A Pattern Language
Guy Lochhead, 20/03/17

1977 book on principles of architectural design identified by Christopher Alexander and the school of architecture at University of California, Berkeley. The idea is to provide tools to allow anyone, and any group of people, to create beautiful, functional, meaningful places. Alexander’s description from the first volume in this series states: “There is one timeless way of building. It is a thousand years old, and the same today as it has ever been. The great traditional buildings of the past, the villages and tents and temples in which man feels at home, have always been made by people who were very close to the center of this way. It is not possible to make great buildings, or great towns, beautiful places, places where you feel yourself, places where you feel alive, except by following this way. And, as you will see, this way will lead anyone who looks for it to buildings which are themselves as ancient in their form, as the trees and hills, and as our faces are.” The idea moves away from the mathematics-based training of modern architects and towards identifying “the quality without a name” that makes some places feel better than others. Although vague, preferences around this property have been identified in studies conducted by the school (for example, asking “which of these doorway designs is closer to god” etc.) and seem to have some shared acceptance. Pattern languages have since been used in a variety of other fields – most notably computer programming. Essentially, this is a reframing of the design process to be more inhabitant-centred and “bottom-up”. It gets away from trends and parochialisms towards, as Alexander calls it, “a timeless way of building”. Ambitious and humanistic, it is written with sense and intelligence, prioritising the users of the space, in contrast to a lot of post-war architecture. The structure of the pattern language is itself of importance and provides a tool for decision-making around design in almost any other context too. Personally, the discussion around these projects and photographs of the results give me a deep sense of hope and homeliness and the principles seem to bear out for me in real life too – since reading the book I have been identifying these design patterns in spaces that feel good to me.

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