Friday, November 19, 2010

Notes on the Synthesis of Form

I just got in Notes on the Synthesis of Form by Christopher Alexander. This is an academic, theoretical treatise on design. It deals with "what is design", etc. It was written in 1962, but the ideas are obviously still relevant today--even though some of the motivating examples seem a little anachronistic. While it has nothing to do with software architecture (the term didn't even exist back then!), it is a fascinating read for those of us who enjoy some philosophical pandering every once in a while.

In the introduction "The Need for Rationality", the author makes clear his opinion of self-proclaimed "artists":

The modern designer relies more and more on his position as an "artist", on catchwords, personal idiom and intuition--for all of these relieve him of some of the burden of decision, and make his cognitive problems manageable. Driven on his own resources, unable to cope with the complicated information he is supposed to organize, he hides his incompetence in a frenzy of artistic individuality. As his capacity to invent clearly conceived, well-fitting forms is exhausted further, the emphasis on intuition and individuality only grows wilder.

In this atmosphere, the designer's greatest gift, his intuitive ability to organize physical form, is being reduced to nothing by the size of the tasks in front of him, and mocked by the efforts of "artists". What is worse, in an era that badly needs designers with the synthetic grasp of organization of the physical world, the real work has to be done by less gifted engineers, because the designers hide their gift in irresponsible pretension to genius.

(pg. 11)

I always enjoy well-written calls to humility. I wonder who in particular the author had in mind when he wrote this? What's funny is this was written in 1962 and seems no less valid in 2010 :-)