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authors Alexander, Christopher W.
year 1964
title Notes on the Synthesis of Form
source Harvard Graduate School of Design
summary 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 almost always 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.
series thesis:PhD
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