All quotes are from The Process of Creating Life, by Christopher Alexander. Emphasis and ellipses as in the original.


The further I went to understand the actual process which had been used to make the tile, the more I realized that it was this process, more than anything, which governs the beauty of the design. Perhaps nine-tenths of its character, its beauty, comes simply from the process that the maker followed. The design, what we nowadays think of as the design, followed. It was almost a residue from the all-important process. The design is indeed beautiful, yes. But it can only be made as beautiful as it is within the technique, or process, used to make it. And once one uses this technique, the design—what appears as the sophisticated beauty of the design—follows almost without thinking, just as a result of following the process.

If you do not use this technique—you cannot create a tile of this design. An attempt to follow the same drawing, but with different techniques, will fall flat on its face. And if I change the technique (process), then the design must change, too. This design follows almost without effort from this technique. It is the process, not the design, that is doing all the hard work, and which is even paving the way for the design.

(pp. 7–8)


In what follows, I shall argue that the emergence of new structure in nature, is brought about, always, by a sequence of transformations which act on the whole, and in which each step emerges as a discernible and continuous result from the immediately preceding whole.

(p. 19)


Of course, there is some relationship between the images of the professional architect, and the greed of the capitalist developer. Indeed, one might say that the very idea of city images, or plans, and the very idea of city planning as an activity, is itself inherently at odds with the idea of unfolding, and at odds with the idea of the land giving rise gradually, and of its own accord, to natural extended city form. The modern developments we know too well, associated with huge sums of money, and with vast profits in the hands of developers, necessarily depend on images—because it is the images which first draw investors, and then potential beuyers, to the land. Thus, the very core of the financial process that fuels urban development is consistent with the ideology of 20th-century developers, and at odds with the organic harmony of towns and land.

(p. 135)


In a living system what is to be always grows out of what is, supports it, extends its structure smoothly and continuously, elaborates new form—sometimes startling new form—but without ever violating the structure which exists.

When this rule is violated, as it was, far too often, in 20th-century development, chaos emerges. A kind of cancer occurs. Harm is done. All in all modern society succeeded, in the last century, in creating an ethos where buildings, plans, objects, … are judged only by themselves, and not by the extend to which they enhance and support the world. This means that nature has been damaged, because it is ignored and trampled upon. It means that ancient parts of towns and cities have been trampled, because the modernist view saw no need to respect them, to protect them.

But even more fundamental, it came about because the idea of creativity which became the norm assumed that it is creative to make things that are unrelated (sometimes disoriented and disconnected just in order to be new), and that this is valuable—when in fact it is merely stupid, and represents a misunderstanding, a deep misapprehension of how things are. Creativity comes about when we discover the new within a structure already latent in the present. It is our respect for what is that leads us to the most beautiful discoveries. In art as in architecture, our most intelligent and most wonderful creations come about, when we draw them out as extensions and enhancements of what exists already.

The denial of this point of view, is the chief way in which 20th-century development destroyed the surface of the earth.

(p. 136)


The significance of generated structure lies in the concept of mistakes. Fabricated plans always have many mistakes—not just a few mistakes but tens of thousands, even millions of mistakes. It is the mistake-ridden character of the plans which marks them as fabricated—and that comes from the way they are actually generated, or made, in time. Generated plans have few mistakes.

(p. 186)


In general, we may say that a complex object will only be successful if it is generated. This is obvious in the case of organisms (animals and plants), which are always generated. But it is less obvious, and so far hardly recognized at all for the complex objects we create such as houses, buildings, rooms, cities, and neighborhoods.

Let us consider the case of software. A typical computer program contains tens of thousands of lines of code; others in daily use contain a million lines, even as many as ten million lines of code.

In recent years some attention has been given to their theory of design, and some improvements have been made in contemporary ways of thinking about their design. Computer scientists have told me proudly that they consider computer programs the most complex objects designed by human beings.

Yet, to date, there is little recognition of the following commonsense point: If indeed the programs are so complex, then it is likely that they, too, will be potentially subject to hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of egregious mistakes of adaptation. Here I am not only talking about “bugs”—failures which stop a program from running altogether. I am talking about mistakes of adaptation, ways in which the program fails to do what it is supposed to do, fails to meet the needs of the people who use it, or is more awkward, more annoying, less useful, than it is supposed to be. If the analysis given in this chapter is correct, then it is fair to say that truly successful programs can only be generated; and that the way forward in the next decades, towards programs with highly adapted human performance, will be through programs which are generated through unfolding, in some fashion comparable to what I have described for buildings.

This chapter was first composed as a lecture to the computer science department at Stanford University. After the lecture, I had a chance to hear comments from many of the computer scientists in the audience. Much of the commentary I heard went something along these lines: “This is really interesting… perhaps you should call it ‘evolutionary adaptation’ instead of ‘generated structures'” and “We computer scientists ourselves often practice various forms of evolutionary adaptation in software design. Good software grows, by steps with feedback and evolution, to something better…” And so on.

The essence of all these comments was what I call gradualism. It says “Yes of course, in the case of a complex structure, we cannot hope to get it right first time around, so we build it, run it, test it, fix it, change it… and keep on doing this so it gets better.” What has become known as Extreme programming is a way of doing this for software development, with a very short cycle of evolution and adaptation, repeated many times.

Of course I am in favor of small steps, of adaptation through trial and error, and of what we may call evolutionary adaptation (see chapter 8). But this is not the central point at all. After listening to all these computer scientists’ comments, and taking them to heart, I realized that I had failed, in my lecture, to emphasize the real essence of all generated structures. The real essence lies in the structure-preserving transformations which move the structure forward through time, and which are primarily responsible for the success of the generating process. The needed transformations are not merely trial-and-error steps, or some neat way of continually checking and making things better. In chapter 2, I have referred to the fifteen transformations which act, in all structure-preserving transformations, to move a whole structure forward in a deliberate and explainable way. It is because of these fifteen transformations and their effect, that a whole may be said to “unfold.” It is because of these transformations that a whole becomes coherent, and beautiful. And it is because of this unfolding, and the way the unfolding processes work, that the structure is able to become “mistake-free.”

(pp. 197–198)


I emphasize that a living process, as I have described it, is an idealized scheme. In the real world of architecture, processes which are living ones do not necessarily resemble the scheme I have described. They are often more informal, and more ordinary.

A couple of examples will make the point. Suppose I am telling someone how to improve a corner of their garden. My advice would be something modest and practical: Do one small good thing; then do another small good thing; then do another good thing. Simple as this is, focusing on creation of one good thing at a time, is already likely to work; it will make the garden better. After a person has grasped that idea, I may then point out that sometimes, the good things that we do work even better if each small good thing also helps to achieve some slightly larger good thing. You not only plant a small lilac bush, but you plant it next to a sunny spot where you might like to sit on the grass, and in a way that contributes to this larger spot. Then a particularly lovely spot may be created in the garden. If we do this kind of thing every time we improve the garden, the process will make the garden better in a bigger sense, and in leaps and bounds. This point is, implicitly, a reference to the creation of larger centers—necessarily part of every living process. But I do not need to mention creation of centers explicitly to have a living process. The idea of creating centers is crucial. The language of centers does not have to be used to make it work.

The same point holds for larger and more public problems. We might formulate a public policy which gives advice about the location of freeways in the landscape. For example: The position of a new freeway should be chosen to leave beautiful and harmonious land untouched. It must therefore thread its way through a landscape, using as far as possible only the most damaged available bits of land, both for the roadway itself and for the landscape on either side of it. The effect of this policy on our Earth, if it were widely applied, would be extremely positive. But once again, though it is implicitly a living process, since it preserves and extends living centers where they exist, it does not explicitly use the language of centers to achieve it. And it does not need to. It encourages construction of new centers (in the surrounding land and in the freeway) in such a fashion as to increase, not reduce, the harmony of the larger structure of the land. That is what matters.

(p. 218)


The effect of understanding this point can be dramatic. I remember a student, I will call him X. For months I tried to teach him. He was an outstanding student, but he was—at that moment in his life—still weak in design. He just did not seem to have the knack of putting things together to make something beautiful.

He struggled and struggled. And for months I tried to teach him. Then we came to a design class in which he had to design a house. He worked and worked at the design. Couldn’t get it right. Never knew what to pay attention to. The mess on his drawing board was pretty bad.

Of course, when someone can’t design, it is usually because they confuse themselves by taking things in the wrong order. The continuous back and forth between all possible issues causes confusion instead of clarity.

Finally, one day I sat with him, and I said “Look, I am going to talk you through your design project today. Forget what you have. Erase the whole design. Start with nothing.”

Next I asked him, “Now, tell me, what is the most important thing about the site and the most important thing your design must do in relation to the site. Don’t worry about anything else. Just tell me the answer to that one question. Tell me.” He told me.

“All right, so make a mark. Put in just that one thing. Forget everything else.” He did it.

“All right. Now tell me the next most important thing.” He thought about it. I questioned him. Finally he told me what it was.

“All right, now put that in. Just that second thing. Nothing else.”

He put it in.

We went on like that for an hour or so. If he told me something was important, when I doubted that he really felt that, I just looked at him, and said, no, tell me really what is the next, truly the most important thing? Then he told me that. I kept on like that, forcing him to say, genuinely, what was the next most important thing. And each time, when he had told me what it was, defined it, and I believed it, then I told him, “Do it. Now put it in.” Then after he had done that I asked him to choose the next most important thing he knew about the (not-yet-existing) building. Then I asked him to put that in. And so on.

At the end of an hour he had a beautiful building. It was straightforward, simple, fundamental. Above all it was beautiful. The thing he had never been able to do—to make a beautiful design—he had suddenly done. The was able to do it. At the end he came and said to me, “I had no idea it was so simple. I never understood it before,” and, as if amazed by his own insight, “Finally I understand it, I understand what you have been saying. You just take one thing at a time, and do it in the right order. That’s all there is to it. Just do the most important thing. Finish it. Then do the most important thing. Finish it. And so on.”

He was astonished. It seemed like the most important lesson of his life in architecture school. In this exercise I taught him that it was just the sequence that underlies our ability. By doing things in the right order, he was able to make a beautiful thing.

(pp. 317–318)


But there is a further complication. At each stage in a living process, the needed sequence for the steps that are to follow comes from the wholeness which has unfolded up until that time. It is the wholeness itself, coupled with the fundamental differentiating process, coupled with the use of structure-preserving transformations, which tells us exactly what the proper sequence is for the next steps. This is the crucial point of contact between the idea of the wholeness, and the idea of the sequence. The single most important thing that happens during the process of making anything, is the ever watchful task of getting the next bit of sequence right and modifying it as we go along. Paying attention to what has to be done next, and getting this right, is as important as what one actually does. The more one understands the idea of unfolding, and the more one understands the key role which sequence plays in the unfolding process, the more it becomes clear that the process of design and the process of construction are inseparable.

Compare an old-style cabinetmaker with a new-style woodworker. The old timer always knows how to make things in just the right order. He can set up a vertical in a cabinet without worrying about the next step. Then he sets the rail. Then he trims the rail. Then sets his drawer. Each element follows from the previous element. Because the sequence is right, the thing unfolds without complications. The sequence gives the thing its perfect ease and simplicity.

By comparison the modern, arty woodworker tries to be much more clever. He gets his “conception” … it may be complex. Then he figures out how to put it together. Each part is fabricated so that it all goes together perfectly. The end result is not relaxed but contrived, highly precise according to some previously created image. This thing does not unfold. It is made to conform to a rigid conception.

In this comparison, we see the essential fact: The power and relaxedness that come from a proper sequence are immense.

(pp. 321–322)


There is something in the uniqueness-filled geometry of the living structure which is precious, subtle, goes to the core of things. The living structure is based on the fact that every part is unique: Not merely that the cells inside the flowers are unique, but that the atoms in the cells are also unique, al according to their orientation and location.

So, in a living structure, we have a configuration which is unique and highly defined in its details, in this all-encompassing utterly beautiful way. From the electrons to the atoms to the branch itself—it and all its elements are unique and precious. Yet it is all repeating.

This repetition is important, vital. It is very important to observe that repetition in the world is inevitable, since indeed similar conditions do keep recurring, and since similar conditions will keep spawning similar configurations. One must not interpret uniqueness in a naive hippielike way, to imply that each building (or wall, or window, or street) would be better off if it were utterly different and without relation to others. Calm repetition, the calm beauty of the rows of vines in a vineyard, is of the essence of living structure. But the operative word is similar, not same. For the vineyard to be living, the rows must be very similar. But for it to be living, they must not be the same.

(pp. 329–330)


I want to explain exactly why the appearance of distinct levels of mass and scale must happen inevitably in a living process as one develops the building structure, and explain at the same time why the appearance of the geometry as it ensues in the building, may be described as almost brutal.

In many respects when we try to make structure-preserving buildings through living process, we are at first likely to find an order which is “informal,” not too rigid, rather soft and harmonious as its fits itself to a landscape, or to a valley, or to a street, or to the seeming disarray of neighboring buildings. This softness is what characterizes the “old” way, and is what generates the beautifully harmonious order of Marakesh, or Rothenburg, or the back streets of old Kyoto and Nara, or the sweet subtle order of Jaisalmir in Rajasthan, or the subtle site-placing of a farm in the mountains of Wales. But even so, as we try to create this kind of soft order, there comes a time, inevitably, when we (as architects or builders) have to impose. We have to create a geometry that comes almost from the space itself, from the discipline of rectangles (because spaces are mainly rectangular), and from the discipline of equal or nearly equal structural bays (because structural bays are, by and large, roughly equal and regular). So we need to introduce this almost alien, slightly rigid, formal order of the built nature of a building, into the soft landscape of surrounding forms. And no matter how subtle we may try to be, this “something” which needs to be introduced is something inevitably alien. It has its own laws, it is deeply regular or massively crystalline, and its regularity may seem—and sometimes must actually be—brutal in a certain sense, because it comes from itself.

By that I mean that it comes from the need for the internal geometrical coherence of the building, not from the surroundings. Of course, as we introduce this formal geometry, work it, care for it, we do our best to make it harmonious, we tame it, we introduce necessary irregularities to make it fit the surroundings as well as possible. We fit it to the terrain, the idiosyncracies of street and site and neighboring volume.

This makes it more harmonious, not purely rigid or crystalline. The regularities flow with the land, the structure adjusts to subtleties of interior plan, and all thereby becomes softer. And, of course, we have made the decision about the geometric form—which rectangles, how big, just how brutal?—on the basis of a volumetric conception and a conception of positive space which all have their origin in the land. So it is reasonable to hope that from that origin, too, the geometry will not be brutal; will, if we are successful, have a balance of geometrical hardness and terrain-induced or interior-induced softness.

But in spite of these reasons for hoping that what we do may after all end up soft, well-adapted, comfortably fitted to the harmony of what exists, and thus be structure-preserving to the world, there is at the kernel of the whole process, an inevitable moment of truth which really is rather brutal, the moment when geometry, coming about for its own sake, imposes a discipline of its own that must be introduced. No matter how hard we work to make the building in harmony as far as possible with what exists around it and with the subtleties of its interior plan, still, taking this step is undeniably a brutal act, frightening for an artist who has sensibility for the beauty and softness of the land and of what others have built before him. Yet it is from this moment of brutality, that real order must come. The moment cannot be avoided. The nature of artistic creation—even, we may say, the biological character of order itself—demands it.

It is this injection of definite, strong, geometrical order that allows the profound depth of the made thing—the building in the land—and it is from this that the order must and will arise.

(p. 407)


If we seek to improve the living structure of our world, we must increase the presence of living process all over the world. This in turn requires (or at least common sense strongly suggests that our effort must start from these everyday processes as they actually are, and modify them. It would be far too hard to replace all the everyday processes with new ones. That could only be done in a utopia, in some kind of science-fiction.

We must therefore find a way—a practical way—of slowly, gently, transforming today’s processes from what they actually are today, to making them better, making them more workable, without creating too much disturbance, without upsetting society too drastically, as the changes occur.

(p. 501)


Let us apply the insight of the Grameen Bank process to the evolution of social processes. Suppose, for instance, that a new contractual process is invented for construction.

Let us assume that the sequence is long and complex with many interlocking features. A move to adopt this new construction system will put stress on the human beings, the skills, the economics of the process, the city building department, the architects involved, the available contractors, the licensing laws, the insurance policies, and so forth—all this making it less likely that the innovative process will take and enter the system at large.

It is difficult to find social conditions in which all the features of the construction process can change at the same time, hence extremely difficult to introduce such a new process as a whole.

But suppose that the same improved process of contracting is broken up into, say, twenty separable sequences. Together the twenty smaller processes define the new system in its entirety. But let us also assume that these twenty sequences (or genes) are carefully defined, and chosen, so that each one, individually—any one of them by itself—is separable from the nineteen others, and can therefore be successfully injected by itself into an otherwise normal or mainstream system of construction. If the snippet works well, it may be adopted, and may spread to new construction methods, even in the context of different attitudes. (Of course, this is the way technological evolution takes place, anyway. But we are talking, now, about the possibility of injecting morphogenetic sequences into the mainstream).

Now expand to a situation where each of the twenty snippets is in circulation. We then have available a mixed system of approaches to construction: But the essential, new, morphogenetic ingredients can flourish one at a time. They can be tested, improved—and can spread deep into society and existing social processes—simply by virtue of the improved performance they create “without rocking the boat too much.”

What was difficult or impossible as a larger act of social transformation, becomes possible when one uses a genetic approach to achieve the same aims. What is needed is simply a way of “cutting up” the original innovative process, into a small set of process genes or small sequences that work individually, and that are robust enough to work in a wide variety of contexts, even when not supported by other parts of the new system.

(p. 535)


This process is very different from the normally accepted process of architectural design and construction as it was in the 1990s. To make the unfolding process possible, I was both architect and contractor for the house. The bank accepted the process, in spite of its innovative character. The submission of plans to the Berkeley building department was normal (however, see discussion on pages 604–605). The role of drawings was also very different from that in the normal professional process of today. Since the construction was indeed an unfolding process, we could not know how the house would turn out in detail, until it was finished. Although some drawings were made during the process—for permits, structural checking, and so on—all the participants knew that the drawings were merely a rough approximation of what was to become the finished building.

The house was carefully built to a fixed budget—according to contract—and came in on budget. The money was administered under a new kind of construction contract which I have developed with my colleagues over many years. This contract allows construction price to be guaranteed while unfolding is taking place, even though the design is not rigidly fixed ahead of time. Thus the client does not have the financial uncertainty that such an open-ended project would create in a typical late 20th-century construction contract where many steps of the unfolding would be viewed as changes. Rather, in our contract the unfolding was a feasible process within a fixed budget, backed by the careful cost control necessary to make this possible. This was part of the agreement from the beginning.

(p. 572)

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