Systems generating systems — architectural design theory by Christopher Alexander (1968)
The systems thinking roots from architect Christopher Alexander aren’t completely obvious in his work on pattern language. A republished version of an 1968 article resurfaces some clarification on a perspective on systems thinking originating from practices in architecture. This article introduced ways in which systems thinking could be most directly applied to built environments. The cross-appropriation of pattern languages across a variety of domain types — object-oriented programmers were the earliest motivating adopters — could be enlightened by revisiting the foundations. Alexander concisely presented 4 points, and then provided detailed reasoning for each:
1. There are two ideas hidden in the word system: the idea of a system as a whole and the idea of a generating system.
2. A system as a whole is not an object but a way of looking at an object. It focuses on some holistic property which can only be understood as a product of interaction among parts.
3. A generating system is not a view of a single thing. It is a kit of parts, with rules about the way these parts may be combined.
4. Almost every ‘system as a whole’ is generated by a ‘generating system’. If we wish to make things which function as ‘wholes’ we shall have to invent generating systems to create them. [Alexander 2011, p. 59; Alexander 1968, p. 605]
In a properly functioning building, the building and the people in it together form a whole: a social, human whole. The building systems which have so far been created do not in this sense generate wholes at all. [Alexander 2011, p. 58; Alexander 1968, p. 605]
Let’s leave analytical explications of the original 1968 text as secondary, to first appreciate the idea of “systems generating systems” through sensemaking done some decades after 1968, and in the broader context of Alexander’s other writings and interviews.