Generative Design-Build

In an excellent article on Christopher Alexander’s notion of “wholeness”, by Michael Mehaffy and Nikos Salingaros share the following from their new book:

A set of diagrams from Helmut Leitner (a software engineer in Graz, Austria) helps us grasp the wholeness-generating transformations. We reproduce his five-step graphical description from our book Algorithmic Sustainable Design.


1. Step-wise: Perform one adaptive step at a time.

Here we run into a problem with modern design education, which is based almost exclusively on perfunctory assembly and composition following a “program”, and then a nearly magical addition of “creative inspiration” all at once. This is, after all, what famous contemporary architects are thought to do, following the accepted myth of intuitive genius. It is very difficult to convince a young architecture student, for example, to design with one adaptive step at a time.


2. Reversible: Test design decisions using models; “trial and error”; if it doesn’t work, un-do it.

Another deep problem here, revealing the inadequacy of present-day design training: how does a practitioner judge whether a design “works” or not before it’s built? The only means of doing so is to use criteria of coherence and mutual adaptivity (or “co-adaptivity”), not abstract or formal (static) design. Otherwise, an architect has no means of judging if an individual design step has indeed led closer to an adaptive solution. As far as actually undoing a step because it leads away from wholeness, however, that is anathema to current image-based design thinking!


3. Structure-preserving: Each step builds upon what’s already there.

This has been the theoretical and philosophical underpinning of all of Alexander’s (and our) work. The most complex, yet adaptive and successful designs arise out of a sequence of co-adaptive steps and adjustments that preserve the existing wholeness. On the other hand, designs that arise all at once are for the most part simplistic, non-adaptive, and dysfunctional. A trivial algorithm cannot generate living structure. And even a single step away from wholeness can derail the system.


4. Design from weakness: Each step improves coherence.

Again, part of the same fundamental problem we already mentioned: how to identify the precise location where an evolving design happens to be “weak”. This can only be done on the basis of adaptivity and coherence, otherwise one risks privileging a non-adaptive component that looks “exciting” instead of sacrificing it to create an improved overall coherence. The dysfunctional Achilles Heel of many a contemporary design may make them photograph well!


5. New from existing: Emergent structure combines what is already there into new form.

As in the development of an embryo, or successive design improvements of a computer chip, a functionally complex system evolves through cumulative steps, changing and getting better and more complex and thus acquiring more advanced capabilities. We cannot emphasize sufficiently that designing from evolving wholeness will introduce features—asymmetries, symmetries, connections, new scales—that are inconceivable within an assembly approach to design.

If we put subject this work to Generative Process Analytics, what further insight reveals itself?

First we can map the G5 processes onto the diagrams as follows:

  1. Step-Wise = Construction
  2. Trial and Error = construction with a feedback loop. The system is reversible by an outside agent. However, we can enrichen this pattern dynamic by removing the conditions of reversibility — in which case, because the”trial form” provides feedback, but is irreversible, it’s agency is in forcing the agent to continually work with (adapt to) what is. This then creates the conditions for Autopoeisis.
  3. Structure-preserving = Development
  4. Design from Weakness - Evolution
  5. New from Existing = Emergence

In their article, the authors use these pattern dynamics to disentangle the problems of scale. With the G5 we can address the design of the design process itself — in other words, the G5 is a meta-methodology.

When we are speaking of architecture, or designing the built environment, we must be careful in identifying the locus of agency at different sub-systems in the design-build process. The cathedral as a structure my be responding to the agency of gravity as well as being subject to the agentic intervention of the builder, but the cathedral is not responding to or adapting to the larger socio-economic environment — the designer and builder are. The socio-economic presssures will “show up” or “determine” aspects of the final built structure, but there is a middle-man agent in between who feels the socio-economic pressures and the built structure itself.

We can illustrate the design-build process as follows:



Whitehead: Beauty is the mutual adaptation of the elements of experience.

Hartshorne: Mutual adaptation or harmony is not a sufficient condition of great value. There must also be intensity. And intensity depends upon contrast, the amount of diversity integrated into an experience.


Thus aesthetic value is formed in diversified, harmonious experiences. IOW, beauty is unity in variety.

In the illustration “design development” is associated with Whitehead’s “mutual adaptation” or “harmony” and “functional sophistication” with Hartshorne’s diversity — that is why the first is called “development” and the latter “evolving diversity”… development is the term used to convey increasing complexity-in-harmony/unity, evolution is the term used to convey increasing complexity-in-diversity (if the terms are used correctly).

(Note: what we see in mainstream integral theory is a developmental bias, even when using the term “evolution”.)


Because the designer-agent is enmeshed within an autopoeitic feedback-feedforward system with the socio-economic environment, the final design is not merely a synthesis of the functional and aesthetic values of the designer-agent– rather the final outcome is emergent (not traceable to discrete socio-economic environmental factors or identifiable events that in fact played a crucial role).

1 Comment

  1. Jean says:

    Great post, adds much clarity. Would appreciate seeing the pictures (Leitner 1 to 5). Am i the only one not seeing them?

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