STRUCTURALISM AND SYNTHESIS
 

 

This research examines Aldo Van Eyck and Christopher Alexander's shared ideologies and research, tracing their humanist theoretical development and intersections in the field of African vernacular architecture.


Following the Second World War, modern architectural theory quickly evolved as vast reconstruction efforts spurred new discussions about habitation, dwelling, and design. Among the number of influential architects and designers contributing in this period, Aldo van Eyck and Christopher Alexander stand out as extraordinary individuals with unique legacies who are often passed over as precedent, despite the innovative quality of their work. Moreover, these two are historically and thematically distanced from each other—each known for being adamant defenders of their respective approaches to design. However, an examination of their theoretical development reveals that both architects were motivated by similar concepts and issues in architecture and urbanism.

Aldo van Eyck and Christopher Alexander were born in the period between WW1 and WW2. Through the latter, modern architecture in Europe increasingly took shape with a functionalist bent, tempered by speculative development. Concrete & steel construction was rapidly proliferating in European cities. [1] Shortages of building materials resulted in high-density housing projects, sprawled at four stories over kilometers to avoid incorporating elevators. [2] Concerns were growing among some architects—especially in the most ravaged countries, like the Netherlands—that the new urban environment being built was dehumanizing and hostile to fundamental human requirements such as community and privacy.

Image: Zaanhoff Playground (1948), Amsterdam, Aldo Van Eyck

Image: Zaanhoff Playground (1948), Amsterdam, Aldo Van Eyck

Aldo van Eyck, educated in illustrious private schools and surrounded in his childhood by influential artists, became a young architect deeply engaged and attuned to all of the arts—especially 20th century avant garde painting and sculpture; architecture was not initially such a passion. He went to school in Zurich, at the ETH—demonstrating clear talents and an interest social architectural space. Foreshadowing his future interests in architectural thresholds, a professor remembers van Eyck musing about an entry in his first desk critique, “When you first come to this chapel, what do you experience?” [3]

Following the war, Aldo’s interest in architecture intensified as he worked for Amsterdam’s Public Works designing city playgrounds, simultaneously engaging in the CIAM debate over whether national reconstruction should take a functionalist or traditional shape. His aesthetic interests were intensely modern—yet a keen appreciation for music theory and elementary geometries induced a subtle combination of modernist and classicist language in his initial, most seminal projects, like Nagele Village and the Amsterdam Orphanage. [4] His intellectual energies, aired in CIAM’s child Team 10, circled around concepts like the aesthetics of number, which matured into the configurative approach that defined the Structuralist movement. But alongside these theoretical concerns, and in response to the failure he perceived in modern functionalism, van Eyck increasingly vocalized a staunch commitment and interest in social welfare and equality; not on an abstract sociological level, but on the concrete level of the men, women, and children using architectural and urban space. As he simply wrote in a CIAM publication, “We may still bring about what today we have come to regard as a miracle: cities that are places where it is good to live—for every citizen. Today the architect is the ally of every man or no man. [5] Everyday experience and catalyzing relationships between people gradually became the strongest elements in van Eyck’s motivations for design.

Image: Amsterdam Orphanage (1960), Aldo Van Eyck

Image: Amsterdam Orphanage (1960), Aldo Van Eyck

Likewise, humanist yearnings underpinned Christopher Alexander’s development—though in every other respect he is a perfect counterpoint to van Eyck. A precocious genius who trained at Cambridge in physics and mathematics, an epiphany at an exhibition of architectural photography led him to apply to architecture school (his father, a scientist who thought architects were ‘disreputable and idiotic,’ could not dissuade him). Alexander recollects in his memoirs that after matriculating he thought he had entered an insane asylum—being asked to "do incredible and absurd things which did not relate to each other or even make sense individually." At one point, despondently staring at his drawing board after being given the vague prompt to ‘draw a house,’ he randomly doodled what looked like a Van Doesburg painting and called it a floor plan. To his shock, his doodle was celebrated as an ‘exceptional piece of work’ by the Director of the school, and thus, from the very beginning Christopher was disillusioned—he keenly felt a superficiality in modernist design and pedagogy, and believed more and more that modern architecture was an ugly and pretentious charade. [6] Going on to Harvard for a PhD in Architectural Studies, Alexander began to turn his energies towards understanding what was missing the discipline—a clear structure for the process of design, as he saw it—and there wrote his first seminal text: Notes on the Synthesis of Form. Alexander continued to research and write, later completing his magnum opus, A Pattern Language. [7] However, he freely admits that his research and writing is a vehicle to a more central objective. His root aim was to create (and systematize how to create) beautiful and humane architecture. He puts it very similarly to van Eyck’s adage, “Make a welcome of each door, and a face of each window,” by saying, “I am trying to make a building which is like a smile on a person’s face, and which has that kind of rightness about it.” [8]

Their shared affinity for a more humble and welcoming kind of architecture was unusual. Aldo van Eyck’s catchy saying that “Whatever space and time mean, place and occasion mean more,” summed up an attitude that seriously diverged from mainstream modernist preoccupations. Their alienation from modern architecture may have guided them both towards vernacular architecture as a primary source of inspiration for their theories. In both men, it was through referencing and harnessing dynamics they found at play in the architecture of indigenous cultures that gave force to their theories.


Their alienation from modern architecture may have guided them both towards vernacular architecture as a primary source of inspiration for their theories, away from precedents their contemporaries were looking at.  In both men, it was through referencing dynamics they found at play in indigenous cultures that gave force to their theories.


For Alexander, the art and architecture of indigenous cultures remained a constant exemplar throughout his research, consistently informing what he called Patterns, which he based on characteristics of vernacular architectures. However, the initial moment of Alexander’s analysis of indigenous cultures was in Notes on the Synthesis of Form, in which he articulated a solid basis for his thesis:


"My main task has been to show that there is a deep and important underlying structural correspondence between the pattern of a problem and the process of designing a physical form which answers that problem." [9]

 

In other words, Alexander argued that by clarifying and understanding all issues of a design problem according to each aspect's importance and relation to other issues, a good and fitting design solution would emerge—and the formal structure of this solution would reflect the conceptualized structure of the design problem.

Image: The structure of a design problem—the un-self-conscious process modifies one node at a time, leaving the whole structure intact.

Image: The structure of a design problem—the un-self-conscious process modifies one node at a time, leaving the whole structure intact.

Leading to an explanation of this process, he employs reference of indigenous and vernacular architectures in order to explain the need for his methodology; branding traditional architectures as 'un-self-conscious' and existing modern architecture as 'self'conscious.' [10]  Alexander was amazed by the sufficiency and intentionality of vernacular architecture; he cites one example of a west-African hut, and goes on at length how it is perfectly fitted to serve its structural, environmental, social, religious, and political needs. Marveling that it is so coherent with its environment and users’ pattern of life, Alexander judges modern architecture for failing to be so multi-dimensionally coherent:
 

"This kind of dual coherence is common in simple cultures. Yet in our own culture the only forms which match these simpler forms for overall clarity of conception are those we have already mentioned, designed under the impulse of very special preoccupations. And these forms, just because they derive their clarity from simplification of the problem, fail to meet all the context’s demands." [11]
 

Linking the crucial difference between the un-self-conscious and self-conscious to the conceptual ‘problem-structures’ of his thesis, he argues that indigenous cultures reflexively ‘patch’ the architectural forms they’ve inherited, instead of consciously inventing them anew as modernists might.


“… the un-self-conscious process has a structure that makes it homeostatic (self-organizing), and that it therefore consistently produces well-fitting forms, even in the face of change. And I shall argue that in a self-conscious culture the homeostatic structure of the process is broken down, so that the production of forms which fail to fit their contexts is not only possible, but likely.” [12]


The stability of the un-self-conscious process was a key insight for Alexander, which validated his theory for a new design process based not on the modernist credo of formal clarity but rather one of formal coherence which embraced more complexity.

Image: An excerpt from  A Pattern Language —Pattern #154, TEENAGER'S COTTAGE—showing precedent from Dogon architecture.

Image: An excerpt from A Pattern Language—Pattern #154, TEENAGER'S COTTAGE—showing precedent from Dogon architecture.


Linking the crucial difference between the un-self-conscious and self-conscious to the conceptual ‘problem-structures’ of his thesis, he argues that indigenous cultures reflexively ‘patch’ the architectural forms they’ve inherited, instead of consciously inventing them anew as modernists might.


While Alexander latched onto the coherence between architecture and the patterns of its users’ lives and culture, what van Eyck saw was similar but even more holistic: a coherence between a culture’s architecture and its cosmology. Although Aldo investigated more than one indigenous culture, [13] the Dogon tribe in West Africa is regarded as his most significant subject for research and the richest source of inspiration for his working theory of architecture.

Anthropologists have observed that the Dogon people see the world “as an organism, and all its parts as being reproductions of the same image on a smaller or larger scale.” [14] To put it very roughly, the Dogon worldview is that the cosmos has emerged from a primal ‘egg’ which is subdivided by a spiral (like a nautilus), generating incrementally larger and smaller scaled chambers that embody everything—from the universe down to the tiniest living seed. [15] Household implements, clothes, artwork and artifacts, and architecture—all are shaped in specific ways to bear reflect this structure of the cosmos, and are given soft, organic profiles and carry ovoid ornamentation or details of some kind. An additional central tenet is a principle of duality; that the primal egg gave birth to twins—the estrangement of which is the source of strife, sickness, and death in life. Therefore, all Dogon architecture, artifacts, ceremonies, and habits are deeply committed to bearing the image of the egg in pairs, to promote a mending of the world’s fabric and order. [16] Incredibly, this motif is so permeated into all scales of the Dogon culture that even their settlements are constructed in pairs, side by side some kilometers distant with elliptical boundaries, while agricultural fields spiral outwards as far as the terrain allows. [17] This consistency of form in all scales resonated deeply with van Eyck, who had been testing similar concepts in his orphanage in Amsterdam.


“Understandably, contact with the Dogon produced a shock of recognition for Aldo. Their identification of 'small' with 'large' and of 'house' with 'village', their ordering concept of successively larger-scaled organisms contained one within the other, their conception of these organisms in the image of man, the equilibrating twin-relationship that was fundamental to their cosmology and view of society – all this accorded strikingly with the approach he had been developing during the preceding seven years, i.e. configurative design, reciprocity and the dual phenomenon.” [18]
 

Image: The Dogon world-egg cosmos diagram & related urbanism diagrams at successively smaller scales.

Image: The Dogon world-egg cosmos diagram & related urbanism diagrams at successively smaller scales.

Van Eyck published his findings of the Dogon culture in Forum, advocating for lessons to be learned and applied to the reconstruction occurring in European cities. [19] As Lejeune writes, “van Eyck’s interest for the North African vernacular…. cannot be disconnected from the alienation that the postwar urban environment in Europe brought about.” [20] For van Eyck, the Dogon’s cross-scale integration of their built environment with their worldview was crucial—and if emulated in Europe, would bring alienating and dehumanizing modern development to end.
 

“What we can learn from them is a planning prerogative: if society has no real specific form, it will fail to build its own counterform, i.e. fail to build a real urban environment. Are we going to catch up with the Dogon people before finally there is nothing left to catch up with? This is the challenge to contemporary urbanism.” [21]
 

Of course, he observed that there is no commonly shared modern cosmology— “We have lost all the beautiful certainty about the way the world works…”— and rather than seeking a shared understanding of the cosmos, Van Eyck cryptically called for society to look within, “inside ourselves, in the constitution and structure of the human person.” [22] Perhaps this is a reference to the basic human spirit, and our needs as social people; considerations van Eyck felt were often lost by functionalist architecture.

Image: Dogon artifacts showcasing the twin representations of the 'world-egg'. (left: wooden doors, right: Nommo effigy)

Image: Dogon artifacts showcasing the twin representations of the 'world-egg'. (left: wooden doors, right: Nommo effigy)


While Alexander latched onto the coherence between architecture and the patterns of its users’ lives and culture, what van Eyck saw was similar but even more holistic: a coherence between a culture’s architecture and its cosmology. 


Aside from the Dogon’s pertinence to his central mission of flourishing cities and dwellings, van Eyck’s working theories of twin phenomena and configurative architecture, as well as his abiding interest in elementary geometries were galvanized by his findings. Moreover, collections of actual artifacts and artwork he acquired became sources of rich inspiration. The configuration of a motif in vernacular fabrics, or the way a pattern was projected onto a concave piece of pottery would fascinate him: “He is especially intrigued by elementary pregnant forms whose tenseness or articulation nonetheless reveals a reconciliation of opposites.” [23] Christopher Alexander shared a similar penchant for collecting indigenous crafts—particularly textiles. In fact, it was principally artifacts like Turkish prayer rugs which became a critical vehicle for his research on geometric patterns and ‘oneness’ in Nature and Order [24]—in it he explored concepts not unlike Eyck’s configurative and dualistic theories that espoused multiplicity becoming reconciled with the individual unit.

Image: Comparisons Christopher Alexander made from textiles to architecture indicating universal geometries.

Image: Comparisons Christopher Alexander made from textiles to architecture indicating universal geometries.

Although the two architects are rarely linked in scholars’ texts, these parallels existing between van Eyck and Alexander are not wholly coincidence. At one Team X meeting in 1962, shortly after van Eyck’s return from the Dogon in West Africa, Christopher Alexander was invited to attend. He presented a project for a village in India demonstrating the application of his design process worked out in Notes on the Synthesis of Form. The project’s organization, configured hierarchically and concentrically, like a ‘tree’—received criticism from van Eyck, who personally espoused a more interwoven configuration that was not discernably hierarchical. Two years later, and undoubtedly in response to a discussion the discussion they held together, Alexander published his well-known article ‘A City is not a Tree’ acknowledging the complexity of cities and the interconnection in their structure as being more of a ‘semi-lattice’ than a ‘tree’. This encounter was formative for Alexander, and no doubt engendered a lasting mutual regard. As Strauven says of Alexander, “It is clear that his ideas were fundamentally influenced by the latter (van Eyck) in certain respects, especially as regards thinking in terms of relational patterns, (and) the notion that universal constants relevant to contemporary building and habitation are to be found in the immense variety of human civilizations…” [25] Indeed, both architects benefited from each other’s research, and clearly shared an ideological commitment to a more humane architecture—one that is more universal, timeless, and connected to people and culture in the past and present.

The relevancy of their findings today bears some thought—in a way, the poorly planned urban development occurring in rapidly developing countries, such as those in East Asia, mirrors the problematic construction in postwar Europe. However, between the research accomplished by both architects, my sense is that although their shared goal of designing a humane architecture is still a highly necessary objective, the insights that Christopher Alexander drew from indigenous cultures remain most relevant. Going deeper than the actual form of vernacular architecture, Alexander rather drew from the process that he perceived underlying these cultures. As he wrote in Notes on a Synthesis of Form, the complexity of architectural design is only continuing to increase. And, as pressure mounts on the cost of living, on the world’s resources, and in our natural environment, the need for high-performing architecture that grapples with more than internal problems is only becoming more acute.

Regarding van Eyck, it is sadly doubtful that society will share more values in common, much less a cosmology. Growing disparities and inequality in society seem to point away from architectural solutions reflecting a shared way of seeing the world. However infeasible his wish for emulating the Dogon is, Aldo van Eyck and Christopher Alexander's belief in the need for a more complex, integrated sort of urbanism rings true.


Growing disparities and inequality in society seem to point away from architectural solutions reflecting a shared way of seeing the world. However infeasible his wish for emulating the Dogon is, Aldo van Eyck and Christopher Alexander's belief in the need for a more complex, integrated sort of urbanism rings true.


 

 

Citations
 

1 Grabow, Stephen. Christopher Alexander: The Search for a New Paradigm in Architecture. Boston: Or., 1983. Pg 6

2 Heuvel, Wim J. Van. Structuralism in Dutch Architecture. Rotterdam: Uitgeverij 010, 1992. Pg 10

3 Strauven, Francis. Aldo Van Eyck: The Shape of Relativity. Amsterdam: Architectura & Natura, 1998. Pg 64

4 Strauven, Chpt. ‘Zurich 1942-46,’ ‘Amsterdam 1946-53.’

5 Aldo van Eyck, Architectural Forum, 1953, no. 3, p. 80-91, sourced from Strauven, pg 23

6 Grabow, pg. 30

7 Dirk van den Heuvel, www.team10online.org

8 Alexander, Christopher. Quoted in Grabow, pg 21

9 Alexander, Christopher. Notes on the Synthesis of Form. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1964. Pg 132

10 Alexander, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, pg. 32-33

11 Pg. 31

12 Pg. 38

13 Strauven, pg. 38

14 Pg. 381-385

15 Pg. 383

16 Pg. 381-388

17 Pg. 383

18 Pg. 387

19 Van Eyck, Aldo. “Architecture of the Dogon.’ Architectural Forum 1961 Pg. 114-121, 186

20 Lejeune, Francois, Sabatino. Modern Architecture and the Mediterranean: Vernacular Dialogues and Contested    
     Identities. London: Routledge, 2010. Pg. 258

21 Van Eyck, “Architecture of the Dogon” pg. 186.

22 Pg. 186

23 Strauven, pg. 454

24 Grabow, pg. 201

25 Strauven, pg. 472


 

Bibliography
 

1. Alexander, Christopher. Houses Generated by Patterns.

2. Alexander, Christopher. Notes on the Synthesis of Form. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard UP, 1964.

3. Alexander, Christopher, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein. A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction.     New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

4. Eyck, Aldo Van, Vincent Ligtelijn, and Francis Strauven. Aldo Van Eyck: Writings. Amsterdam, 2008.

5. Eyck, Aldo Van. “The Dogon Architecture.” Architectural Forum 1961.

6. Grabow, Stephen. Christopher Alexander. The Search for a New Paradigm in Architecture. Boston: Oriel, 1983.

7. Heuvel, Wim J. Van. Structuralism in Dutch Architecture. Rotterdam: Uitgeverij 010, 1992.

8. King, Ingrid F., and Christopher Alexander. Christopher Alexander and Contemporary Architecture. Tokyo: U Pub.,         1993.

9. Lejeune, Jean-François, and Michelangelo Sabatino. Modern Architecture and the Mediterranean: Vernacular          
    Dialogues and Contested Identities. London: Routledge, 2010.

10. Odgers, Jo, Flora Samuel, and Adam Sharr. Primitive: Original Matters in Architecture. London: Routledge, 2006.

11. Strauven, Francis. Aldo Van Eyck: The Shape of Relativity. Amsterdam: Architectura & Natura, 1998.

12. Jaschke, Karin. “City is House and House is City. Aldo van Eyck, Piet Blom and the Architecture of Homecoming.”
      Intimate Metropolis: Urban Subjects in the Modern City. London and New York: Routledge 2008.

13. Jaschke, Karin. “Aldo van Eyck and the 'Dogon Image'”. Architects' Journeys: Building, traveling, thinking. Ed. Buckley, Craig. GSAPP Books 2011.

14. Lammers, Harm. “Potentially… Unravelling and reconnecting Aldo van Eyck in search of an approach for tomorrow.” Eindhoven University of Technology, January 11 2012.

 

Images
 

1. McCarter, Robert. Aldo Van Eyck. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2015

2. Grabow, Stephen. Christopher Alexander. The Search for a New Paradigm in Architecture. Boston: Oriel, 1983.

3. Alexander, Christopher. Notes on the Synthesis of Form. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard UP, 1964.

4. Alexander, Christopher, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein. A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings,

5. Strauven, Francis. Aldo Van Eyck: The Shape of Relativity. Amsterdam: Architectura & Natura, 1998. Construction.
    New York: Oxford UP, 1977.