The Timeless Way of Building

Christopher Alexander – 1979

“There is one timeless way of building. It is thousands of years old, and the same today as it has always been. The great traditional buildings of the past, the villages and tents and temples in which man feels at home, have always been made by people who were very close to the center of this way. It is not possible to make great buildings, or great towns, beautiful places, places where you feel yourself, places where you feel alive, except by following this way. And, as you will see, this way will lead anyone who looks for it to buildings which are themselves as ancient in their form, as the trees and hills, and as our faces are.”

So begins this enigmatic book by Christopher Alexander, who taught architecture at UC Berkeley for more than forty years. Ostensibly a book about architecture and construction, The Timeless Way of Building can feel more like a work of poetry or religion, whose areas of inquiry it ultimately shares.

Through this book, Alexander helps the reader see and feel that the process of building can be a sacred act — a way of connecting more deeply with the mystery of being alive — and that those spaces and situations which we love the most are ones that have been brought into being by people who were following this “timeless way.”

Spaces such as this:

And this:

And this:

And situations such as these:

What do these spaces and situations have in common? Alexander explains:

“There is a central quality which is the root criterion of life and spirit in a man, a town, a building, or a wilderness. This quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named.”

He calls this elusive quality “The Quality Without a Name” — that rare and special feeling that arises in those times and places where we feel most alive.

When this quality is fully present, a feeling of non-separateness arises — where does the building stop and the hillside begin, or the path and the forest, or the wave and the ocean?

How does this quality come into being?

The quality cannot be created all at once, but only invited to emerge through a gradual step-by-step process that happens in time — just as any kind of life emerges.

So what are the steps in this process?

Alexander introduces his philosophy of “patterns” — universal solutions to common human needs — which can be deployed into space one step at a time to help it become more alive. The subject of patterns is explored in greater depth in his other classic text, A Pattern Language.

And since we are not separate from our environments, as our spaces become more alive, so do we.

Related Patterns

  • To seek the timeless way we must first know the quality without a name.
    Christopher Alexander


Posted by Jonathan Harris