A Pattern Language// Childe Morgan

I’ve just re-read Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language: Towns • Buildings • Construction, and while I think the third section, on construction, is somewhat weak, the first two parts of the book are powerfully well laid out.

For those who don’t know it, Alexander is a practicing theoretical architect, who believes that towns and houses in the United States are built badly, from a mental, spiritual and social point of view, and in fact that they are not merely eyesores, but are actively making us ill. Sick and insane, perhaps. He chose to write a book, however, that does not really explain the problems so much as guide toward one possible solution.

Coded into the book are 253 patterns or notions that make for livable, beautiful spaces for human activity. These range from “City-country fingers” to “light on two sides.” The first pattern suggests that we should stop building sprawling suburbs, but instead should work to define distinct towns (for which he says the appropriate size for self-governance is a village or neighborhood of around 7000 people). Each of these towns should have a natural center — of density, of policy, of program, of housing, of work, and of shops. Each should have holy ground, and places for the dead, and … and… The second pattern, “light on two sides” says that every room in a house should have light coming into it from two sides — which means that unless the house has only four rooms, the skin of the house must undulate or be made up of a number of pods, or… however, these pods should be placed in such a way that distinct outdoor rooms — whether gardens, patios, sleeping platforms, what have you, should be sheltered from the wind but open to the sun.

Reading the book is awfully like being programmed.

There’s this broad awareness as you read that there is something fundamentally unworkable about most modern spaces. For example, there’s a parking lot in the nearby town, surrounded by buildings, that leaves me completely dissatisfied. It has a bar and a coffee house on the north side, a train station on the east side, a bank and a pizza parlor and a few shops on the west. It’s arranged along a hilltop, so it narrows in the south. There’s a little island in the middle, with a tree. Sounds nice, right?

It’s completely ugly.

Alexander provides a reason. His reason even sounds good. The space doesn’t work because it’s too wide in both directions, there’s no place to wait for a train, there’s no connection to other transportation forms, and the buildings are set back from the sidewalk, and not crowded around the courtyard on all sides. The object roughly in the center of the plaza isn’t large enough, and there’s no building fronting on the square that’s tall enough to draw the eye upward. There also is too much parking relative to the space available, which means that people don’t feel safe being out in the open.

However, one of the principles of Alexander’s work is Site Repair. According to this principle, you work to fix damaged places like this one, instead of working to build an entirely new site somewhere else. We’re starting to see this in downtown Putnam, with the reconstruction of the shopping center by the river (which needs some significant site repair of its own for other reasons, but already it’s less of an eyesore).

So how do we fix this plaza, up by the railroad station? Well, first of all we recognize that travelers who come by train are likely to want to switch to some other form of transportation to get where they’re going. So there has to be a bus stop. We do this by eliminating maybe a dozen parking spots, and putting in a concrete curb, and backfilling the space with dirt. This gives us a stage for pedestrians to feel sheltered from the cars, and the base for a playground for children, and a loitering area for pedestrians and travelers to feel sheltered. We plant trees in this area, to create a windbreak, and create a sheltered spot for chairs and benches so that people are protected from the wind and able to face the sun. And we put up a kiosk or something similar for newspapers, for wireless access, and for bus schedules.

Now we have bus service, and we have railroad service, and we have a place for people to wait between the two. But these people need things to do, especially on long layovers. How do we fix that? We recognize that the bank parking lot is too big. What do we do with that extra space? We build into it: two structures, perhaps three, with shops on one level and apartments on the second floor. This finishes the windbreak to the west. It brings together single people and young families in the apartments, and perhaps some elderly. Now there are lights on in the square at all hours of the day and night — shops, restaurants, and family life. Through one of the buildings we put a mews — a narrow passageway that connects to quiet gardens in the west, and the stairs and ramps down to the larger public parking lot. This makes a connection to the river, and to green, and it creates a busy freedom in the square, while creating quiet back places along the back sides of the buildings. It reduces the parking from what you need the day after Thanksgiving to what you need on the average day. And it increases the potential number of pedestrians by 100% or more.

What else? We put in a bike rack. Now it’s possible for the square to be a destination for young people who don’t yet have cars but who are old enough to travel farther afield. Pedestrian and bike and train and bus and car traffic is now up to 200% of what it was. The businesses along it are bustling and prosperous. There is a chance for people to hang out, and interesting things to happen. A bandstand makes possible regular concerts, drawing in more people. A series of canvas awnings make possible weekly farmers’ markets. More people. We remove another six or seven car spaces along the east side, and put in trees, to act as a windbreak along the east, and serve as a defense against the noise of trains. In their shade, we put in canvas umbrellas, for people having a drink or having dinner. More people.

We’ve narrowed the square and reduced parking and made it safe for bicycles, children, people, cars. We’ve improved the physical environment by 100%, and we’ve repaired the site. We’ve made it not merely a parking lot, but a destination in its own right, not merely a transit hub but a place of transition and change and power.

The patterns which make up the first two parts are the ones I’ve drawn on most thoroughly for this discussion, and there are definitely problems with them. For one, Alexander doesn’t confront the politics of the planning and construction process, or land ownership (other than to say, everyone has their own house, and local governments of 7000 people), or how to pay for these kinds of projects, or how to convince people to buy into them with things to lose — the bank, the railroad, the cafés already present, perhaps the bus company…

The book’s patterns DO work as a way to look at architecture as a tool for revitalizing and beautifying and healing community. It’s saying that buildings don’t have to be egotistical. Further, in the same way that suns, planets, asteroids and comets all reflect both the larger and smaller elements of the whole solar system, buildings reflect both smaller and larger elements of the world — families, communities, workgroups, social institutions, governments — and building them well, beautifully, and with an eye to improving space, helps communities grow and heal.

It’s worth thinking about, and I may even try writing this up as a proposal for the town of Putnam at some point, for the bank and the other businesses on the square to think about. I bet we could get a lot of support around town for it, just by putting a couple of copies out at the local café.

It’s also interesting to discover that I’m thinking about every architectural space I enter in these terms. It’s like there’s this widget running in the back of my brain now, that I call up a viewfinder, or a jeweler’s loupe, and look through it at the world, and think, “Oh yes. This thing is missing from this space, and this is how you do site repair here.” It’s an interesting way of looking at the world, and I’m certainly going to read this book again, if only to renew and deepen the pleasure of looking at the world in this way.

Other applications suggest themselves to me. Teaching could be one of those professions with pattern languages of its own. The multiplication tables, for example, are a standard pattern — but the divisions should be equally important, and we should learn them both ways. The alphabet as 26 characters should be important, but so is the 90-odd-character alphabet — all the punctuation, upper and lower-case letters, and even some basic drawing shapes. Patterns that serve an overall vision of what a child could be — mentally, physically, socially, morally, playfully, studiously, artisanally — could be really valuable in figuring out what to teach, and how. It’s something I plan to discuss with my colleagues in the near future.

Childe Morgan by Katherine Kurtz

The second book is one I bought with a gift certificate, and I’m feeling cheated anyway. It’s by Katherine Kurtz, author of a series of books about the Deryni, a race of psychic/magical people in an England/Russia landscape that never quite was, and I quite enjoyed them as a kid. In this one, I’m having a hard time keeping the characters clear and focused — none of them are described with solid details that make them hang in my memory, and none of them is as vivid or flawed or as complex as I want them to be. I’m not quite finished yet, but overall I’m rather disappointed. There hasn’t been a single sword fight or a single significant magical act, and even the countryside of Gwynedd, which loomed large in youthful imagination, seems more autumnal and weatherworn than I remember. Not really recommended to non-Deryni fans, and even then only hardcore ones.

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4 comments

  1. I’ve read…

    I’ve read several similar articles about how his designs don’t really work when used by amateurs… all by professionals, interestingly. I’ve never read an article by someone who lives in an amateur-designed house.

    I do think that his design patterns, combined with formal training, make for an interesting combo. It’s worth looking into, anyway. I took a photograph a few days ago of a vast, open expanse of parking that just left me in shock and awe. It was clear that it needed maybe 2/3s less parking than it actually had — and that nobody lived there, it was just parking for the sake of too many big box stores in one place.

    Ugliest place I’ve ever been.

  2. Alexander’s notion of design patterns caught on big with the software engineering community about 10 years ago.

    I vaguely remember reading one article about an attempt to test his claims that amateurs armed with his patterns could design beautiful things… it didn’t really work. (Sadly, I don’t remember the details to hunt down that article again.)

  3. Alexander’s notion of design patterns caught on big with the software engineering community about 10 years ago.

    I vaguely remember reading one article about an attempt to test his claims that amateurs armed with his patterns could design beautiful things… it didn’t really work. (Sadly, I don’t remember the details to hunt down that article again.)

    • I’ve read…

      I’ve read several similar articles about how his designs don’t really work when used by amateurs… all by professionals, interestingly. I’ve never read an article by someone who lives in an amateur-designed house.

      I do think that his design patterns, combined with formal training, make for an interesting combo. It’s worth looking into, anyway. I took a photograph a few days ago of a vast, open expanse of parking that just left me in shock and awe. It was clear that it needed maybe 2/3s less parking than it actually had — and that nobody lived there, it was just parking for the sake of too many big box stores in one place.

      Ugliest place I’ve ever been.

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