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A Pattern Language

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Christopher Alexander is a (now ex-) professor of architecture at Berkeley whose most famous books, The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language, have inspired a sort of cult. He believes that in architecture beauty is attainable by following rules, or recipes, which he calls patterns. The same problems occur over and over again, and the patters, which he claims not to invent but to discover, are well-known ways of solving them. A Pattern Language consists of 253 of these, with photographs and descriptions. Alexander maintains that beautiful cities and towns will result from following the patterns. He aims to demystify all of architecture, and to a great extent he succeeds.

His patterns range in breadth from city planning to room decor, and many of them are alarming in their specificity. Cities should contain no more than 9% parking space; political communities should be around 7,000 people (this is reminiscent of the 19th century socialist crank Charles Fourier, who recommended 500 as ideal); no urban downtowns should serve more than 300,000 people; most buildings should be no more than four stories high; terraces should be at least six feet deep; every room should have light on at least two sides. Sometimes Alexander buttresses his rather ex cathedra pronouncements with studies and arguments; sometimes not. “Nine Percent Parking” gives a fair taste of his style:

We [he has co-authors] suspect that when the density of cars passes a certain limit, and people experience the feeling that there are too many cars, what is really happening is that subconsciously they feel that the cars are overwhelming the environment, that the environment is no longer “theirs,” that they have no right to be there, and so on… Instead of inviting them out, the environment starts giving them the message that the outdoors is not meant for them, that they should stay indoors, that they should stay in their own buildings, that social communion is no longer permitted or encouraged.

We have not yet tested this suspicion. However, if it turns out to be true, it may be that this pattern, which seems to be based on such slender evidence, is in fact one of the most crucial patterns there is, and that it plays a key role in determining the difference between environments which are socially and psychologically healthy and those which are unhealthy. [Italics his.]

To begin with, nine percent parking is based not on “slender evidence,” but no evidence. It is a “suspicion,” which becomes a pattern, which becomes a dictum. Here you catch the faint whiff of the crank.

Yet it is a very plausible suspicion, even if the particular number is bogus. Urban landscapes full of cars, like Los Angeles, are depressing. Most of Alexander’s patterns are very plausible, even the ones that never would have occurred to me, like “Zen View”: “If there is a beautiful view, don’t spoil it by building huge windows that gape incessantly at it. Instead, put the windows which look onto the view at places of transition — along paths, in hallways, in entry ways, on stairs, between rooms.” The man who writes this has meditated long and profoundly about why some buildings succeed and others fail.

Alexander generally begins with what people want. You might think that most architects would begin there, but in fact very few of them do. Instead they talk a great deal about form, function, structure, “machines for living,” and the like. Alexander’s solicitude is one of the great sources of both his unpopularity within his profession and his popularity in the world at large. The photographs in A Pattern Language are of warm, inviting, pleasant places that would be fun to live or play or work in. They are not of monuments, large buildings, or what one has been taught to regard as architectural masterpieces.

In Alexander’s cosmology, beauty in architecture consists of satisfying people’s desires, and those desires are immutable. It follows that architectural standards are objective. There is a human nature, to which buildings will appeal more or less successfully. It follows further that Alexander is in on the secret. This assurance, more than anything, infuriates his fellow architects.

Now I’m all for normative thinking, provided it’s kept far away from the police power. Jane Jacobs, with whom Alexander is frequently grouped, takes pains to show how livable cities grow organically from people’s natural behavior, while top-down planning leads to disaster after disaster. This concerns Alexander not at all: only ends interest him. Some of his grander patterns must be enforced by law, and he does not shrink from doing so. In “The Magic of the City” he writes:

Put the magic of the city within reach of everyone in a metropolitan area. Do this by means of a collective regional policies which restrict the growth of downtown areas so strongly that no one downtown can grow to serve more than 300,000 people. With this population base, the downtowns will be between two and nine miles apart.

He thinks people ought to own their homes. Arranging this is a simple matter: “Do everything possible to make the traditional forms of rental impossible, indeed, illegal.” So you’re not surprised when one of his former students says: “Chris’s answer to my doubts about The Timeless Way of Building was to say ‘Find out your psychological problem that prevents you from agreeing.'”

Alexander’s biggest fans are not architects but computer programmers. Unless you are a professional, you can’t have any idea how vast his influence is in the field. The most important book written about software in the last thirty years, Design Patterns, takes its form explicitly from A Pattern Language. The authors enumerate thirty “patterns” that make for elegant, robust, even beautiful software. (The mark of a successful new technology today is the appearance of a book called Patterns in ….) These patterns are very like Alexander’s: solutions for recurring problems in software development. Cities and software applications are both complex systems that must be broken down into components to be understood. Alexander’s ideas lend themselves more readily to software than architecture because a software architect can control every aspect of a project. He need not rule the world to enforce his chosen patterns.

So we’re left with a brilliant crank, an inhumane humanist, an immodest prophet of modesty. Even so, A Pattern Language is one of the most interesting books about architecture, and the world, that you’re ever likely to read.

(A somewhat different version of this article, not to mention other stuff of this sort, can be found here.)

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About Aaron Haspel

  • Eric Olsen

    Thanks Aaron, welcome back!

  • yes! definitely a great book. i stumbled upon it one day last summer while at a tiny bookstore on the coast of maine (actually, the store was Rue Cottage Books, run by Nicols Fox…author of Against The Machine).

    anyway, i pick the thing up and it’s just engrossing…no matter which page you turn to you find interesting material, often presented in quite unusual ways.