What makes a building alive or dead?


In doing research for an article I am writing on the topic stated above, I read through "A Pattern Language" and "The Timeless Way of Building" by Christopher Alexander. I found the books interesting but rather philosophical and meandering. Can anyone recommend any other texts that deal with such a topic? I don't even mind a little New Age hypothesizing, or it can be quite conventional as well.

Thanks for your help!


Oct 22, 14 4:17 pm

Charles - I don’t know, I’ve read a lot of crap in 40 years, but while simplistic, I liked “101 Things I Learned in Architecture School” by Matthew Frederick – just stick to that, give it a quick read before you start - then build the fucking thing.

Oct 22, 14 4:46 pm  · 

alive - in a vibrant area filled with tenants and money

dead - in a ghetto no tenants and no money

shortest thesis ever!!

Oct 22, 14 4:57 pm  · 

if a building is alive it includes at the minimum capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death.  life has signaling and self-sustaining processes.

death is the termination of biological functions. 

Oct 22, 14 5:06 pm  · 

people are what makes a building alive or dead

whether a building flourishes or not is not solely dependent on the architecture, though it has an effect, to be sure

Oct 22, 14 6:02 pm  · 

If you're writing the article, shouldn't YOU be coming up with the criteria?

Oct 22, 14 7:00 pm  · 

Well, that is the point of me consulting with experts. I believe it depends on the types of construction materials used, the design of the building, the extent it is open to the natural elements, and what it is used for. I can elaborate quite a bit on each of these points, but i was hoping someone could point me in a direction that would give me more ideas. The "aliveness" of buildings should be a paramount concern to anyone interested in building them. I have been to hospitals, factories and schools that were heavy, lethargic and downright depressing. Some of it had to do with the elements I mention above. Is there no book that can elaborate on this topic, aside from those looking into feng shui??


Oct 22, 14 9:11 pm  · 

Aliveness, IMO has to do more with a buildings ability to act as a stage for life.  A kinda set for real life.  If that set adds to the drama in some way, or effects it, it is "alive."  

Oct 22, 14 10:15 pm  · 

Charles - this is a very broad question, no single book is going to give a definitive answer. It's rarely a simple matter of the architectural design either - many plain and ordinary buildings are lively, while beautiful buildings sit lifeless. Lots of critics have written about it from different points of view. I'd suggest reading through a variety of sources to develop your own sense of what makes a 'living' building.

Some authors / books to look at:
Jane Jacobs "Death and Life of Great American Cities"
Witold Rybczynski "Home: A Short History of an Idea"
Lewis Mumford
Nikos Salingaros "A Theory of Architecture" He has a similar approach to Christopher Alexander which I don't find relevant, but might help you.
Geoffrey Scott "The Architecture of Humanism"

I'm assuming you're not an architect so I've listed books that are all easy and accessible to read, not dependent on architectural jargon. Hope it helps.

Oct 22, 14 10:19 pm  · 

To me, I think it's rather simple.  I'd say it's ability to illicit a emotional response out of someone interacting with the space.

No idea about books, but I know there are a ton of neuroscience type studies out there that are interesting about how the human mind interprets their surroundings and the links towards emotions... 

Oct 23, 14 6:06 pm  · 

There's a chapter in Bachelard's Poetics of Space you might find helpful entitled "The House, From Cellar to Garret. The Significance of the Hut."

Oct 23, 14 7:10 pm  · 

Thank you all for the suggestions! They are very helpful. This is going to take more research than I expected!

Oct 24, 14 12:22 pm  · 

All you need is one book...

Happy City by Charles Montgomery


Amazing read. He addresses all the things that make a city happy and sad from an architectural and urban standpoint.

Oct 24, 14 12:41 pm  · 

Aldo Rossi, "the architecture of the city" is a good one to read.  it will help you discern between the idea of "aliveness" being architecturally driven vs socially driven vs culturally driven vs functionally/programmatically driven vs historically driven.....

In other words, we all know of that one "haunted house" in our neighborhood as kids...The legends give this pretty ordinary house some "aliveness" that it otherwise would not have.  Its "aliveness" is not architecturally driven, but culturally driven or historically driven.  On the other hand, one could argue that Bilbao is alive and its "aliveness" is mostly architecturally driven.  Will it be in 500 years?  Will it transcend into something else?  What about Giza?   What about Mt. Sinai?  What about the Dome of the Rock?  what about The Alamo? What about the abandoned subway station with legends of a 200lb rat monster?  What about the Large Hadron Collider?  What about some Market in Thailand or Yemen or Spain, What about the Vietnam memorial?...  All of these places are "alive" for a mix of reasons that are not all about architecture...You need to make that distinction and come up with a methodology of categorizing places based on some criteria.  My guess would be that most places gain aliveness from a unique combo of factors.  A fingerprint or DNA of a certain combo of traits, memories, characteristics, proximities, etc...... 

Oct 24, 14 1:13 pm  · 

Here is a nice blog review of the most important book on this topic to me, Michael Benedikt's For An Architecture Of Reality.

Edited to add: You can read this book in an hour or two.

Oct 24, 14 2:32 pm  · 

Amazing. These last suggestions are very helpful! Thank you all for taking the time to respond to my query!

Nov 9, 14 11:00 am  · 

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