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Alexander and his co-authors present us with over two hundred (roughly 250) "patterns" that they believe must be present in order for an environment to be pleasing, comfortable, or in their words, "alive." The patterns start at the most general level -- the first pattern, "Independent Regions," describes the ideal political entity, while another of my favorite patterns, "Mosaic of Subcultures," described the proper distribution of different groups within a city. The patterns gradually become more specific -- you'll read arguments about how universities should relate to the community, the proper placement of parks, the role of cafes in a city's life. If you wonder about the best design for a home, the authors will describe everything from how roofs and walls should be built, down to how light should fall within the home, where your windows should be placed, and even the most pleasant variety of chairs in the home. An underlying theme of all the patterns is that architecture, at its best, can be used to foster meaningful human interaction, and the authors urge us to be aware of how the houses we build can help us balance needs for intimacy and privacy.
They admit that they are uncertain about some of the patterns -- they indicate their degree of certainty using a code of asterisks placed before the pattern. For each pattern, the authors summarize the pattern in a brief statement printed in boldface, and then describe it at length, drawing upon a variety of sources to give us a full sense of what they mean: these "supporting sources" include an excerpt from a Samuel Beckett novel, papers in scholarly journals, newspaper clippings, etc. Most patterns are accompanied by a photograph (many of them beautiful and fascinating in their own right) and all are illustrated by small, casual hand-drawings. Taken together, "A Pattern Language" is an extraordinarily rich text, visually and conceptually.
As I said in the header of this review, "A Pattern Language" has changed the way I look at buildings and neighborhoods -- I feel like this book has made me attuned to what works, and what doesn't work, in the human environment. I'm constantly realizing things about buildings and streets that this book helped me see -- things that make people feel at home, or feel "alive," in their surroundings, or conversely, things that make people uncomfortable. And the book makes me think differently about life because it showed me how our well-being depends so much upon the way our buildings fit, or don't fit, us as UNIQUE INDIVIDUALS.
"The Ministry of Truth--Minitrue, in Newspeak--was startlingly different from any other object in sight. It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up terrace after terrace 300 metres in the air."
Alexander backs up this polemic with convincing arguments that high-rise living removes people too far from the casual society of the street, from children playing in the yard, and that apartment-dwellers therefore become isolated.
Alexander spends a lot of time in this book trying to figure out how to restore the damage to our communities that have been done by automobiles. He argues for better public spaces and for more integration of children, old people, and workers. He argues for more access to water by more people.
Many of Alexander's arguments are against the scale of modern systems. Public schools spend a fortune on building and administration precisely because they are so physically large [I've seen statistics showing that our cities spend only about one-third of their budgets on classrooms and teachers]. If we had shopfront schools and fired all the school system personnel who don't teach, we might be able to get student-teacher ratios down to 8 or 10:1 without an increase in cost. Similarly, Alexander argues for smaller retail shops, smaller factories (or at least identifiable small workgroups within factories rather than hundreds of faceless cogs) and more master/apprentice instruction.
What if you like the depredations of modernity and aren't interested in a utopian world where basic human needs are met? Can you learn anything about architecture from this guy? Absolutely. You'll learn that light is everything. Your bedroom has to have eastern light so that the sun wakes you up. Your best living quarters should have southern light. All the rooms should have light from at least two sides, otherwise there will be too much contrast and you'll just have to draw the shades. If you've got kids, make them sleep and play in their own wing of the house. Build a realm for yourself and your wife on a different floor. Meet the kids in the kitchen.
To avoid cluttering my apartment, I give away virtually all the books that I buy these days. I'm keeping this one and plan to re-read it every year.
Having made the case for his system of architectural and social design in his earlier work, the author here goes on to formalize a system of 253 patterns, ranging in scale from towns down to benches. Patterns 1 through 94 define a town or community; numbers 95 through 204 define (groups of) buildings; and numbers 205-253 define a "buildable building". The individual patterns are themselves evocative and inviting, and cover a myriad of human social and environmental relationships: number 1 is Independent Region, pattern 2 is Distribution of Towns, 10 is Magic of the City, 57 is Children in the City, number 62 is High Places, number 63 Dancing in the Street, 94 is Sleeping in Public, 203 Child Caves, 223 Deep Reveals, 235 Soft Inside Walls, 253 Things from Your Life.
One example of developing the pattern language for a specific project using a subset of the author's Pattern Language is that of the front porch, composed of 10 elements: private terrace on street, sunny place, six-foot balcony, outdoor room, paths & goals, ceiling height variety, columns at the corners, front-door bench, raised flowers and different chairs. Alexander gives many such examples and eloquently details the process of exploring patterns and moving between them in a search for the proper set. And that is one thing that makes this book special and fun. He does not say a 'successful' set of elements but a 'proper' set of elements. At first that might seem like a lot of hot hubris, but on reading you find that there is a reason that a balcony should be 6-feet square .... THAT is the minimum space required for people to have a comfortable discussion around a small table. It is a charming and useful way to look at one's surroundings, and each of the 253 patterns is given the treatment as the author goes on to detail each element's specifications, definition and purpose. These expanded definitions are often quite charming; for instance, under pattern 57, Children in the City, he specifies a very safe bike path that meanders past workplaces and shops with windows so that kids can see the diversity and alive-ness of the place in which they live. Lovely idea.
While others have noted that Alexander's ideas inspired changes in software engineering, I would also like to note that the author's ideas were, in turn, most likely informed by others, such as neuroscientist Karl Lashley and, in particular, linguist Noam Chomsky. Chomsky developed the idea of a generative grammar, composed of constituent symbols, a set of rules and a set of terminal elements, which together describe all possible sentences in a language. This was considered revolutionary at the time and is quite similar to Alexander's characterization of his patterns, described as a context combined with a system of forces or rules generating an infinite number of solutions in the form of sets of specific design elements. That configuration, in turn, becomes the context for another pattern. The theory's dynamism and scalability render it very powerful indeed.
I think another interesting approach to this philosophy would be to reverse engineer our own environment. To say, Obviously there is a Pattern Language at work in the larger world in which we live, and it is decidedly in opposition to what Mr. Alexander and others, including myself, believe is preferred. What are the rules of that language? What is the context within which those elements operate? The author codifies a desirable Pattern Language. I'd like to see his principles used to turn an eye toward decodifying our own milieu. This is the kind of book that leads one to think and imagine, and isn't that a wonderful thing?
What I didn't like about this book were that neither ideas nor photographs were credited, which is frustrating for someone who wants to follow up on these ideas, and not fair to those whose work contributed to the author's. The author apologized for this in his first book, but then repeated the discourtesy here; the second time is less forgivable. Also, there is no index, which is especially painful for a librarian :-) I would have liked to have seen a more diverse selection of examples, and some attempt to address the implementation of a pattern language after more conventional designs are already in place. That said, I agree with the many others who have stated that this book changed the way they looked at their surroundings, and I'm profoundly grateful to the author for his work, which stands up well after a quarter century.
Even when mediocrity (or worse) is the order of the day, there are those voices in the wilderness who speak to a better understanding and envision a better world. In codifying an aesthetic relationship among elements of a viable, living environment and describing a system of scalable self-sustaining systems, the author joins visionaries like R. Buckminster Fuller, who bring a philosophy to architecture that is as much about living as it is about building. I would encourage anyone who is interested in architecture, design, a philosophy of organic wholeness, or creating a more humane environment, to read this informative and provocative book.