluring evenness that prioritizes form above all. This is particularly apparent in pieces such as the sofa-esque Shapes for Potato, Potential, and Actual, made from fabric, foam, steel, and white bronze, and the could-be-a-side-table-if-it-had-to-be Digital Echinoderm (both 2022), made from painted plastic.
Although he is often slotted into a lineage stemming from Gaetano Pesce—an influential Italian goopster also represented by Friedman Benda—Kahn could as easily be grouped with 21st-century digital formalists such as Greg Lynn (see: BlobWall) and Hernán Díaz Alonso. Sometimes modeled, haphazardly scanned, and printed or milled back to life, Kahn’s work is the sumptuous feel of the digital-real.
— Gary Ku
EYES ON SKYLINE
In Skyline 71, readers were interested in McDonald’s new, Kanye-designed burger packaging.
IN THE NEWS
The site of the Surfside condo collapse was purchased by a Dubai-based luxury real estate developer…
…Álvaro Siza, 89, completed his first project in the United States—a (what else?) luxury condominium tower…
…Developers of the controversial SHoP-designed One45 project in Harlem withdrew their proposal…
…Curator Lesley Lokko announced that the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale will focus on Africa…
…The Los Angeles City Council voted to ban most gas appliances in new construction…
…Barack Obama will headline the 2022 AIA Conference on Architecture, five years after wife Michelle spoke at A’17 on the impact of design…
…The Nakagin Tower capsules are coming to a museum near you.
We are looking for illustrators! Deadline June 20, more information and application at nyra.nyc/illo. Cool gif here:
Next week brings a host of happenings that read like a potluck survey of architectural discourse. From aging-in-place to revisiting some architectural icons, our upcoming events lineup has something for everyone, wherever you may be.
Sculpture in Action: Eliseo Mattiacci in Rome
6pm | Italian Cultural Institute
Island-Building Cüirtopia with Regner Ramos
1:00 PM | Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico
The Ford Foundation - Gensler with Ambrose Aliaga-Kelly, Madeline Burke-Vigeland
6:00 PM | The National Arts Club
Winkelman Lecture with Vanessa Velasco
10:00 AM | Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation
Independent Aging in Asian Cities
7:00 PM | AIA New York Center for Architecture
Streets for Climate with Shachi Pandey, Amy Macdonald, Carter Strickland
7:00 PM | Urban Design Forum
Bridging the Divide at Essex Crossing
5:30 PM | AIA New York Center for Architecture
Speed Presentations Edition 13
6:00 PM | AIANY Interiors Committee
FF – Distance Edition: Workshop with Ken Smith
1:00 PM | The Architectural League of New York
Rubacha Featured Speakers Lecture Series: Peter Eisenman (B.Arch. '54) and Shelly Silver (B.F.A. ’80)
5:30 PM | Cornell Architecture Art Planning
Queer Perspectives in Architecture with Evaline Wu Huang, Enrique Agudo, John Ira Palmer, Ruben Esparza, Natania Meeker, Tag Christoff, Jaffer Kolb, Hernán Díaz Alonso, David Eskenazi
9:00 PM | SCI-Arc
Our listings are constantly being updated. Check the events page regularly for up-to-date listings and submit events through this link.
LETTER TO THE EDITOR
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NYRA is a team effort. Our deputy editor is Marianela D’Aprile, our editors-at-large are Carolyn Bailey, Phillip Denny, and Alex Klimoski, and our publisher is Nicolas Kemper.
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