How do buildings make you feel?

A film portrait of architect Christopher Alexander asks the question

“We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.”

Winston Churchill, 1943 speech on rebuilding London’s war-damaged parliament

Have you ever wondered why some places lift your spirits while others bring you down? Or considered how the built environment affects your feelings in the everyday?

I’ve obsessed over these questions for as long as I can remember. That’s what led me to make a film about Christopher Alexander — a quest for answers.

Alexander is a visionary architect with a life-long commitment to creating places where people feel comfortable and happy. A passionate critic of modern architecture, his maverick approach to reforming his profession has inspired reverence — and controversy.

Places for the Soul is a half-hour intimate film portrait of Alexander as he undertakes two major commissions in the late 1980s:

  • In Japan, a high school principal engages him to help teachers and students create a spectacular new high school near Tokyo
  • In San Jose, California his partnership with a nonprofit to create a healing residence for the homeless — the Julian Street Inn — is tested in surprising ways.
The Eishin high school campus near Tokyo, designed by Christopher Alexander in close collaboration with teachers and students. The goal: “build an outer environment that creates an inner feeling of freedom and peacefulness”.

The film spotlights Alexander’s human-centered design philosophy while capturing the highs and lows of his unconventional process as it clashes with standard commercial practices.

I was super fortunate to make this documentary with top creative talents including cinematographer/director Dyanna Taylor and composer Jeff Beal, now famed for his House of Cards score. For a spirited account of the film’s production check out co-writer Stephen Most’s Stories Make the World.

Places for the Soul is available for the first time in a new digital restoration from the Video Project and streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Now you may be thinking: why Christopher Alexander today…?

Three reasons:

1. A go-to resource for design and building at any scale

Thinking of designing a home for your family, improving your neighborhood or promoting better urban planning? Alexander is best known as a thinker, teacher and author. A Pattern Language, the design handbook he authored with colleagues, is a collection of 253 interlocking “patterns”. They’re simple guides to solve complex design problems, from a home to a neighborhood, city or region. Examples include: “A Room of One’s Own”, “Tapestry of Light and Dark” and “Web of Public Transportation”. In another best seller, The Timeless Way of Building, Alexander describes “that age-old process by which the people of a society have always pulled the order of their world from their own being.”

Christopher Alexander points to a small piece of wall from the Alhambra palace in Spain: “Each piece was taken with love and care, so life was brought into this one green hexagon on the same level as to the whole thing.”

2. Inspiration for emerging movements

How do we build environments that aren’t just ‘livable’ but actually improve our long-term happiness? Alexander’s expansive ideas grapple with this question, and they’re inspiring a wide cross-section of folks:

  • The New Urbanism movement to fight urban sprawl and green neighborhoods cites the Pattern Language as a major influence. It’s also the core of a multi-disciplinary research program at the University of Oregon.
  • Alexander is a “placemaking hero” for a network helping people to reinvent public spaces that build community.
  • At a monastery in Naples, architects can take an Alexander-inspired Building Beauty program combining ecological design and hands-on construction. It’s part of a global network dedicated to sustaining traditional building and local character in the 21st century.
  • And in Silicon Valley — the geeky world of computer programmers — Alexander has quite a different cult following: computer programmers who see his nested, linked patterns as a precursor of the internet.

From humble bricklaying to the World Wide Web…Alexander’s body of work has been remarkably influential.

Alexander’s books have been best sellers for decades. “He is one of very few whose work will endure,” writes Witold Rybczynski, well-known architecture professor and critic.

3) Encouragement to create better places for all

Christopher Alexander has been described as groundbreaking, messianic, embattled and one of the most original minds of our time. He’s all that and more. The Alexander I return to is the creative force behind the luminous Eishin campus in Japan — and the one who shone a fierce light on the deep connection between feelings and places.

Today evidence of the built environment’s profound effect on individuals, communities and societies just keeps growing. Architects are now talking to scientists, psychologists, designers and policy makers about how to create more “conscious cities” together.

Places for the Soul is myfilm invitation” to (re)discover a radical thinker and architect long focused on an elemental vision:

Simple beauty and wholeness in the environment heals, supports and engages life.”

Now that’s a daily mantra I want to live by.