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Notes on the synthesis of form

5.0 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Unknown Binding: 216 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard U.P. Oxford U.P (1964)
  • ASIN: B0000CMB0P
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 8,408,074 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


The success or failure of the designed environment will remain, as always, a human responsibility...Alexander's assertions are not only challenging and stimulating but informative. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Chris Alexander is a diplomat and politician who served for eighteen years as an international public servant and Canadian foreign service officer. From 2005 to 2009 he was the UN deputy special representative in Afghanistan, helping to lead the largest UN political mission in the world. Alexander was also the Canadian ambassador to that country and a key contributor to the effort to stabilize and support post-Taliban Afghanistan. He returned to Canada in 2009 and is now the Conservative MP for Ajax-Pickering, where he lives, as well as the parliamentary secretary to the minister of national defense. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Format: Paperback
This book outlines an approach to designing complex artifacts. A design problem is considered as a set of potential "misfits" between the artifact (or "form") and its context. Each misfit can be considered as a binary variable - either it occurs (1) or it doesn't (0). Thus the perfect resolution of a design problem consists in creating an artifact which sets all the misfits to zero. Unfortunately misfits tend to affect one another - modifying the design to resolve one frequently causes others to reoccur. For example, designing a vacuum cleaner with the best available materials makes it reliable and effective, but also expensive. Alexander considers design problems in terms of the couplings between misfits. Certain patterns of couplings will lead to problems which are practically insoluble, because solving one part of them "breaks" another part of the solution. Beyond a certain level of complexity it becomes impossible to manage all the interacting misfits. The answer, according to Alexander, is to consider the problem is such a way that misfits can be grouped into subsystems, effectively smaller problems which can be solved independently, then combined with other subsystems to solve the initial large problem. If like me you are a software engineer then this should all sound very familiar. This book contains the best explanation of what coupling is and why you want to avoid it that I have come across. It also serves as a foundation for Alexander's later, more famous work on design patterns. This is not a "how to" book - it doesn't describe a detailed design method or development process. However it gave me an invaluable insight into some of the issues underlying the design of any complex artifact, including software, and as such I would recommend it to all software engineers.
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Format: Paperback
This book is often recommended as a software architecture book. Of course software is never touched upon, and the author insists that it is the conclusions which he reaches that are important.
What this book does very well is analyse the steps taken in reaching design conclusions. Even though these steps are not directly related to software architectures their lucidity instantly provokes a stream of software parallels.
Final bonus point (which gets the 5th star) it's an easy read unlike those dry software patterns books - yawn.
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Format: Paperback
The idea of thinking about architectural design as if one where doing operational research, i.e. applying the same kind of mathematical language, is a theoretically interesting idea. I also understand that the book was cult reading among software engineers for a period, but I doubt that many architects are following the method Alexander suggests when doing practical design. While the intensions are good, the output quickly becomes complex, as he illustrates through the examples towards the end of the book. The book is still interesting, however, but primarily as a way of understanding how architects think and how to apply this kind of thinking into other areas of practice.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.4 out of 5 stars 14 reviews
127 of 135 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A summary 14 Sept. 2001
By Wayne Lobb - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
(Below is a series of quotes from the book, some of them slightly modified, plus a small number of "glue" sentences I've added to make transitions smoother. My goal was to distill the key ideas in this exceptional book.)

Every design problem begins with an effort to achieve fitness between two entities: the form in question and its context. The form is the solution to the problem; the context defines the problem. We want to put the context and the form into effortless contact or frictionless coexistence, i.e., we want to find a good fit.

For a good fit to occur in practice, one vital condition must be satisfied. It must have time to happen. In slow-changing, traditional, unselfconscious cultures, a form is adjusted soon after each slight misfit occurs. If there was good fit at some stage in the past, no matter how removed, it will have persisted, because there is an active stability at work. Tradition and taboo dampen and control the rate of change in an unselfconscious culture's designs.

It is important to understand that the individual person in an unselfconscious culture needs no creative strength. He does not need to be able to improve the form, only to make some sort of change when he notices a failure. The changes may not always be for the better; but it is not necessary that they should be, since the operation of the process allows only the improvements to persist. Unselfconscious design is a process of slow adaptation and error reduction.

In the unselfconscious process there is no possibility of misconstruing the situation. Nobody makes a picture of the context, so the picture cannot be wrong. But the modern, selfconscious designer works entirely from a picture in his mind - a conceptualization of the forces at work and their interrelationships - and this picture is always incomplete and sometimes wrong.

To achieve in a few hours at the drawing board what once took centuries of adaptation and development, to invent a form suddenly which clearly fits its context - the extent of invention necessary is beyond the individual designer. A designer who sets out to achieve an adaptive good fit in a single leap is not unlike the child who shakes his glass-topped puzzle fretfully, expecting at one shake to arrange the bits inside correctly. The designer's attempt is hardly as random as the child's is; but the difficulties are the same. His chances of success are small because the number of factors which must fall simultaneously into place is so enormous.

The process of design, even when it has become selfconscious, remains a process of error-reduction. No complex system will succeed in adapting in a reasonable amount of time or effort unless the adaptation can proceed component by component, each component relatively independent of the others. The search for the right components, and the right way to build the form up from these components, is the greatest challenge faced by the modern, selfconscious designer. The culmination of the modern designer's task is to make every unit of design both a component and a system. As a component it will fit into the hierarchy of larger components that are above it; as a system it will specify the hierarchy of smaller components of which it itself is made.
55 of 56 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars More relevant than ever across many disciplines 27 Nov. 2000
By steve smith - Published on
Format: Paperback
I bought this book at the same time as Stuart Kauffman's recent Investigations (from a local independent) and began reading them in parallel.
While this was intentional, serendipity happened as it is wont to do and I found more parallels than I could follow. These two books come from radically different fields (Architecture and Complexity theory) and were published nearly 40 years apart yet are highly resonant with eachother.
Alexander effectively discusses the synthesis of form in the context of functional goals and/or constraints. He draws from architecture for his examples and ideas but the results are much broader.
He outlines the ideas which will eventually become his Pattern Language and "The Quality Without a Name".
Meanwhile Kauffman is speaking contemporarily of the underpinnings of "life itself" also from what is essentially a structural arguement.
Both are essentially speaking to the same thing: How form emerges from functional constraints in the context of evolving systems. In one case it is the artifacts of living spaces we build while in the other, it is the more intimate artifacts of the phenotype of a species or more generally, evolving complex systems such as our universe in all of it's glory.
Many have criticized Kauffman's work as being unoriginal in the sense that most of what he says has been said before, only separately and differently. In some sense, all works are "derivative".
I believe that the parallels between these two books are more an example of parallel evolution. Alexander was studying the essential qualities of a design discipline as old as man and therefore highly evolved. The topical area of architecture, built spaces for human work and habitation is extremely rich and complex in it's own right. It is not surprising that he would have discovered in this narrow field something as essential and interesting as Kauffman seems to be exposing if not discovering about the mathematical and structural underpinnings of "life itself".
An excellent (pair of) read(s)!
I look forward to Alexander's _Nature of Order_ whose title reminded me of Kauffman's _Origins of Order_ which in turn inspired me to read them together while awaiting Alexander's new books!
22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The first book of design for all designers 15 Aug. 2005
By Mark P. McDonald - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Design is a difficult process that is often associated more with art than science. With principles of style, concerns about how design works.

While many wring their hands about this, Alexander breaks the problem down, organizes it and then provides a framework for design that is relatively design neutral. That is a feat in deed.

By thinking about how one structures a problem space and the bias that creates -- Alexander give the practioner a powerful tool for setting up the design process and scope. He then goes on to discuss the design process and he makes important distinctions between concious and unconcious design.

Notes on Synthesis and Form are the foundation for Alexander's work on design patterns. This is the must read book before spending time on these other works.

For the practioner, this book provides a powerful and applicable framework for addressing problems in multiple disciplines.
63 of 74 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A design classic 22 April 2000
By Laurence E Holt - Published on
Format: Paperback
Chris Alexander is the 60s architect who invented Patterns (which have since been resurrected by object-oriented designers, making Alexander a cult hero). This is the short, beautifully written book in which he outlines his design theory. (The later books are more practical and more architecture-specific.)
Alexander has an obvious soft-spot for buildings from bygone times but, in contrast to like-minded Prince Charles, he is focused on process not materials (and he makes sense). Primitive societies had no architects, but created successful designs that lasted centuries. Alexander's suggestion is that we can harness a similar approach and get similar results.
It all gets a little involved -- and a little mathematical -- towards the end. But that doesn't alter the fact that anyone interested in how to create wonderful things must read this book. And anyone who isn't should purchase a copy anyway, for those occasions when they want to look cool while waiting in a coffee shop or bar for a friend who's late.
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Art anticipates Science? 30 Aug. 2005
By J-P Delaporte - Published on
Format: Paperback
Alexanders 'Notes' anticipates the paths that major sciences would take decades after its publication.

This is no mean feat for a work of science but here youre dealing with a book on architecture- or better, on what architecture could and ought to be.

readers with scientific interests will notice Alexander inventing- from purely architectural phenomena - such models as

fitness landscapes, adaptation measures according to 'gene' frequency, evolutionarily stable strategies.

The general system of analysis in the book serves as one of the best guides for understanding cellular automata and the startegy of isolating variables anticipates the justly famous work of Dawkins on selfish genes.

Alexander had almost nothing to work with in the early sixties apart from some pioneering formulations in early AI and a very acute insight into the paradoxes of optimisation strategies.

His foresight is best witnessed by reading the footnotes to the book which are in themselves an uncanny selection of what would come to dominate epistemology, evolution and modelling decades later.

People teaching history and philosophy of science should prescribe this book as the pre-eminent case study 'consilience'

On the strength of this one book, Alexander joins C S Pierce, Boole, Babbage and Minsky as one of the greatest pathfinders in the recent history of knowledge-- too bad that architecture as a discipline hardly rose to his challenge and is now drowning in couture (and more credit to the software makers who have kept this unmined treasure in print).
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