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I originally learned of this book in The New Cottage Home, a beautiful account of small homes that epitomize coziness, comfort, beauty, and in some cases, sustainability. At the end of The New Cottage Home, the author discussed some of the qualities that make a cottage a cottage, and in doing so presented some very interesting ideas. For example, people are subconsciously comforted by the thickened edges that often surround windows and doors. The authors of A Pattern Language believe that this is because we recognize this feature in one the thickness of our lips, the boldness of the skin surrounding our eyes...and thus expect it in places like a home. With good reason, too. Lips and eyelids are no accident! Openings without thickened edges are prone to breakage and defectiveness.
Most of the "patterns" described in A Pattern Language are similar in that people expect them and are comforted by them. In fact, Alexander refers to them as archetypes, which is a word that always interested me. To think that there are universally appealing features in the built environment that people never even consider throughout the building process is staggering. Have you ever seen or entered a place that felt cold and unwelcoming? Read this book and you'll be able to understand why.
It's the universal appeal of these archetypal patterns, as well as the timeless principles on which this book is based, that make this a classic in the architectural field. While A Pattern Language has withstood the test of time, I still have to file a complaint for just that reason. Here and there you'll read statements that make you think "Huh? Things aren't like that anymore..." Nevertheless, Christopher Alexander was a man ahead of his time, and I can't say his ideas are any less interesting, sensible, or true since the year that he published this book. One of the most striking principles he touched on that still applies today is as follows:
"If we always build on that part of the land which is the most healthy, we can be virtually certain that a great deal of the land will always be less than healthy. If we want the land to be healthy all over--all of it--then we must do the opposite. We must treat every new act of building as an opportunity to mend some rent in the existing cloth; each act of building gives us a chance to make one of the ugliest and least healthy parts of the environment more healthy--as for those parts which are already healthy and beautiful--they of course need no attention. And in fact, we must discipline ourselves most strictly to leave them alone, so that our energy actually goes to the places which need it. This is the principle of site repair." (p.510)
Though a little outdated, and a little expensive, this is a book you can hold on to and refer to again and again.
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on September 24, 2002
I've read all three books in this series, and I thought this was by far the best and most accessible. The first, "A Timeless Way of Building", introduced the author's philosophy and was, I thought, a bit bogged down with New Age jargon. I prefer to think in terms of comfort and relationships, though ultimately I agree with just about everything the author-as-designer states and obviously went on to read his other work. I thought the third book, photographs of a project completed by the author, should have been the most informative, but ultimately didn't do justice to the author's ideas. But maybe it was just the poor quality of the pictures. IMHO this is the masterpiece of the trilogy. Christopher Alexander's Empire Strikes Back. Its concern is the practical application of the author's ideas, and one could only wish to live or work in a space designed with this philosophy. His thinking is pragmatic AND beautiful, bringing balance and harmony to space.
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.
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on February 26, 2001
This book is a wonderful collection of design elements for architecture. Each pattern dissects a basic architectural element ranging from a metropolitan plan down to the design of the flow through an individual home. Each pattern is placed in the context of a problem or activity, and shows how that particular solution is realized via some architectural device.
For example, the pattern for Levels of Intimacy describes the problem that each house must accommodate different levels of familiarity and intimacy. We need spaces in our home to allow guests to enter and yet not be admitted to our most personal spaces. The design of a home must therefore allow for different levels of intimacy begining with the least intimate/more formal at the home entryway, and becoming more casual and intimate as you proceeded into family living, eating, and sleeping spaces.
This book also influenced software designers to produce analagous collections of design patterns for the software design field.
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on July 11, 2007
I agree for the most part with all the other reviews but want to add my personal reaction to the book. I am a visual artist; portrait painter; figurative; still life; flora and nature subjects; former commercial illustrator. I also design textiles and clothing on occasion. I am finding Mr. Alexander's writings on architectural design to be very relevant to my own visual art work in ways that I did not expect. I orginally bought the book, after borrowing a copy from an artist friend, to help me in designing a new studio building. I keep the book by my bedside and like to browse the chapters. Each time I come across an idea that is not only helpful for my studio plans but also is inspiring some new directions for my artwork. I have gone on to purchase all of his books. The concepts seem universal and relevant to any age and type of design. Some ideas are so simple, so obvious that I have the "slap yourself in the head" reaction - Of course! Why didn't I think of that? Others are so subtle that their truth and beauty have a mysterious quality that can't be named. I consider this, and Pirsig's "Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" to be the two most important books I have ever read, and continue to reread.
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on January 13, 2001
The attention that this book has received from many quarters is well deserved. Although formally a work on architecture, it is really a handbook for anyone concerned with the development of healthy and humane social environments.
Alexander and his colleagues are successful because they take an empirical approach to architecture. Instead of beginning with abstract geometries, they go out into the world and study buildings and social spaces that do in fact work well. From these observations they generalize a set of "patterns" -- common structural and spatial elements -- that support living communities. These pattern elements range in scale from city-wide features to the placement of furniture in rooms.
I am an advocate of decentralized residential colleges within large universities as a way to improve the quality of campus life. I was pleased to find most of the specific structures that I have been trying to promote within universities included among Alexander's patterns, and to find many of them refined and improved upon. For example, the patterns "Zen View," "Activity Pockets," "Sleeping in Public," "Child Caves," "Pools of Light," and "Half-private Office" are all ones I have used in trying to establish strong educational communities. Indeed, the idea of a residential college itself corresponds to the pattern "Identifiable Neighborhood" with its limit of 400-500 people. And every university that built high-rise dormitories during the period of architectural insanity that was the 1960s should study and act upon, preferably with a wrecking ball, the implications of the pattern "Four-story Limit." ("There is abundant evidence to show that high buildings make people crazy.")
Like many great books, A Pattern Language a bit idiosyncratic. But it is such a rich mine of ideas that you shouldn't let, for example, the occasionally illegible figures bother you needlessly. For a book this influential, however, and one that has already gone through more than twenty printings, the publisher (Oxford University Press) really ought to invest in the preparation of an index.
Buy this book and turn to it often, and compare the ideals that it presents with the real world that less enlightened people have built around you.
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on June 12, 2000
Do take the time to peruse all reader reviews. This is a valuable book.
It is a bit enormous, though, and there is no index. This means that if the reader has to hunt for some little reference or fact, he or she is in for a long trek through these pages. Although it is designed with many short chapters, each devoted to a design element, the sheer amount of data is somewhat daunting. Alexander does write clearly, and in an informal, second or first-person manner. But there is little summarizing. Probably an excellent book to read cover-to-cover as part of a large study project. So read this book and know it well BEFORE you talk to your architect, contractor, designer... don't do as I did and start speed reading it when the architect hands over the blue prints.
Note: Whereas feng shui is a little more mystical, Alexander's suggested design tactics make practical sense. (I gently encourage any reader trying to choose between feng shui and this book to go with the latter). Very useful concepts for anyone who wants to make the most of their living space.
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on April 29, 2000
Nominally about architecture and urban planning, this book has more wisdom about psychology, anthropology, and sociology than any other that I've read. Nearly every one of this volume's 1170 pages will make you question an assumption that you probably didn't realize you were making. In a section entitled "Four-Story Limit", Alexander notes that "there is abundant evidence to show that high buildings make people crazy." Underneath is a photo of San Franisco's Transamerica tower, captioned with a quote from Orwell's 1984:
"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.
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on January 25, 1999
Part 2 of 3 part series.
This book is the dictionary for A Timeless Way of Building. The Oregon Experiment is a case study of the use of these ideas to plan a college campus.
This book is about functional design for humans rather than design for design's sake. It directly refutes the real estate industry's insistence on neutral design for quick sale (which is the industry's goal - not the goal of a homeowner!) It promotes design which fits the needs and desires of the user, not the developer or architect. The philosophy involves the users heavily in the process of design, permitting integrated design without requiring comprehensive knowledge of all interacting factors on the part of the designers, it is a way of modularizing the design process into smaller, comprehensible units which can be understood and discussed in a useful way.
You will not be disappointed in reading these books.
Yes, it's dated a bit, especially in it's language approach to social issues.
Yes, it's Utopian, but not impractical.
No, all of the patterns do not apply to all people in all places, but then, they are not intended to.
What is important is the basic premise: That physical environment design can either promote community or divide people. That there exist basic patterns of interaction between people, buildings, roads and environment.
No, you cannot just change your entire community overnight into a utopia (mores the shame) however, these books can help to redefine how your community grows and develops to improve the quality of life for everyone in the community.
All of the research is fairly old, but it is research into basic human actions and reactions to their surroundings - not something which is subject to a great deal of change - examples cover several thousand years.
If you're tired of strip malls, rampant development for development's sake, neighborhoods without character or community, irritating traffic patterns, multiple hour commutes, buildings which are uncomfortable to live and work in or just interested in improving your corner of the world, read these books and apply some of the principles wherever you feel they will fit your life.
I own multiple copies and recommend it highly.
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Alexander tried to show that architecture connects people to their surroundings in an infinite number of ways, most of which are subconscious. For this reason, it was important to discover what works; what feels pleasant; what is psychologically nourishing; what attracts rather than repels. These solutions, found in much of vernacular architecture, were abstracted and synthesized into the "Pattern Language" about 20 years ago.
Unfortunately, although he did not say it then, it was obvious that contemporary architecture was pursuing design goals that are almost the opposite of what was discovered in the pattern language. For this reason, anyone could immediately see that Alexander's findings invalidated most of what practicing architects were doing at that time. The Pattern Language was identified as a serious threat to the architectural community. It was consequently suppressed. Attacking it in public would only give it more publicity, so it was carefully and off-handedly dismissed as irrelevant in architecture schools, professional conferences and publications.
Now, 20 years later, computer scientists have discovered that the connections underlying the Pattern Language are indeed universal, as Alexander had originally claimed. His work has achieved the highest esteem in computer science. Alexander himself has spent the last twenty years in providing scientific support for his findings, in a way that silences all criticism. He will publish this in the forthcoming four-volume work entitled "The Nature of Order". His new results draw support from complexity theory, fractals, neural networks, and many other disciplines on the cutting edge of science.
After the publication of this new work, our civilization has to seriously question why it has ignored the Pattern Language for so long, and to face the blame for the damage that it has done to our cities, neighborhoods, buildings, and psyche by doing so.
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on January 24, 2001
Another enthusiastic thumbs up. I'm actually a computer programmer who came accross this book as I was thinking of remodeling my house. While planning my remodeling project I came accross a book called Not So Big House. I was struck by the beautiful houses depicted in the book, but most of all I was instantly impressed with the beautiful language of the book. Well, it turns out that the author of Not So Big House, is an architect who was very influenced by A Pattern Language and was using it for her buildings and her book. The Pattern Language creates a beautiful language, that actually can and has been has been incorporated by other architects to create houses that really stand out. It was also amusing to realize that this is actually the book that was used as an inspiration for the Design Patterns in Computer Science. Can't say enough about this book. It's just a wonderful book. I'm so glad that I found it BEFORE my remodeling project rather than after.
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