Notes on Synthesis and Form

This originally appeared on our blog in 2016, and more recently, in S P A C E as a conversation-starting prompt. Amazing things came from that thread, so I wanted to share it here. Mostly for EC.

AUSTRIAN-BORN architect Christopher Alexander says in Notes on Synthesis and Form, that achieving a “frictionless coexistence” between a thing you’re making and what’s around it is the goal for every problem. The premise of this book is that “good fit” between a form and its context is key to good design. (This “frictionless coexistence” stuff reminds me of a story someone tried to explain to me in Japan when I was a high school exchange student in the boonies of Tochigi prefecture. “In Japan,” he tried to tell me gently though neither of us spoke too many words of the other’s language, “people have to get along, right? Because there are a lot of us in a small amount of space? So, it’s like this… you have all these people all next to each other, like this, and you want everyone to go smoothly around each other. Like this. Round and not square, see? And the idea? The idea is that no one disturbs anyone else, because we’re all moving easily without smashing anything up.”)

Open the first page of Notes. It says:

Every design problem begins with an effort to achieve fitness betweeen two entities: the form in question and its context. The form is the simple solution to the problem, the context defines the problem. In other words, when we speak of design, the real objective of discussion is not the form alone, but the ensemble comprising the form and its context.–Christopher Alexander, Notes on Synthesis and Form

I have this nagging suspicion that most designers don’t really do a lot of thinking about the context. A problem that’s not new, it seems:

Today (1968) functional problems are becoming less simple all the time. But designers rarely confess their inability to solve them. Instead, when a designer does not understand a problem clearly enough to find the order it really calls for, he falls back on some arbitrarily chosen formal order. The problem, because of its complexity, remains unsolved. —Ibid

Here it is… ‘Some arbitrarily chosen formal order.’ This is what the book I’m reading right now (perhaps you’ll want to join another conversation, a discussion), Lila (by Robert Pirsig) argues, too. People just fall back on what’s already been done, according to… What the herd does. Status quo. ‘The problem, because of its complexity, remains unsolved.’

I wonder what you think? Why is this so, if it is, I am curious. What questions does this provoke, for you? Open format, today. No formal order… 😉

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