Christopher Alexander Reading Tour 13

An Open PURPLSOC Reading Tour and Book Discussion about Christopher Alexander’s “The Nature of Order”

The Nature of Order – An Essay of the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe

Book One – The Phenomenon of Life


Our interest in Christopher Alexander lead to the PURPLSOC Conferences of 2014 and 2015 at the Danube University Krems. Our first impression at the Danube University Krems, was that his thinking can, generally speaking, be divided into three basic periods:

  • firstly, his developmental stage where the basis of his concepts and ideas are expanded in The Synthesis of Form and A City is Not a Tree;
  • secondly his work on patterns and pattern languages as developed in his two major works A Pattern Language and The Timeless Way of Building;
  • and his third, and final, period The Nature of Order – An Essay of the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe, his magnum opus consisting of four books totalling 1800 pages where his Pattern Language approach is fully explained.

A special fascination for Christopher Alexander

From all of Alexander’s work, The Nature of Order (NoO) holds a special fascination for us: it is one of his major works, and yet, it is one of his least known. While Alexander’s A Pattern Language and The Timeless Way of Building are world renowned, NoO is almost unknown to a wider audience. And for those who have read it, many have apprehensions regarding the direction Alexander took in this final stage of his writing, leading to comments like: “esoteric”, “difficult to apply”, “difficult to read”. However, a small group of enthusiasts have shown an interest in examining this more complex work in more detail.

Our objective: to lead an excursion into the depths of “The Nature of Order”

We want to tackle this challenge through our PURPLSOC Reading Tour. Over decades, Christopher Alexander has been studied, thought about and his ideas implemented into practice. Our aim is to discuss his findings in public on our PURPLSOC website and in so doing, bring together people interested in better understanding Alexander’s concepts in the NoO and experts experienced in the study and implementation of Alexander’s ideas.

We invite you to participate in this voyage

This intellectual expedition through Alexander’s NoO will start with “Book One – The Phenomenon of Life” and we will work our way through all four books, chapter by chapter. Each chapter will be summarized by a member of the PURPLSOC Reading Tour Team and we will invite discussion, interpretation and comment at regular monthly intervals. We are looking forward to lively debate, interesting comments, and new insights into this fascinating work by Christopher Alexander, and we invite you join us in this adventure!

The PURPLSOC Reading Tour Team

Peter Baumgartner, Richard Sickinger, Tina Gruber-Mücke


Methodology of the Reading Tour

1 – We recommend buying the first volume of Alexander’s work The Nature of Order –

Book One – The Phenomenon of Life. The book can be purchased online (directly via the or your preferred Amazon website) if local bookshops are unable to acquire a copy.

2 – Chapters can be read at monthly intervals in line with our website schedule.

3 – Following the monthly publication of the chapter summary on our website, we will welcome comments and discussion points upon Alexander’s thoughts using the comment and highlighting functions offered by the PURPLSOC Book Discussion platform.


The Reading Tour starts on May 5th with

The Nature of Order – An Essay of the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe

Book One – The Phenomenon of Life – Pages 1-4

Part 1 | Prologue to Books 1 – 4


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13 thoughts on “Christopher Alexander Reading Tour

  • Reply

    Great idea! Looking forward to it.
    I would suggest also to give people small experiments to do. Exercises on things from their own lives that put into practice the concepts discussed in the chapter. This is what I do with students when I teach this material. Thus it’s important to be able to attach images as a minimum.

    • Reply

      Thank you Yodan, small experiments – a great proposal for all contributors! We will see what we can do to enable images within the discussion line. Would love to hear tell of the results of your discussion with your students.

  • Reply

    I love this initiative, and wish to be part of your effort!

    Wholeness is one of the central concepts of The Nature of Order, and I provided a complex perspective on it:

    • Reply
      Richard Sickinger Post author

      To access the first chapter please click the tap “Part 1” under the tab “Reading Tour” or directly via

  • Reply

    This was originally posted the the “pattern science community” Facebook group, but is more appropriate here, at the origin.

    In this case I disagree, based on the generalization of Alexander’s work to many other domains (e. g. software, pedagogy, music, authoring, management, …) which have forces (connections, relationsships) between entities, also abstract concepts like “neighboring”, “distance” or even “space” (e. g. in the sense of a “meaing space”) but not necessarily a “geometry”. For me, there is no geometry of pedagogy or music, although there is a space of all possible creations. In this sense I deny a “deep geometric reality of order” because I think that the concept of geometry as a rather simple coordinate system, a measurement of position, is not profound.

    All the fifteen properties of living system can be interpreted in a non-geometric way. For example, one could see “symmetry” (as in the property “local symmetry”) as based in geometry. But this is not necessarly so; “male” and “female” may be seen as in a relationship of more or less symmetry, and the same is true for “protagonists” and “antagonists” in the domain of story telling.

    I do think that order is a deep or profound concept, but space is not (space is ubiquituous; any thing existing does so in some space) and geometry is also not deep, imho.

    • Reply

      Helmut, I would like to amplify the position that geometry in pattern language may not be appropriate for phenomena outside of built environments.

      • Reply
        Helmut Leitner

        Bin, regarding your “I would like to amplify the position that geometry in pattern language may not be appropriate for phenomena outside of built environments.” I would like to fully agree, but I can only agree “95%”.

        I agree in the sense that geometry is applicable only to a subset of pattern languages.

        I am unsure about the concept “built environment” which seems to me like a mantra of architects who somewhat extend the outreach to other artifacts of human environment. Thus, works of art like paintings or works of craft like furniture of works of techology like computer interfaces might be seen as “built environment”. But this is an unclear and undefined concept.

        There may be a geometry of furniture, but there is no gemoetry of computer interfaces, and probably no senseful geometry of paintings.

        Anyway there are many pattern languages that are in space, and have a geometry, but are not built environment. For example we may create a pattern language of nature which evolved for organisms, containing like ROOT, LEAVE, ORGAN, or SKIN. But this is not built environment.

        These are only examples. I want to show by them that the classifications “geometry” and “built environment” do not correspond and they are not very useful for stating anything general about P/PLs.

        • Reply
          Simone Markenson

          Helmut, I´m not sure it´s a one-to-one relationship in a pedagogical context, for instance. Bauer and Baumgartner published an interesting paper (The Potential of Christopher Alexander’s Theory and Practice of Wholeness: Clues for Developing an Educational Taxonomy) exemplifying the application of properties in the pedagogical context.
          It seems to me an opportunity to transpose the fifteen properties into other contexts, and, particularly in education, a way of changing the approach similar to that used by computer science.

          • Helmut Leitner

            Simone, I know the research work of Peter Baumgartner and Reinhard Bauer in pedagogy very well and fully agree to your observations about pedagogy. I did not use it as an example for a rather non-geometrical pattern domain, although I could have done so.

            The application of the 15 structural properties to a domain may be interpreted in different ways, though. On one hand, one could argue that these properties are geometrical, so that a domain where the 15p are applied must also be thought geometrical. Or, on the other hand, the 15 properties can be interpreted in way (partially by using aliases which loosen a spatial geometric connotation), so that the 15p can be applied to more kinds of domains, where patterns can be successfully described and all the rest of Alexandrian thinking is also working.

            The second way is the way I have suggested and put my arguments in line for. But then, if the 15p are molded to fit non-gemetric spaces, one can hardly use their extended applicability as a proof for the geometric character of that domain, e. g. pedagogy, which can only be reached by loosening the geometric fixation.

            Of course, when using techniques of visualization, which is possible for any domain, this will introduce a kind of 2d or 3d spatial mapping of the domain, and thus seemingly a kind of geometry. But, this can be artifical in the eyes of the observer and theory-builder.

            But, all this does not change the conflict within the wider pattern community about reductionism to 3d space. This is not a hot conflict or active battlefield, but something that is coming up as misunderstanding or as a lack of acceptance. Most obvious example is, that Christopher Alexander himself never really understood and accepted the success of his theories in the software domain.

        • Reply

          Sorry I did not notice your comment till now, but herewith my feedback, with respect to “geometry in pattern language may not be appropriate for phenomena outside of built environments”.
          I would think differently or in an opposite way that the geometry or living geometry is appropriate for phenomena outside of built environments. Why? The living geometry is very much about relationships of things, rather than with some concrete shapes or forms. I think all phenomena outside of built environments hold some relationship for things within or outside the phenomena, which can be represented as a complex network. The following papers have some details:

  • Reply

    How about changing the format, so after exchanging some written comments we have an conference call… It’s much easier to get a sense of someone else’s view in conversation. It would take a good moderator of course.