Using networks to design an Indian village

Notes on the Synthesis of Form by maverick architect and design theorist Christopher Alexander belongs to the canon of design theory. In 150 pages of youthful enthusiasm, Alexander brings together D’Arcy Thompson, cosmology, modernist architecture, anthropology, and his own algorithm to hierarchically decompose a graph.

In 1962, two years before the publication of Notes on the Synthesis of Form, a 26-years old Alexander was on the lineup of the inaugural conference of the design methods movement. He presented a theory of how to use the power of network representations to design a … drumroll … rural village in India. The network he based the design on consists of requirements, or constraints, to the design process and their interdependencies. Some of the network’s nodes are obvious—“protection of cattle from disease,” “no overcrowding.” Others made me chuckle—“Women gossip extensively while bathing, fetching water, on way to field latrines, etc.,” “Men’s groups chatting, smoking, even late at night.”

Among his contemporaries, it doesn’t seem like Alexander’s network ideas—that he later elaborated in A City is not a Tree—diffused very far outside of the design-theory community. He later denounced the design methods movement and his contributions to it—“I reject the whole idea of design methods as a subject of study, since I think it is absurd to separate the study of designing from the practice of design.” Nevertheless, the design methods movement influenced Herbert Simon’s The Sciences of the Artificialoften hailed as a forerunner of today’s social and urban data science.

By the magic of OCR and my admin Tomoko Hayashi, I present Alexander’s network for designing an Indian village for you to analyze. (I kind of expected it to be included in one of the SNA network collections, but couldn’t find it.) You can get it in Pajek format here, and compare your own hierarchical decomposition algorithm with Alexander’s HIDECS 2.

Not the most aesthetically pleasing of networks, but this is how Gephi plots it.

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