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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.


Molly Wright Steenson, as part of her 2014 dissertation, has a 66-page digest of Alexander’s work between 1962 and 1968.  Her deep reading was reflected in a 2009 recorded presentation on “Loving and Hating Christopher Alexander“.  Generally speaking, interaction designers love Christopher Alexander’s approach, while architects hate Christopher Alexander’s approach.

SVA Dot Dot Dot Lectures: Molly Wright Steenson from MFA Interaction Design.

Amongst the lovers and haters of Christopher Alexander is a predisposition towards interaction compatible with systems thinking.  For built environments, architecture can be described through a language of patterns, where those patterns may or may not be generative.  In her 2014 dissertation, Steenson fleshes out Alexander’s 1968 “Systems Generating Systems” with the broader context of the 1979 The Timeless Way of Building, and 1983 publication by Stephen Grabow of interviews with Alexander.

Generating Systems

Alexander describes pattern languages as “generative,” referring to the quality of multiplicity, of a system that operates both as a whole and as a set of rules.  A system, like a language, works on multiple levels.  The system presents itself on the surface, he writes, when “we are confronted with an object which displays some kind of behaviour which can only be understood as a product of interaction among parts within the object.  We call this kind of behaviour, holistic behaviour.”262 It also incorporates the rule set for the manipulation of the elements that it composes. This dualistic system is analogous to the functions of the pattern language. Just as a generating system is a kit of parts, “Each pattern is a rule which describes what you have to do to generate the entity which it defines.”263 [Steenson 2014, pp. 90-91]

262Christopher Alexander, “Systems Generating Systems,” AD 38(1968): 606.
263Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building, 182.

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.


Molly Wright Steenson, as part of her 2014 dissertation, has a 66-page digest of Alexander’s work between 1962 and 1968.  Her deep reading was reflected in a 2009 recorded presentation on “Loving and Hating Christopher Alexander“.  Generally speaking, interaction designers love Christopher Alexander’s approach, while architects hate Christopher Alexander’s approach.

SVA Dot Dot Dot Lectures: Molly Wright Steenson from MFA Interaction Design.

Amongst the lovers and haters of Christopher Alexander is a predisposition towards interaction compatible with systems thinking.  For built environments, architecture can be described through a language of patterns, where those patterns may or may not be generative.  In her 2014 dissertation, Steenson fleshes out Alexander’s 1968 “Systems Generating Systems” with the broader context of the 1979 The Timeless Way of Building, and 1983 publication by Stephen Grabow of interviews with Alexander.

Generating Systems

Alexander describes pattern languages as “generative,” referring to the quality of multiplicity, of a system that operates both as a whole and as a set of rules.  A system, like a language, works on multiple levels.  The system presents itself on the surface, he writes, when “we are confronted with an object which displays some kind of behaviour which can only be understood as a product of interaction among parts within the object.  We call this kind of behaviour, holistic behaviour.”262 It also incorporates the rule set for the manipulation of the elements that it composes. This dualistic system is analogous to the functions of the pattern language. Just as a generating system is a kit of parts, “Each pattern is a rule which describes what you have to do to generate the entity which it defines.”263 [Steenson 2014, pp. 90-91]

262Christopher Alexander, “Systems Generating Systems,” AD 38(1968): 606.
263Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building, 182.

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