Book Review: A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander

by lincolnquirk3 min read15th Oct 20217 comments

33

Book ReviewsHuman ValuesUrban Planning / DesignWorld Modeling
Frontpage

This is an ambitious, opinionated book about how to live.

Ambitious, because its scope is enormous -- how far apart cities should be placed ("2. the distribution of towns"), zoning ("3. city country fingers"), street maps ("23. parallel roads"), recreation ("31. promenade"), beauty ("62. high places), interior architecture ("133. staircase as a stage"), interior design ("200. open shelves"), building ("214. root foundations"), and decoration ("253. things from your life").

Opinionated, because it has specific prescriptions for all these 253 things. Some are fairly wacky: "3. city country fingers" recommends interlacing urban and countryside in "fingers", so that nobody in the city is ever more than a ten-minute walk from the countryside. Some are incredibly specific: "22. nine percent parking" sets an upper limit on land area used by parking, and has dire warnings about "the fabric of society is threatened" if exceeding that even in a small area.

A Pattern Language is meticulously organized and numbered from big to small -- high to low abstraction level. Each prescription has an epistemic status:

In the patterns marked with two asterisks, we believe that we have succeeded in stating a true invariant: in short, that the solution we have stated summarizes a property common to all possible ways of solving the problem. [...]

In the patterns marked with one asterisk, we believe that we have made some progress towards identifying such an invariant: but that with careful work it will certainly be possible to improve on the solution. In these cases, we believe it would be wise for you to treat the pattern with a certain amount of disrespect. [...]

Finally, in the patterns without an asterisk, we are certain that we have not succeeded in defining a true invariant... In these cases we have still stated a solution, in order to be concrete.

We even see a form of wiki-style hyperlinking -- each pattern references certain other patterns as being particularly related. These hyperlinks are grouped into going upwards or downwards on the abstraction scale:

Notice that the other patterns mentioned by name at the beginning and at the end, of the pattern you are reading, are also possible candidates for your language. The ones at the beginning will tend to be "larger" than your project. Don't include them, unless you have the power to help create these patterns, at least in a small way, in the world around your project. The ones at the end are "smaller." Almost all of them will be important. Tick all of them, on your list, unless you have some special reason for not wanting to include them.

Now your list has some more ticks on it. Turn to the next highest pattern on the list which is ticked, and open the book to that pattern....

A Pattern Language was published in 1977 and is full of Hanson or Thiel-style contrarian gems: "the nuclear family is not by itself a viable social form" (75. the family); "people cannot be genuinely comfortable and healthy in a house which is not theirs" (79. your own home); "individuals have no effective voice in any community of more than 5000-10000 persons" (12. community of 7000); "high buildings make people crazy" (21. four story limit).

My favorite (and possibly the most radical) pattern is "39. Housing Hill", recommending that in a place you want dense housing (30-50 houses per acre), build stepped/terraced apartment buildings. Each home is a single story with a garden on the below home's roof. "The terraces must be south-facing, large, and intimately connected to the houses, and solid enough for earth, and bushes, and small trees... served by a great central open stair which also faces south and leads toward a common garden."

The book is overtly about architecture and design, but its secret identity is a manual for how to live a better life. I think this touches on what some people may dislike about it. The authors' lifestyle & ethos pervades the book: they have figured out what makes them happy and are trying to spread those ideas. But then they write it in this academic style -- here is the best way to build, here are the studies we ran. It seems overconfident.

Still, I find it inspirational. I already wanted, but now even more, to design places.

Thanks to Ben Kuhn for recommending I read it.

33

Pingbacks
7 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 5:34 PM
New Comment

The official site of the book has summaries for the patterns here. But I like this site much better: http://www.iwritewordsgood.com/apl/set.htm (which has the complete content of the book nicely indexed!) 

Christopher Alexander invented the presentation in the book in the form of a Pattern Language (described in his book of the same name). Among other uses, it spurred the Design Pattern Language in software development (here is a link from the (now defunct) c2 Portland Pattern Repository (itself the first wiki)). 

I agree that the book is opinionated and written in a very confident tone of its findings and recommendations.

The book is overtly about architecture and design, but its secret identity is a manual for how to live a better life. 

Indeed. That is also very clear from the other book, Pattern Language, which asks the question of beauty in architecture after priming people with the question: "Which building is more alive?" I am reminded of the recent post on art by Scott Alexander, which also reasks this question (there must be a reason they share the same last name). 

The authors' lifestyle & ethos pervades the book: they have figured out what makes them happy and are trying to spread those ideas. But then they write it in this academic style -- here is the best way to build, here are the studies we ran. It seems overconfident.

The authors did their work well, though. Some architects traveled the world, built a lot of beautiful buildings, collected notes on what people felt was livable, got together, and looked for patterns. 

They consulted studies or conducted quick ones themselves e.g., in patterns 13, 21, 33, 60, 68, 82, 112, and 132 (which I found by consulting my memory and quickly looking thru the site). 

And many of the patterns are not as wacky as you think.

Some are fairly wacky: "3. city country fingers" recommends interlacing urban and countryside in "fingers"

This is precisely how a lot of green is distributed in my hometown Hamburg and what allowed my children to reach a wood kindergarten in a recreational forest in five minutes despite us living in a medium dense municipality of Rowhouses (another pattern) along Looped Local Roads. The number of Playgrounds matches Children in the City recommendations. For many years, Hamburg did have a Four-Story Limit. And from my observation, places, where these don't apply, are often less livable.

Some are incredibly specific: "22. nine percent parking"

I don't know why 9 percent, and while he doesn't cite a study in that pattern, he does give a very honest epistemic status about it: 

Very rough empirical observations lead us to believe that it is not possible to make an environment fit for human use when more than 9 per cent of it is given to parking.

Our observations are very tentative. We have yet to perform systematic studies - our observations rely on our own subjective estimates of cases where "there are too many cars" and cases where "the cars are all right." However, we have found in our preliminary observations, that different people agree to a remarkable extent about these estimates. This suggests that we are dealing with a phenomenon which, though obscure, is nonetheless substantial.

Really, for 1977 this book is incredible in how evidence-based and epistemically transparent it is.

Disclaimer: I like the book tremendously - it is in the top three books I have ever read - and mentioned it on LessWrong here, here, and here. I have made changes to our house based on the book that turned out very well: Garden Wall, Teenage Cottage, Children's Realm, Child Cave, and probably others I forgot.

Periodically this book gets mentioned to me, and I try reading it and bounce off. I'd be interested in someone going in more detail into the parts that seem sensible/interesting/tractable for mid-level organization projects.

(concretely: the Lightcone team is working longterm on building a campus, and I expect us to be more likely to make use of a good summary of this, or a strong recommendation that the whole thing is worth reading)

It may be helpful to read the first work in the series to give you an idea of the general framework: The Timeless Way of Building. In the Timeless Way, Alexander exposes his general theory of “building” (again, the intent could be anything from a country to a simple home). A Pattern Language is a compendium of the elements that one would use to flesh out a project. I also read Pattern Language first and was baffled by it until having read the Timeless Way, at which point it all fell into place for me. I believe that there are PDF copies available on archive.org.

Use the table of contents / "summary of the language" section.

For your project I would recommend skipping to 28 and then going from there, and skipping patterns which don't seem relevant.

(This short+sweet review makes me want to read the book.)

The book is hard to get except maybe at the library. I had to pay >100€ for a used German translation. But there is this great online resource with complete content for easy lookup. 

I like the elements of both '3. Country Fingers' and '39. Housing Hill,' They sound cool; like they'd work well by allowing us to meet our biophilic needs, and optimise for separate spaces plus a communal hub. Thanks for sharing this delightfully opinionated read; ideas on how to build housing and encourage healthy communities seems vital.