on August 5, 2000
``The Timeless Way of Building'' explains the idea of patterns in architecture. A pattern is a way to solve a specific problem, by bringing two conflicting forces into balance.
Here's a very simple example of a pattern. When a room has a window with a view, the window becomes a focal point: people are attracted to the window and want to look through it. The furniture in the room creates a second focal point: everyone is attracted toward whatever point the furniture aims them at (usually the center of the room or a TV). This makes people feel uncomfortable. They want to look out the window, and toward the other focus at the same time. If you rearrange the furniture, so that its focal point becomes the window, then everyone will suddenly notice that the room is much more ``comfortable''.
I applied that pattern to my own living room, by moving the TV under the window and rearranging the furniture, and I was amazed what a difference it made! That's a very simple example, and there are literally hundreds more in this book and its sequel. Simply reading them is fascinating; it will convince you that you can make your own home into something as wonderful in its own way as the Taj Mahal--which is Alexander's whole point.
In fact, the book's main idea is much more powerful than that. It applies to almost every aspect of life, not just to architecture. When a situation makes us unhappy, it is usually because we have two conflicting goals, and we aren't balancing them properly. Alexander's idea is to identify those ``conflicting forces'', and then find a solution which brings them into harmony. It's a simple concept, but once you appreciate it you realize how deep it really is.
This is definitely one of the best books on my shelf. It has really changed the way I look at...everything.
on September 30, 2003
I found this book so mesmerizing that I read it twice. During the first pass, I was surprised that the book was so philosophical and poetic in describing architecture. I expected something more technical. Later during the second pass, my goal was to find derivatives and analogies in software architecture. Based on what I found, I think every software architect would enjoy this book.
The writing style that I noticed in my first read of the book made me feel like I was reading an architecture bible. I hesitate to describe the book as religious, but the book's description "the power to make buildings beautiful lies in each of us already" and the description of the word "alive" giving architecture "the quality without a name" triggered an epiphany when recalling that the Bible says "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth." and, "So God created man in his own image." This is why I'd say this book has a primal, sacred aspect, and this is why we like to build. Additionally, the book especially moved me so my mind's eye was opened to see "alive" patterns and to think about the morphology of architecture filling voids and generating towns.
On the second pass of reading, I was struck by this software architecture analogy in the table of contents: "16. Once we have understood how to discover individual patterns which are alive, we may then make a language for ourselves for any building task we face. The structure of the language is created by the network of connections among individual patterns: and the language lives, or not, as a totality, to the degree these patterns form a whole." Could this be the guidebook for designing enterprise software architecture?
Obviously this book was the inspiration for the philosophy and vocabulary for software architecture, and I thought some of the following excerpts were noteworthy paradigm shifts.
"The patterns are not just patterns of relationships, but patterns of relationships among other smaller patterns, which themselves have still other patterns hooking them together---and we see finally, that the world is entirely made of all these interhooking, interlocking nonmaterial patterns." This sounds like the difference between patterns of software architecture and object-oriented software design patterns.
"Each pattern is a three-part rule, which expresses a relation between a certain context, a problem, and a solution." Deja vu for software patterns.
"You may be afraid that the design won't work if you take just one pattern at a time...There is no reason to be timid...The order of the language will make sure that it is possible." Likewise in software architecture design, as one design pattern is considered at a time to see how it fits needs into the large picture of design. If this pattern is later deemed to be dead, it can be replaced by an "alive" design pattern.
"Next, several acts of building, each one done to repair and magnify the product of the previous acts, will slowly generate a larger and more complex whole than any single act can generate." This correlates to software refactoring.
"It is essential, therefore, that the builder build only from rough drawings: and that he carry out the detailed patterns from the drawings according to the processes given by the pattern language in his mind." When I read this, I thought about the metaphor to the software architect's vision and design. The software architect's design needs to be abstract enough to accommodate change easily, but yet simple enough so software programmers can understand it, finish the detailed component design and build the component to fit the architectural whole.
on April 13, 2003
I bought this book because i am about to build a house. Coincidentally, i am also a senior software engineer and very familiar with design patterns in my field - i use them every day. They work very well for programming computers.
This book, however, literally takes the concept of living patterns to architecture, and, by extension of the act of creation, to life itself.
At the same time as being a great philosophical read, it's also a handy guide to building a house. Bonus points for the author: The book can be read in 15 minutes (reading the "detailed table of contents"), in one hour (reading only the headlines), or in the full. These modes of reading the book come from the author's emphasis of the whole over the parts, e.g. the whole is more than the sum of its parts.
I am not entirely sure that, as the author promises, i will now be able to go and build a house, without drawing a plan... but that this idealistic goal is in practice hard to attain does not make the incredibly deep insights in this book any less true or any less practical.
Like another reader said - the book changed the way i think about... everything!
Patterns as described in this book are far more refined than anything we use in computer science, and that he sees them in a much broader light. The central grandiose idea is the one of complete interconnectedness of the patterns - the whole, which is more than the sum of its parts.
on December 21, 2001
This is a book written to an audience of traditional building (what I call "brick") architects. It is the foundation of the pattern approach to system design that has sprung up in many disciplines, most notably software design.
His goal is to teach the basic, repeatable process of understanding forces acting on a given problem space and how to find a pattern that solves the problem in a way that imbues the space or item with "the quality without a name". This is essential reading for anyone who is building any software, back end or front end.
The reason is that you are creating spaces that people spend their lives in. Be it the IT guy who needs to keep your stuff up and runnning to the end user who just want to complete his goal in a delightful way. Alexander derides the people who choose bad patterns which result in the "dead" sameness in many mass-produced items (including office parks and most modern apartment complexes).
He calls for a return to a more organic process. A process in which any person can go ahead and design a house. With the patterns and process, the person is able to directly design the house (or anything else) to directly suilt his or her personal needs. Alexander points out the danger that having everything designed by "experts" who make everything complicated and thus beyond the reach of the common user - this is rampant in both bits and bricks - I think it has to be stamped out.
Also keep in mind that patterns provide a framework for solving a given problem, there is lot's of room for customization, but certain rules must be observed. Afterall the system is one of language, a language of patterns with a grammar all it's own. In musical terms, western music gives you 12 tones. They can be put togeher in an infinite way, there are genres that help limit the variety and give a stricter framework.
Remeber that patterns exist at all scales. Each pattern is really made up of sub patterns. Each pattern, at a given time, is a constituent part of a larger pattern. When all workers speak the same pattern language, the outcome is more predicatable and all people involved in the bui;lding can adapt to problems autonomously and be assured that the solution will have coherence with the whole. It's liberating. It is democratizing. It invites other to add on. Once set in motion, there is no need for centralized control.
on May 2, 2000
This is the book that set the whole software patterns movement in motion. It's a great read. It made me realize how the builder blew it when they made my house. One small design change, the house is 1 ft too narrow makes it impossible to put a screen door on the front door. It made them build a extra platform which causes people to fall down into the living room.
On the other hand, if I was building a building I'd use his visualization techniques before I drew plans. But I wouldn't use this technique to actually construct a building. It would triple the cost. (The essence is to build it as you need it.)
On the other hand he explains why swiss barns look "alike" without the need for a design review committee. (Or barns in general.)
As for software, Design patterns give programmers a way to talk about problems and solutions without talking about code. Its a great idea and I use software patterns all the time. (Get the GOF book for actual software patterns.) Read this one to understand how they came onto this idea.
on July 27, 1999
I am a software development consultant and trainer specializing in design patterns (to give you some perspective). Design patterns are the translation of Christopher's work to software development and involves finding recurring patterns in software development (forgive me for the oversimplified definition). This book has given me incredible insights into building software in ways previously beyond my skills. However, to be honest, I think I may appreciate the esthetics of the book even more. It is so enjoyable to read. I recommend this book to my students, associates and friends all the time and I get many, many "thank you"s for doing so. A note about reading it. Christopher recommends reading the italicized sections if you don't have time to read the whole book as opposed to just reading the first few chapters. This gives you a sense of the entire book as opposed to only the first few chapters in detail. I suggest reading the book through this way first anyway (italicized sections only), and then going back and reading the entire thing. It will take a couple of hours, but then when you go back and read it normally, you will understand and enjoy it much better.
on March 28, 1997
It is amazing how a book that propounds revolutionary
architectural theory has stirred up the computer software
industry. This deeply philosophical book, which is
very practical and rigorous, lays the foundation for
developing "pattern languages".
The book is all about a common language that can be shared to build
artifacts that are alive. It stresses that a design should always
concentrate on the "whole" and not on assembling parts. It also
shows the power of distributed processing, if you will, as against
All the great principles have one thing in common. They are
simple. And, after one realizes such a simple but profound principle, one
can not stop wondering how one survived without it's knowledge. This book gives
feeling. If you are involved in architecture of any sort- buildings, software,
organization or even politics- this book is a must for you.
on August 23, 1998
This book needs plenty of reading, as it is full of ideas and images that slowly come together to form a whole. It describes "the quality with no name" that make some buildings come "alive" and be wonderful to live in. It is this same quality that makes nature so appealing. The quality is formed from patterns - the second book in the trilogy "A Pattern Language" describes a large number of patterns for architecture in detail.
It is my current opinion that when the "quality without a name" is present in a human relationship it is called "love". If I am right, then in a way this book answers the eternal question "what is love?". Powerful eh?
[I discovered this book following a recommendation of "A Pattern Language" on an object-oriented computing course. The power of patterns in computer software is only starting to be realised]
on May 4, 2003
Alexander's "A Timeless Way of Building" is a philosophical treatise which has informed my thinking profoundly. Without any formal training or interest in architecture, per se, this book has opened a world of awe for me. Awe of language, of systems, of people. It almost reads as a spiritual text - but with the credibility afforded only to those who clearly address specific content (architecture and city planning, in this case). Alexander's writing is clean and precise. His ideas are powerful, they are more true today than in '79 and in more domains than architecture. I recommend this to anyone who is curious about how systems work.
on December 28, 1999
This book is maybe more popular with computer guys than with architecture people, but it's applicable to all sorts of fields. It's about how you construct a design given a problem and a set of forces acting upon it. I have long worked this way in computing, but since reading the book I have been applying the same techniques to designing the garden in my back yard. I'm sure there's lots more I need to know about design, but I am feeling inspired and confident.