Alexander talks back

Ever wonder how Christopher Alexander felt about being the poster child for software design patterns? In his foreword to Richard Gabriel’s book he answers the question, and poses another. Are our designs as good as Chartres? If not, why not?

In fact, this is so interesting and challenging that I’d like to make a fuller extract, which I hope will be within fair use rules:

In my life as an architect, I find that the single thing which inhibits young professionals, new students most severely, is their acceptance of standards that are too low. If I ask a student whether her design is as good as Chartres, she often smiles tolerantly at me as if to say, “Of course not, that isn’t what I am trying to do. … I could never do that.”

Then I express my disagreement, and tell her: “That standard must be our standard. If you are going to be a builder, no other standard is worthwhile. That is what I expect of myself in my own buildings, and it is what I expect of my students.” Gradually, I show the students that they have a right to ask this of themselves, and must ask this of themselves. Once that level of standard is in their minds, they will be able to figure out, for themselves, how to do better, how to make something that is as profound as that.

Two things emanate from this changed standard. First, the work becomes more fun. It is deeper, it never gets tiresome or boring, because one can never really attain this standard. One’s work becomes a lifelong work, and one keeps trying and trying. So it becomes very fulfilling, to live in the light of a goal like this.

But secondly, it does change what people are trying to do. It takes away from them the everyday, lower-level aspiration that is purely technical in nature, (and which we have come to accept) and replaces it with something deep, which will make a real difference to all of us that inhabit the earth.

I would like, in the spirit of Richard Gabriel’s searching questions, to ask the same of the software people who read this book. But at once I run into a problem. For a programmer, what is a comparable goal? What is the Chartres of programming? What task is at a high enough level to inspire people writing programs to reach for the stars? Can you write a computer program on the same level as Fermat’s last theorem? Can you write a program which has the enabling power of Dr. Johnson’s dictionary? Can you write a program which has the productive power of Watt’s steam engine? Can you write a program which overcomes the gulf between the technical culture of our civilization, and which inserts itself into our human life as deeply as Eliot’s poems of the wasteland or Virginia Woolf’s The Waves?

There’s no question that progress towards finishing a project in a week is more easily and more objectively measurable, and more obviously attractive to the business side. But for the perhaps longer-term but still important purpose of getting and keeping the best developers, I think we can’t afford to lose sight of this other axis either.

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