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Notes on the Synthesis of Form

4.01  ·  Rating details ·  614 ratings  ·  49 reviews
"These notes are about the process of design: the process of inventing things which display new physical order, organization, form, in response to function." This book, opening with these words, presents an entirely new theory of the process of design.

In the first part of the book, Christopher Alexander discusses the process by which a form is adapted to the context of hum
Paperback, 224 pages
Published January 1st 1964 by Harvard University Press
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Oct 08, 2007 rated it really liked it
Shelves: criticism, design
'With the invention of a teachable discipline called architecture, the old process of making form was adulterated and its chances of success destroyed.'

Such a potent work. His boldest argument is that the transformation of craftsmen, impersonal agents of traditional form, into self-conscious artist-architects with pretensions to individuality and original form-making is a sure sign of cultural decadence. He says that a culture's exaltation of the artist as solitary genius is paradoxically the e
Nov 04, 2009 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Design nerds
In this book, Christopher Alexander examines the problem of design at an elemental level. The act of designing, in this study, is the same whether you are designing a teakettle or a house or a village. He breaks it down to first principles and presents basic definitions of terms like "form", "context", and "ensemble." It can seem a little abstract and academic, but he leavens the discussion with enough real world examples to keep your eyes from crossing.

He also presents an argument that design i
Jan 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing
this is a gem - a formal approach to design that i would venture is best read in a mathematical context - e.g. where he introduces set theory and glosses over concepts, its enriching to unpack what goes unsaid. sigma algebras! graphical models!

apparently this was required reading for CS programs in the 70s and I can see why, because of its descriptions of modularity and encapsulation. anyway its pretty wonderful!
Richard Wu
Feb 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
The perennial taunt for those of us with our heads in the clouds is to stick our feet on the icky muddy gritty slimy dirty ground and walk, so that we might actually get somewhere, but whenever exposed to the actual process of walking, we recoil and retreat. Thus I must commend Christopher Alexander, who at time of writing was only a couple years older than yours truly is now, for supplying a worked example at the end of this book. As expected, it was as torturous as the underlying theory was br ...more
Chris Beiser
Jul 28, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I had complicated feelings on this one. On the one hand, C.A. does propose a good methodology for how to decompose extremely large design problems. On the other, he doesn’t often make it clear that his approach is only really useful with problems that must be broken down. Further, he has an exceptional number of digressions into ridiculous overformalizations of his methods using set and graph theory (which, though appropriate and powerful, he doesn’t really engage with much— heuristic search alg ...more
Oana Filip
Aug 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing
It's my first read of Christopher Alexander, but I am grateful I had the chance to discover his perspective on "unselfconscious and self-conscious cultures" and what makes them unique. We jumped from an era where we used to iterate and find concrete ways to improve something to a land where we give our best to invest in stuff that's far more complex and layered. In between, the emergence of all kinds of facilities (such as air conditioner, lamps, or the kettle) it somehow lowered the responsibil ...more
Sean Watson
Sep 20, 2013 rated it liked it
His articulation about unselfconscious societies and self-conscious societies was fascinating, and a useful take away to the study of vernacular architecture. While I found it useful to distinguish between modifications made to traditional models, and in seeking clarity in structure by anticipating design variables, I'm not sure his articulation of the formulations of design processes reach past abstraction to application. ...more
Tim Winton
Incredibly original idea whose time has come. Alexander has to be counted as one of the most innovative minds of the 20th Century.
sam tannehill
May 21, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Christopher Alexander is not only profitable to read if your interest is architecture. He is a problem solver. This book is a thesis for a process of problem-solving that can be applied in other domains. His process helps you challenge your pre-c0nceptions, be sensitive to the individual elements that comprise the larger problem, order the component elements into sets and subsets, and then do some math. The body of the text is slightly over one hundred pages and then the two appendices demonstra ...more
Felipe Gonçalves Marques
Nov 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This book is amazing. Christopher gives so much detail in how to approach a problem and understand it, its constraints, its interconnections, etc without entering in the details of the solution. Allowing us to spend as much time as possible on the problem, before making assumptions and exploring the solutions, which is fundamental for really solving the problem.

This book is a must-read for anyone that works with design and problem-solving.
Alper Çuğun
Apr 15, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A nice quick read with a much necessary analytical approach to design. It starts off debunking a bunch of myths about what design is before delving into the matter.
Jul 13, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: architecture
There are some really interesting concepts in the book and his theory about form/context/misfit is really interesting. But even as he admits its most likely better to pass on the second half of the book (where he tries to create a unified equation for it all). I will definitely reread the first half part before returning it to the library.
George Mills
May 23, 2013 rated it it was amazing
One of the rarest of books. Alexander's ideas transcend architecture and are applicable to almost any human endeavor - his concept of 'fit' and the mathematics behind it should be introduced during primary school and form an integral part of all curricula all the way up to the PhD level. ...more
Nov 25, 2016 rated it liked it
I had always been intrigued by this book. Whether though sloth or changing architectural fashions I had never got around to it. Alexander is an architect, and from what I can gather, somewhat of an enfante terrible in his day*. He is known in architecture circles through his books, particularly ‘A Timeless Way of Building’ and ‘A Pattern Language’.
This book, however, his first, written in 1964, is quite different. While written by an architect to help clarify the design process, it is seldom re
Jun 06, 2019 rated it really liked it
Note: skipped Appendix 2.
On the digression into selfconscious and unselfconscious processes: Alexander says there's something about the design process that makes the former less adept at architecture than the latter. I agree with him on the particulars - architects are now further removed from their dwellings, and receive less feedback (and innovate for the sake of it), so their forms aren't well-fitted to the context. But to borrow his terminology, the unselfconscious form isn't well-fitted to
Jan 18, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: vfh
Full review on my blog.

Notes starts off strong, with a chapter titled “The Need for Rationality,” which will appeal to certain types, myself included. An excerpt:

“While ... a great deal of what is generally understood to be logic is concerned with deduction, logic... refers to something far more general. It is concerned with the form of abstract structures, and is involved the moment we make pictures of reality and then seek to manipulate these pictures so that we may look further into the reali
Apr 23, 2019 rated it liked it
This book was a slog for me. Not that it wasn’t enjoyable… but I never felt the desire to pick it up.

On the whole, I enjoyed it, but I don’ know that I’d recommend it. Alexander’s thesis is that design can be modeled by taking into account all the variables, and creating diagrams that communicate the relationships in between them. Identifying which variables are congruent, which are in conflict, we can distill a mathematical formula that will lead us towards a functional design.

While I love the
Vijayender Karnaty
May 10, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: reread
This is undoubtedly a good thought provoking book. There is praise worthy rigor with which the author has constructed all his statements - footnotes galore. This is what you get when somebody applies mathematical rigor at a problem which is highly unstructured and vastly open in approaches and interpretations. And such rigor is possible only with brutal honesty, clearly evident in the preface by the author where he chides people who are converting this book to a course in itself.

If you are inter
Apr 11, 2020 rated it really liked it
...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. In other words, when we speak of design, the real object of discussion is not the form alone, but the ensemble comprising the form and its context.

No matter if you are designing houses, software or something else, this is a must-read.

Christopher Alexander, the author of this work, outlines a formal
Josh Kellendonk
May 11, 2020 rated it really liked it
I can see how the thinking from this book and its successor Pattern Language was so influential in the development of software languages, even though the books are more about the architecture of homes and cities.

I got good value from the definitions of form, fit, and the process of design.

I also got good value from the notion that, in the context of an overall design, a form and its fitness are part of a network of binary relationships. That in this network, a change in the fitness of one form m
Jul 07, 2017 rated it really liked it
Really interesting framework for thinking about complex problems and solutions. I'm skeptical about application of the actual method. Exhaustively defining similarly-scoped misfits with simple relationships to all others seems difficult, and subject to the linguistic ambiguity he's trying to avoid. It could be cool to try out using modern graph visualization tools. ...more
May 02, 2021 rated it liked it
Shelves: design
This book is fascinating. It's an attempt to look at the design process (analysis & synthesis) from a "mathematical" point of view, in order to find solutions outside of the preconceptions a designer might bring if they try to solve the same problem "intuitively". It's a remarkable idea, but at times the language went over my head and there was a lot of repetition. ...more
Deane Barker
Oct 05, 2018 rated it really liked it
A very deep, theoretical book on the design process, and on matching a solution to a problem. This one isn't for the faint of heart. It attempts to distill the design process to math, almost.

I got a little lost towards the end, but I love a deep dissection of a process like this, so it was fun.
Jordan Jackson
Jul 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
When building products, we must seek to find the fitness between the context in the environment of end users, and the form.
Nick Jones
Nov 12, 2020 rated it really liked it
First half is a 5. Second half is a 3 (maybe a 4 if you can comprehend the math)
Jan 03, 2021 rated it it was amazing
A lot of concepts and ideas in this book are totally mappable to software development ones. Very interesting and richful. Alan Kay recommends this book, so...
Mar 14, 2021 rated it really liked it
Shelves: work-stuff
A unique book
May 24, 2021 rated it it was amazing
One of the greatest thinkers of our time.
Dylan Mason
Feb 24, 2020 rated it really liked it
Design theory how I missed you! Christopher shows how to map out a problem's structure by breaking it into small pieces, then evaluating if each piece passes or fails the solution requirements. Bit of a dense read (for me) but still accessible and enjoyable. ...more
David Hunter
Jan 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A revelation! Thoughtfully written, with clear exposition.
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