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Published on Aug 31, 2022

A PATTERN LANGUAGE: TOWNS, BUILDINGS, CONSTRUCTION

A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander is renowned for providing simple, conveniently formatted, humanist solutions to complex design problems ranging in scale from urban planning through to interior design. This text is also believed to be the most widely read architectural treatise ever published. Despite this, there is also little acknowledgement in its popular reception that it is only one part of a trilogy of works documenting Alexander’s ‘second theory’ of architecture.

Book lays out over 1,100 pages how our buildings—and by proxy our cities—are not entities at a remove from human beings, but rather their manufactured extensions. And as with any body (headless or otherwise), the whole structure is only as healthy as its individual parts. No facet of our cities and towns should be unwelcoming to their citizens, and no room in a house should feel neglected. A space should “feel right,” the authors argue, and that feeling is tied to the congruence between physical and social spaces.

Separated into three sections, TownsBuildings, and Construction, the book contains 253 patterns defined as “problem[s] which occur over and over again in our environment.” Problems like how to orient the rooms in a home around naturally-occurring light and dark, so that the flow of movement “guides people toward the light whenever they are going important places: seats, entrances, stairs, passages, [and] places of special beauty.” Or the problem of the lack of intimacy between couples when children are present. “Their role as parents rather than as a couple permeates all aspects of their private relations.” The solution: the creation of a private “couple’s realm… a world in which the intimacy of the man and woman, their joys and sorrows, can be shared and lived through.”

For each of the archetypal facets of our homes and communities, the authors offer a solution for living well in the form of gentle-yet-pointed advice that can be adapted to individual circumstances. This in turn creates a diagnosis-and-solution rhythm that continues throughout the dense—if charming, and frequently idiosyncratic—book. Not every pattern will be useful or applicable to every individual home or community, the authors point out, but a good portion could potentially be—every home has a main door; every city has a system of roads—and how they build off of and influence each other will determine the unit’s health.

Every society which is alive and whole will have its own unique and distinct pattern language. Every individual in such a society will have a unique language, shared in part, but which as a totality is unique to the mind of the person who has it. In this sense, in a healthy society there will be as many pattern languages as there are people—even though these languages are shared and similar.

Key Ideas

A Key Insight is that Alexander recognises repeated design problems which recur but always in a slightly different way. So for instance how to address the question of the location of a building on a plot of land when the problem is always the same but the conditions always vary.

The Solution is to see these design problems as patterns.
When you realise that all your design problems can be matched to a pattern and that these patterns interlink then you have a kind of language
Hence A Pattern Language was born.

The elements of this language are entities called patterns. Each pattern describes a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem, in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice.

So this book is a kind of Guidebook for choosing and using a set of interlinking patterns with which to help design your city, park, building or kitchen.

The playbook for creating perfect environments – from entire towns down to individual rooms. Master key to tapping into people’s subconscious and making them feel calm, secure, and abundance – allowing them to go all-in. Like most great books, the ideas and lessons apply far broader than simply the realm it is immediately describing. Many are time invariant and universal, tapping into deeply held and genetically programmed human universals, as Donald Brown would call them

A Pattern Language, in large part due to its encyclopedic nature, stimulates introspection and healthy debate about what environments, both personal and professional, we currently inhabit and how they might be improved. One can cast aside the given prescriptions at will, but Alexander and his coauthors encourage readers to contemplate their reactions to nearly every aspect of the built environment.