Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Christopher Alexander's A Pattern Language & Pattern Languages

The Whole Earth Catalog called Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language “possibly the most important book we’ve ever reviewed.” One of my teachers had studied with Alexander at the University of Oregon, and said that he communed with the gods of space.

The book is a collection of 253 “patterns” for designing human habitation, ranging from regional design (“Wherever possible, work toward the evolution of independent regions of the world; each with a population between two and ten million people; each with its own natural and geographic boundaries; each with its own economy; each one autonomous and self-governing; each with a seat in a world government, without the intervening power of larger states or countries.”), to the detail of home decor (“Do not be tricked into believing that modern decor must be slick or psychedelic, or “natural” or “modern art,” or “plants” or anything else that current taste-makers claim. It is most beautiful when it comes from your life -- the things you care for, the things that tell your story.”) Alexander (with colleagues) presents the patterns as hypotheses -- statements of possible truth needing testing, and possibly, refinement -- ranked by a system of asterisks, two for patterns in which Alexander is very confident, one for patterns in which his confidence is qualified, and no asterisks for patterns which solve problems that might be solved otherwise. (The first pattern above sports two asterisks, the second, one.)

My favorite pattern is Number 106 (two asterisks), “Give each (space surrounding a building) some degree of enclosure; surround each space with wings of buildings, trees, hedges, fences, arcades, and trellised walks, until it becomes an entity with a positive quality and does not spill out indefinitely around corners.” The idea is that we enjoy a sense of space, but don’t recognize spaces until they’re defined. Barbara made a beautiful little secret garden, with a pond, brick walk, and bench, in the slot between our shed and a corner in the cyclone fence around our lot. Early on, we’d planted bittersweet on the fence, making a hedge. Bittersweet is tough and pretty aggressive, and started popping up everywhere. I dug out the bittersweet, and the garden lost its charm. We’ve replace the bittersweet with less assertive species, but it’s taking time to get the nice sense of space back.

The idea is to involve everybody in design, by publishing a complete design “language.” Having the language, we aren’t bound to rely on authorities like architects and bosses for the infrastructure in which we live. (An individual project wouldn’t require coordinating the entire 253-pattern language, any more than an individual statement takes the entire English dictionary, and Alexander says that we can use the pattern language for poetry or prose.)

Alexander calls his book a pattern language, implying that there are others, or that others might evolve. These could be competitive with his 253 patterns, or they could be languages used in other kinds of design. I’ve noticed a number of patterns in my drawing, including “gauge the size of details against larger, unmoving masses,” and “use blacks to lighten darks by comparison.”

Permaculture is a pattern language, although nobody seems to have organized it this way yet. Some of the permaculture principles could be classified as patterns, but they might be a little broad, grammar than vocabulary. Certainly, though, “Obtain a yield by combining species to support each other,” “Arrange your plantations in zones in which those used more frequently or needing more frequent attention are nearest,” and “Trellis fruiting vines on fruit or nut trees” would be included in the vocabulary.


Von said...

Great post! Love that Whole Earth Catalog. Wish I still had a copy.What a great book and what truths.Agree with you about Permaculture.Funny how we do some of these things instintively.Maybe too much thought is our downfall?

Tom Roark said...

I don't know that too much thought is our downfall so much as managing it, or knowing when to think and when to trust. It's for sure that I think too much, but at least a little of it must be good for something.