Building with Christopher Alexander
This is a record, in a growing number of words and pictures, of the extraordinary years that Christopher Alexander spent bringing a Pattern Language house into being on Whidbey, a wooded island in the upper western corner of the continental US.
Alexander operates as a Master Builder — rather than handing drawings to a contractor, he was on site again and again, shaping the building himself, from sticks in the forest to a structure that seems to have always been there.
You're invited to explore and experience the process here, in the notes and photos I made of a time that shaped our lives as well as a profoundly beautiful house. You'll also see the results in THE TOUR, pictures of what's here now, with stories of how the spaces came to be.
I'm digging in boxes and drawers and computer files, scanning photos, transcribing hand-written notes...it will all be here as I get it ready and upload it.
Come back often. Send friends. This story needs to be known.
Starting with a Dark Hole in the Woods, Coming to...
Chris was on site for days when it was a small clearing in a forest. He came empty-handed, but with brilliant engineer Gary Black, and our Medlock-Graham family, all of us fetching sticks from the woods, driving to a hardware store for yellow tape, and pounding the shape of the house into the ground—with rocks and shovels.
In the posts below there are more photos—lots more—of how we got from sticks and strings to a Pattern Language house, the only one Chris did in the US Pacific Northwest.
Note that this website formatting cuts off narratives at odd places and insists on all photos being the same size. It makes things awkward but I'm not up for rebuilding it all elsewhere in less annoying form. Do click on the strangely disrupted texts, to see the rest of the words.
A few years after we moved into the house we built with Christopher Alexander, a guy who had also been a client of Chris’s told us an interesting story.
He said that Prince Charles had asked Chris to design a museum to house the Mary Rose, an English warship Henry VIII had watched sink in 1545. It had been found under the mud of the Solent River and was being restored, an exciting moment in British history.
Chris and the team at his Center for Environmental Studies had set to work back in California and, when some ideas were ready, Chris flew to London to show them to...more
Chris has died. He departed on March 17, 2022, from his beloved Sussex, gone but always present in this place he created, his memory forever a blessing to all who come upon his works and feel their power, either in reading his words or by coming into a place he built, like this wondrous house, Dromnavarna. We are its stewards, holding it for those who need to experience the Quality Without A Name. When can you come? ...more
There won't be a primer here on Chris's work—there are plenty of other places for that; I've given you links to many of them—just click on More at the end of this post. If you already know his many books and projects, then jump right into this account of how the Whidbey House—or as I call the place, Dromnavarna, came to be. THE TOUR is a good place to start.
The image above is of just a few of his major books. Beastly expensive but available in libraries and highly recommended. He was a writer as well as a scientist and an...more
A soft voice on the phone, telling me that he knows it's a terrible imposition but he's a student at the U of O (where Chris did a major project) and could he please come and see the architect's "masterpiece"?
Well, it's the only house he did in the Pacific Northwest but I wouldn't say it's his masterpiece.
But he did. On the list.
When Tomo Furukawazono came to the house—and took many of the photos you see here—he explained that Chris had made a list of some of his works and had ranked them, putting the visitors' center in Sussex at the top of...more
This is Team One, the first crew of CES/Dow, the company that Chris formed with contractor Jim Dow to do this one project.
It's a hot summer day in 1986. Team leader Kurt Brown, Chris's brother-in-law, is seated in the center, wearing a light patterned shirt. Jim Dow is behind him to the left, wearing a white T. Chris is, of course, the guy in black pants and a white shirt. I'm just behind him, and John Graham is to the left of me.
Other people followed over the years it took to finish, as the house grew and mutated. I wish all of them had signed their names in the foundation...more
There are hundreds of "patterns" in Chris's research into what makes a built space beautiful and comfortable, what makes it have the Quality Without a Name. Devotees of his work who have toured our place spot them and even call out their numbers in A Pattern Language.
Construction begins with a basic one: Pattern 104 Site Repair.
The topography of our land is best described as "rumpled carpet." There are 10 acres and almost none of it is flat, a place where you could make a garden or play bocce or sit at tables on the grass to have lunch.
The "repair" made for...more
An architect is "supposed" to draw up some nice plans, hand them to a contractor, and go away. Unless said architect has absorbed Alexander's way of building. That architect is going to draw whatever plans the building inspector requires and then work day-to-day on the house, changing, adjusting, making it real in full form.
It's the ancient tradition of the Master Builder, the one who took the whole job from idea to reality. Not a great way to maximize the ROI on a degree in architecture, but the perfect way to make a structure that respects its placement and is shaped for...more
Did stuff go wrong? Oh hell yes, as in any and all human endeavors, especially when a lot of those humans are smart, creative, high-energy people.
This one was revelatory and confirming, and slap-your-forehead funny.
The article's dated 8/8/88, when we had been working with Chris for years. (We were then finishing the house while living in it, having run out of money before there were inner doors, second-floor flooring, or a real kitchen.)
Over the years, I'd read everything I could find by or about Chris, the better to work with him. And we suspected that we existed...more
You're at the door into the house, sheltered in a porte cochére formation we call the Gateway.
The Gateway is quite large and includes design elements Chris created for the Commons, deep inside the house. I gave one of the wood medallions from the Commons' ceiling to Steve Roache, the master of Aruba Tile Works on Vashon Island. Steve made multiple copies of it in rough, thick terra cotta taken from Mount Tahoma, a peak dear to the heart of JAG (John A. Graham, the mountaineer who lives here).
When Steve was...more