Friday, October 3, 2014

What is a Pattern Language? #write31days

It’s a book by Christopher Alexander and his cowriters, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein, Max Jacobson, Ingrid Fiksdahl-King, and Shlomo Angel. I don’t know the politics of it all, who were Alexander’s collaborators, who were his students, but the coauthors of this gem are rarely mentioned and Christopher Alexander is often referred to as if the sole author of A Pattern Language.

My knowledge of architecture is near nonexistent. On a date in college, I went on a river tour of Chicago architecture. I remember my mom pointing out homes built by Frank Loyld Wright when I was a child. That and a slight obsession with the montage in Hannah and Her Sisters about sums up the extent of my exposure to architecture. So, no surprise, I had never heard of Christopher Alexander, a professor of architecture at UC Berkeley. I’ve since heard people refer to his book as a textbook for architecture students, which makes it sound dry and heady, though it is neither.

Here’s how Gretchen Rubin first described it:

I’ve been reading the strange, brilliant, fascinating book, A Pattern Language: Towns, Building Construction. It uses architecture, sociology, psychology, and anthropology to describe the most satisfying architectural environments.

That was enough to make me go search for it, so maybe less is more, as Rubin often argues, when describing a book. One of the reasons I’ve chosen it for this series though is to force myself to articulate the substance of it, what I’ve taken away from it. Until you can put something into your own words, your notion of it remains slightly fussy---or at least that’s true for me.

Here’s my main take away from the book: the best designers are those who actually use a thing, live in a place. Alexander compares the barren, lifelessness of modern architecture with the life-giving design created when things are built by the people who actually live there. He traces commonalities over geography and time to arrive at 253 patterns that are essential in designing towns, buildings and homes. These patterns form a language, a kind of grammar of design.

bench alcovesketch from the book

The book uses drawings, a few photos, and charts to illustrate the patterns. As seen above, they are extremely simple, sometimes childlike. I would love to see an illustrated or photographic version of the book released someday. The patterns intertwine and I often find myself struggling to keep four fingers at four different spots in the book so I can remember how I got to the current page. That is one of the delights of the book. It is not a cover to cover read, though, by now, I’ve read every page, and the patterns close to my heart numerous times.

Tomorrow I’ll delve more deeply into what I love most about A Pattern Language and why I chose it for the Write31Days challenge.


This post is part of Myquillin Smith’s Write 31 Days challenge. You can find all my posts on A Pattern Language here, and other blogs participating in the challenge (and writing on different topics) here.


  1. Have you come across Sarah Susankah and he "not so big" series of hose designs? She and her team of architects use many concepts from PL to create lovely homes. "Window to walk towards" is one of my absolute faves. Your library should hopefully have some of her works. They are beautifully photographed.

  2. House designs, obviously--not hose designs! Sorry about that!


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