Building with Christopher Alexander ~ An Illustrated Memoir

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This is a record 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 are 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.

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.

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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 Pacific Northwest.

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There won't be a primer here on Chris's work—there are plenty of other sites for that, and I'll link you to them. If you're not familiar with his many books and projects, do investigate. If you already know the works, jump right into this account of how the Whidbey House—or as I call the place, Dromnavarna—came to be. I'm working my way through towers of notes. They'll be posted here in the coming months.

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This is Team One, the first crew of CES/Dow, the company that Chris formed with contractor Jim Dow to do this one project. Other people followed, as the house grew and mutated. I wish all of them had signed their names in the foundation but alas, many names are lost.

There's much to tell and post, soon, but for now I'll just say it was amazing how many architects, engineers, and urban planners put on carpenters' belts and became hands-on builders so they could watch Chris operate.

Jim Dow went on to build amazing projects all over the country, now employing hundreds of people...

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There are hundreds of "patterns" in Chris's research into what makes a built space beautiful and comfortable, what makes it have "the quality that has no name." Devotees of his work who have toured our place spot them and even remember their numbers in A Pattern Language.

This photo shows a basic one: site repair. The topography of our land is best described as "rumpled carpet." There are 20 acres and almost none of it is flat, a place where you could make a garden or play bocce. So the house hangs over the side of a rumple, with a precious flat area preserved in front of...

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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 make whatever plans the building inspector requires and then work day-to-day on the house, changing, adjusting, making it real in full form.

Great line from Chris about all that: "Architects get paid to pretend they know what's going to be there. But nobody knows until it's there." Many more stories coming about working with Chris—five years' worth, actually.

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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. A teaser here, this article appeared when we had just moved into the not-quite-finished house, and was the hook for one of many slap-your-forehead-funny interactions with Chris. So you'll come back when I get it posted, right?

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There is so much to tell you about the way the house has grown, how it's influenced us and our guests and visitors, but for now I'm going to just give you something I wrote about artists as my clergy. I do think true artists are links to the universe, to the great All, to the limitless beauty of knowing you're part of something far greater than your one separate self. The other artists I wrote about are a painter and a singer; here's just the part about Chris...

Alexander sculpts a building

out of air and wisdom,

waving his hands,

squinting his...

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