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    Alexander Centering


    Even after several months of work, we still did not know how to place the major centers of the pattern language in such a way as to preserve and enhance the existing centers on the site. Again and again I visited the site, trying to see how the centers of the language might be made to coincide with the real existing centers of the site. We couldn't solve it.

    Finally, in Berkeley , we had a breakthrough. In order to think about the problem while away from Japan, we had made a series of topographic models of the site. We had one in our office in Japan, at a scale of 1:100. We had two in Berkeley, one at a scale of 1:200, the other at 1:500.

    After one of my visits to Japan, all of us in the Berkeley office spent several days playing with the 1:500 model. We had pieces of balsa wood cut roughly to the size and shape of typical buildings or building wings. We played with them on the model, constantly trying the same variations I have shown in the diagrams, trying to reconcile the centers of the pattern language with the five key centers on the site.

    Gradually one element emerged: the fact that the home base street might be more powerful as an approach to the university center, than as an entity approached from it. This was hard to see, because it implied reversing the main sequence of centers given by the language. But when we tried it, it was clear that the sequence of centers got much better from doing it. Playing confirmed it strongly. Now the sequence of centers in the language, which we had taken as fixed, was suddenly reversed. Previously we had them arranged in this order: ENTRANCE STREET — UNIVERSITY CENTER — HOME BASE STREET. Now we had this arrangement instead. ENTRANCE STREET — HOME BASE STREET— UNIVERSITY CENTER. This difference of organization seems simple but it dramatically affected the situation.

    A few days later we reached the second crucial breakthrough. All the time we had been imagining the university center as square in shape. It had appeared this way from the time of our earliest diagrams and we had continued to imagine it like this. But the problem was that the main center on the site "the most beautiful spot" was not square. It was the ridge along the south edge of the property. Suddenly we realized that the university center could actually be this ridge. The moment this second break in perception was made, the whole thing fell into place immediately. Goaded by frustration, and by the mental energy of the group situation, I suddenly placed all the bits of balsa wood into a new configuration. Everything was in its place. We had the rudiments of an idea.

    The model with its precarious bits of balsa wood just as it was, glued down, was kept for more than a year. It had subtle relationships, curves, lines, caused by the speed and freedom of the moment. They were very hard to draw, but they inspired us. After a few days, we were sure that, at least on the model, everything seemed fine.

    Now, of course, I had to go back to the site to see if the site itself told the same story as the small model. I had a great deal of apprehension getting on the plane to fly to Japan to check it out. Would the site confirm this vision? Or would we have to start again?

    I got to Japan on November 1, 1982. it was clear at once that, in principle, the new idea of the site plan we had seen for the first time on the Berkeley model really did resolve the problems, and created a system of centers that was in harmony with the existing centers on the site.

    Later phases filled in details, and provided the structure of individual buildings, building locations, connections. But these all took place within the general framework of the layout that has been described. As we worked through these details, paths, streets, lake, bridge, and buildings — all of them — were laid out with flags so that we could judge their rightness or wrongness with our own eyes, and adjust them until they felt just right. I mean by this phrase that the layout felt just right to a person walking about in the land. To achieve this, we used two hundred flags — yellow, white, red — on six-foot bamboo poles to make the thing become real. Remembering our flags at Eishin, and speaking about the impact the flags made on him, Hisae Hosoi, managing director of the school, told a journalist, many years later in halting, slowly considered language: "We could feel ... the actual buildings . . . standing ... there."


    From that point on, the process was straightforward. The important thing is that all designs — building positions, siting, and volumes, and exterior spaces — were decided by what we had done in the land. The attitude of mind with which we approached design and construction, whether on small models, or bigger models, and the attitude we maintained throughout planning permission and preparation for construction, and construction itself, kept coming back to the central principle: that the purpose of our work was to create a set of buildings that formed spaces which were positive — and which nourished the land.

    What we may claim to have done in that project is to create a complete system of positive space, which protects, and respects, and enhances the land in all its aspects, elevates it, makes it more alive than it would have been under most other forms of planning and design and management, perhaps even more alive than it was before, when it was covered by teabushes and small agricultural parcels.

    It must be noted above that the final plan (right hand drawing) based on placing stakes, is very different from the schematic plan (left drawing) which does not have the same reality.

    Christopher Alexander is an emeritus professor at the University of California, Berkeley and director of the Center for Environmental Structure.

    This article is excerpted from A Vision of a Living World: The Nature of Order, Book 3, by Christopher Alexander, copyright © 2005, available from and at


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    ArchWeek Image

    Hosoi and Chris working out where to place the flags.
    Photo: Hiro Nakano

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    Chris and Ingrid: more looking and working things out.
    Photo: Hiro Nakano

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    "We could feel... the actual buildings... standing... there." Placing flags at the time when we were laying out the campus with the users. We used white and colored flags on six-foot bamboo poles.
    Photo: Center for Environmental Structure

    ArchWeek Image

    The building volumes in the distance.
    Photo: Japan Architect

    ArchWeek Image

    A rough drawing made from the balsa wood model, and after initial visits to the site confirmed the validity of the overall configuration.
    Image: Center for Environmental Structure

    ArchWeek Image

    Measured drawing made after detailed work on the site itself had been done with stakes. This drawing is a transcription of the position of the stakes.
    Image: Center for Environmental Structure

    ArchWeek Image

    The Eishin campus first stage, completed in 1985,Christopher Alexander with Hajo Neis and others. The atmosphere along the main street shown in the center of this picture may be seen in the photograph on page 39.
    Photo: Nikkei Architecture

    ArchWeek Image

    The Nature of Order, Book Three: A Vision of a Living World.
    Image: Center for Environmental Structure


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