Social Radicalism Reexamined: The Legacies of Christopher Alexander and Joseph Rykwert
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Social Radicalism Reexamined: The Legacies of Christopher Alexander and Joseph Rykwert

Christopher Alexander (1936–2022) and Joseph Rykwert (b. 1926) were two giants of 20th century architectural theory who began their work in England and eventually created lasting legacies at two great American architectural schools: the University of California at Berkeley (Alexander) and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia (Rykwert). Their careers not only coincided with a critical period of social and cultural research among designers and urbanists, but in many ways continue to inspire the current generation of committed critics of late capitalist development on our imperiled planet. Yet to many they are too little known. 

Both Berkeley and Penn had a major impact on the built environment during the third quarter of the 20th century, when the world was beset by large-scale social unrest. Many of the student-led protest movements of that era were driven by intense idealism fueled by ideas taught in modern liberal arts universities by faculty in the humanities and social sciences. If capitalist society was exploiting the working class by controlling the means of production (to use the Marxist terms then popular), then change was possible only through coordinated resistance to those in power. If modern democracies were challenged by turbulent economic and social conditions, all citizens should have the opportunity to ameliorate these conditions for the common good. Altruism, sometimes tinged with radical extremism, pushed thousands of students to join the civil rights movement, Black power groups, anti-Vietnam rallies, second-wave feminists, and many other counterculture forces during those tumultuous decades.

When Alexander left Harvard in 1963 to teach at Berkeley, he joined more notable academics such as Timothy Leary (1920–1996) and Ram Dass (Richard Alpert, 1931–2019) in going west to “tune in, turn on, and drop out.” David Lodge provided a comic satire in his novel Changing Places that might have been Alexander’s life story at the time. Rykwert, also an Eastern European expat, was moving from London to teach at Essex in the late 1960s. Neither, it should be noted, was a practicing architect. Alexander had a master’s in mathematics and a Ph.D. in architecture from Harvard, and Rykwert had degrees from the Bartlett School and the Architectural Association in London. He served as an art librarian at the Royal College of Art from 1961 to 1967, afterward establishing a post-graduate degree program in architectural history and theory at Essex University (much to the chagrin of R.I.B.A.). He moved to Philadelphia in 1988 to become the Paul Cret Professor of Architecture. Neither man was ever comfortable with the status quo—a decade of reform movements gave them license to attack those creating cities and large-scale developments during one of history’s greatest building booms. 

Alexander was an ideal exponent of anti-establishment theories of architecture throughout the 1970s, when he created “the Oregon experiment” and other workshops with Berkeley students and faculty. He had published a stinging critique of “systems theory” as a formula for streamlining architectural design in 1967 with his Notes on the Synthesis of Form. Not content simply to dismantle cybernetics and rationalism, he set about to look at what Amos Rappaport called “architecture without architects,” an anthropologist’s view of people and buildings. He did so with the discipline of a scientist. 

Rykwert, who had written for periodicals about London and English architecture during his early career, turned to architectural history at a time when social and economic historians were transforming their fields in Europe and the U.K. He benefited from not having earned a Ph.D. under the dominant modernist historians of the day, Nikolaus Pevsner (1902–1983) and Sigfried Giedion (1888–1968). Trained as a classicist, he looked at the idea of a town and the prototypical house from a broadly humanistic standpoint and never accepted the historiography of heroic modernist “form-givers” handed down from on high. His prose was uncommonly clear and concise, perhaps owing to his Polish parentage. (Some writers consider Joseph Conrad the greatest English stylish for similar reasons.) Rykwert became a prolific writer and scholar who influenced a new generation of historians.

Though some saw Alexander as an eccentric cult figure in the Bay Area, Berkeley proved to be a fertile field in which he sowed many disparate and complementary ideas over the decades. His benchmark was, appropriately, Nature with a capital N. Beginning with A Pattern Language in 1980, he and his colleagues demonstrated that for much of human history societies depended upon repeated, time-tested building patterns to ensure economic, social and cultural stability in particular environments throughout the globe. He was one of the first theorists to insist that the health and welfare of all people required not just commodious, but also beautiful, buildings and cities. Form might follow function, but only if it first followed nature and her patterns of growth and aesthetic harmony. Oddly, his books found limited support among architectural academics but sold thousands of copies to designers and lay readers from the first edition to the present day.

Rykwert was always a controversial figure in the U.K., where modernists and high-tech gurus ruled the roost. An early proponent of James Stirling’s mature work, he assembled a coterie of students and radical thinkers that included Dalibor Vesely, Alberto Perez-Gomez, Daniel Libeskind, George Baird, and Alan Colquhoun at Essex, the Architectural Association, and Cambridge, promoting disciplined research rather than thin-skinned critiques of contemporary building practice. He also steered well clear of Prince Charles, Quinlan Terry, and conservative promoters of a new traditionalism. His books, especially The First Moderns, focused on the emergence of new philosophies of design that coincided with, but were not subservient to, the industrial revolution and its technocratic canons of production. He made clear that Neo-Classicism was not a revivalist style but a new and highly rational movement toward buildings that spoke to the common person in a language that could be readily understood. He also explained the falsely “rational” ideas of Enlightenment thinkers such as J.N.L. Durand in terms of the myth of scientific objectivity. 

These two outliers approached their critiques from a radical, socially oriented platform that focused on the bodily, emotional experience of architecture, not its abstract representation as pure form. As they did so, those who controlled academic discourse turned further and further from humanistic concerns toward “critical theory” in the mold of post-structuralist philosophers. If “true,” “good,” and “beautiful” were seen as relative terms, pursuing socially grounded canons of design was chided as futile. The inherent solipsism of this position could have been understood if social and biological sciences were at the forefront of architectural discourse. They were nowhere to be seen by the 1980s.

Photo courtesy of Maggie Moore Alexander.


Despite his scientific bona fides, Alexander became a lightning rod for such theorists as Peter Eisenman, who debated him in a celebrated session at Harvard’s GSD in November 1982. The latter, ever the taunting gadfly, poked Alexander repeatedly by insisting that their disagreements were less strident than the cartoon image of an “eastern intellectual versus a California joy boy” might suggest. Most who have read the transcript agree that Alexander won the debate handily by refusing to be baited and presenting a clear case for why order, natural harmony, and emotions matter in all environmental design. He continued to write and present case studies from his building workshops around the world.

Rykwert stayed well clear of these controversies as he installed himself as an eminence grise at Penn. His position as the inheritor of Kahn’s endowed chair was powerful, and he produced Ph.D. students who went on to teach around the world. Grounded in a broad view of cultural history, his writings ranged from the meanings of ancient architectural symbols to the poetic significance of modern masters such as Louis Kahn. Most of his contemporaries became specialists in one period or another, without the catholic breadth of Rykwert’s experience. Though some criticized him for this, he remained at an architectural school, not in an art history department, where such research was beneficial to multiple graduate programs. Under George Holmes Perkins, Penn established the model of an integrated “school of fine arts” in which interdisciplinary work was encouraged: architects studied drawing, urban design, and landscape architecture in concert with their colleagues in allied departments.

Joseph Rykwert in Poland, 2012, Wikipedia Commons.


Berkeley’s programs were similarly diverse, though never as well integrated as Penn’s. Its two most influential professors were Joseph Esherick and William Wurster. Esherick trained in Penn’s Beaux Arts program under Paul Philippe Cret and remained committed to its basic design methodology. Wurster had a similar education at Berkeley under John Galen Howard, and then worked in New York for Delano & Aldrich. Under Wurster during the 1950s and ’60s, the school had one of the most active planning, housing, and social factors research faculties in the world. Alexander interacted with, and benefited from, the studies of Claire Cooper Marcus, Catherine Bauer Wurster, and Galen Crantz, among others. 

In many respects, Alexander and Rykwert had complementary skills and research interests but never, as far as I know, crossed paths. They might well have collaborated and thereby increased the range of their influence beyond a group of highly loyal and productive students, teaching in far-flung universities but never dominant in any country. Alexander’s anti-classical, and in many respects ahistorical, approach to design would have benefited from a more catholic view of architectural history. Rykwert’s somewhat arcane and literary vision of architectural philosophy could well have widened to include new scientific knowledge emerging in parallel with his own research. There were clear weaknesses in each man’s thinking as they began to reach a wider audience, but neither was prepared to respond in his later years to this kind of criticism.

The “Building Beauty” graduate program at the University Suor Orsola Benincasa in Naples, Italy, has adopted many of Alexander’s ideas to good effect, but is too small at present to claim significant numbers of followers. Penn has drifted away from its core strengths as a pluralistic and multidisciplinary design school under pressure from globalization and Starchitecture. Without Rykwert at its helm, the Ph.D. program has lost ground to competing institutions. As such, the great work of both men has dimmed in importance during the past decade. 

Today’s U.S. architects pursuing social justice have not overtly invoked the influence of these thinkers in their press releases. Europe’s young Turks seem equally uneducated. To be sure, the thousands of young people in countries like Norway, Finland, and Denmark that formed Architectural Uprising are an exception. And Create Streets in Britain has been a beacon during the past decade. But generally the history that is taught in schools won’t include books or articles by these important theorists. The tired ideologies of Modernism hang on despite their bankruptcy. 

The irony of this situation should not be lost on the present generation of students, who clearly want something different in their education, looking ahead to practicing in a socially challenging environment. Building schools and housing in Africa or the Middle East is an obvious priority, but there are plenty of causes in the U.S. and Western Europe with equal urgency that need new ideas from architects. Nothing good comes out of nowhere; history must be our guide. 

Socially grounded design, based on clear patterns of building and anthropological research on the way humans prefer to live, can readily be pursued using the corpus of research that figures like Rykwert and Alexander have published over decades. Groups such as the Congress for the New Urbanism employ that research in their programs and courses. Research-based organizations such as ANFA in San Diego are also engaged in the study of human behavior. We build for animals called homo sapiens, and nature has molded their ontogeny for thousands of years. There is no excuse for ignoring what we know about the nature of shelter, aesthetic harmony, and traditional craftsmanship as we confront the challenges of the new millennium. It would be radical if young architects started bucking the academic establishment and used proven paradigms to solve today’s problems, instead of swallowing what they are taught in school about novelty and innovation.

Featured image: Sala House, Albany, California, front hall, 1983-84. Designed by Christopher Alexander, via Wikimedia Commons.