A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander

A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, published in 1979, is a classic work and is known far outside the field of architecture, its provenance. Howevever, as with many seminal efforts, the reception and the ideas can be a bit impoverished, as most people appear to read the work superficially, or mainly by way of third party secondary literature, brief and partial reviews.

To begin with, A Pattern Language is the second volume in a two (actually three) volume work. The third volume (a prelude, published in 1975) takes up the application of many of the ideas found the first two volumes to the University of Oregon's campus. According to Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language are inseparable and need to be read together. They were written together, and it is only their inordinate length that made them immpossible to bind together in a single volume (552 and 1,171 pages, respectively).

Also, the publication dates are reversed in terms of the order for reading:

  • The Oregon Experiment, 1975
  • A Pattern Language, 1977
  • The Timeless Way of BUilding, 1979

Why is A Pattern Language so often referenced but The Timeless Way of Buidling ignored? Partially it is the way A Pattern Language is written as a reference work mainly made up of the description of 253 patterns, many regional, city and town patterns, neighborhood and building clusters. However, most patterns apply to buildings, with a few applying to construction.

In The Tiimeless Way of Building there is a painstaking description which attempts to describe a process, both a process of having a pattern language (mostly now forgotten, a partial and dead language), and a process of using a pattern language to build with.

While the Pattern Language book can be dipped into for insight, it is the former work, its elder twin, which is needed to conceive of a pattern language and what it means, and its necessary process (including the process of building the patterns).

Volume I, The Timeless Way of Building, and Volume 2, A Pattern Language, are two halves of a single work. This book (A Pattern Language) provides a language for building and planning; the other book (The Timeless Way of Building) provides the theory and instructions for the use of the language. THis book describes the detailed patterns for towns and neighborhoods, houses, gardens, and rooms. The other book explains the discipline which makes it possible to use these patterns to create a building or a town. This book is the sourcebook of the timeless way; the other is its practice and its origin.

The danger is quite present that any kind of deployment of a pattern is an appropriate approach. Rather Alexander explicitly points out that a building or environment with patterns can be dead, as well that a building or environment without patterns per se, can be alive. That it is the use of the building or environment that makes something alive. Careful attention paid to understanding the origin and nature of patterns and foremost the processes of designing and building with them is critical (though again, not sufficient).

The Limitations of A Pattern Language

The limitations of these works and their reception are several, though of course the failing is itself monumentally successful in the sense of bringing these pattern languages themselves to light, as ultimately futile as it is in our present age.

Many of these limitations are already recognized to a small or great degree by Alexander. However, it is important to bring these to the fore so that we are not deluded in terms of what Pattern Languages are capable of, and of what we humans can still attempt.

  • Most people have zero insight, interest, and impact on their surrounding built environment, through little fault of their own. This is the age of the city, and that means a majority of people are now and will be increasingly living in larger buildings with less space.
  • Alexander is from an earlier age when family buildings where much smaller than they are today (in 2019). And some the realization of many of his patterns feel claustrophbic to the sensibilities of current individuals
  • Portland Cement is an evil which is completely overlooked as such by Alexander. Certainly it provides some built characteristics that are advantageous as well as self-evident (to a mid-20th century architect), and the history of cement back to the Romans and their remaining ruins are a paen to monumental architecture. Yet Alexander does not attempt much in the way of material analysis, accepting the highly toxic and resource intensive building material industry as not worth discussing.
  • Even if there was such a thing as a pattern language that was embedded within any given community, those communities are very much traditional and pre-modern, though of course there are still vestiges of them strewn throughout various parts of the world (and are the source of examples throughout both volumes).
  • Ultimately, the use of emotion as a criteria for wholeness and completeness is both far less satisfying in terms of judging value, as well as being very easy to ignore as it is the feelings of the residents and occupants of buildings and towns who rarely attain any degree of real participation in the planning and building process.
  • Alexander's return to the University of Oregon [some decades later(http://www.rainmagazine.com/archive/1994/alexander-visits-the-oregon-experiment) was an abject failure about which A Pattern Language and The Timeless Way of Building had little to say.

Apartment dwellers these days live in minimalized housing: boxes for storing people when not at work, school, or driving around. Add a television, and no one seems to care what the space around them looks like. Through the abuse of resources and people, mass-produced pre-fab housing is cheap and turns a quick profit, making investors interested in neither durability nor livability. People have, in a way, adapted to this kind of housing, and see nothing wrong with it on paper.

But rooms, windows, porches and courtyards should be shaped carefully, to nourish people, and give them connection to nature and neighbors. Alexander specializes in making human-scale spaces at low cost. Sometimes this involves trades. For example, to save money Alexander planned to reduce the square footage a little bit. This caused an uproar in the pressured design group. Americans are addicted to excess room: it’s the sort of limited freedom that people living in prisons cherish. Under more reasonable conditions for discussion, people normally agree that slightly smaller, well-designed rooms with useable outdoor space are preferable to large cardboard crates on a parking lot.

The Greatness of The Timeless Way of Building

Even though, as we all are, Alexander is a creature of his era, he manages to provude a summarizing and synthesizing function in terms of architecture and building, and injects humanity and insight into the process.

Secondly, Alexander retrieves and presents what we already know about the kinds of architecture that are very much alive, hold great charm, and would otherwise be impossible to construct without pure imitation (and even that might not be enough).

Third, it is the processes and methods in researching, considering, discussing, planning, and building patterns that is the real work, not the patterns themselves (which he clearly states are not elements but relationships between patterns).

The patterns, in their relationships, can guide insight and activity along the lines which make living environments and buildings much more possible.

Connections to Other Fields

A Pattern Language has had significant impact on unrelated fields such as Computer Science (Programming) as well as other design areas. Unfortunately, the potential impact on Permaculture has only been tangentially recognized, and nowhere realized.

Christopher Alexander 2011 Lecture at Berkeley