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Christopher Alexander
December 15, 2011 9:50 PM   Subscribe

A Pattern Language explores the living structure in good and bad buildings, human artifacts, and natural systems, discussing the presence of the same living order in all systems. [Christopher] Alexander proposes that the living order depends on features which make a close connection with the human self. The quality of works of art, artifacts, and buildings is defined not merely in terms of living structure, but also in their capacity to affect human growth and human well-being.
posted by Trurl (38 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite

 
While its a lovely book, I've a very strong feeling its been doubled (or even tripled on here). I remember bookmarking it the first time. Well not quite exactly but here is the mention
posted by infini at 9:59 PM on December 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Insert comment about how brilliant it is to take Alexander's ideas, throw a bunch of completely software ideas together, call them patterns, walk to the bank as four very rich men.
posted by Yowser at 10:09 PM on December 15, 2011 [6 favorites]


It is a great book, a rich treasure trove of design ideas (and I mean from the architectural and planning point of view) that was very helpful as we worked on our old house; one of the favorite books on my shelf.

But I have had the (glib) feeling more than once that at its heart it is a blueprint for re-creating Hobbiton.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 10:25 PM on December 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Pattern 159, Light on Two Sides of Every Room, is not only insightful architectural advice but also one of my personal most-used metaphors. It is as roundly relevant in life as any of Aesop's best fables.
Rooms lit on two sides, with natural light, create less glare around people and objects; this lets us see things more intricately; and most important, it allows us to read in detail the minute expressions that flash across people's faces, the motion of their hands . . . and thereby understand, more clearly, the meaning they are after. The light on two sides allows people to understand each other.
Light from two sides. This adage is wise in many contexts.
posted by cribcage at 10:26 PM on December 15, 2011 [15 favorites]


Pattern 204: SECRET PLACE

Where can the need for concealment be expressed; the need to hide; the need for something precious to be lost, and then revealed?

We believe that there is a need in people to live with a secret place in their homes: a place that is used in special ways, and revealed only at very special moments. . . .

Make a place in the house, perhaps only a few feet square, which is kept locked and secret; a place which is virtually impossible to discover -- until you have been shown where it is; a place where the archives of the house, or other more potent secrets, might be kept.

Classic types of secret places are the panel that slides back, revealing the cavity in the wall, the loose board beneath the rug, the trap door -- CLOSETS BETWEEN ROOMS (198), THICKENING THE OUTER WALLS (211), FLOOR-CEILING VAULTS (219). . . .
posted by FLAG (BASTARD WATER.) (Acorus Adulterinus.) at 10:41 PM on December 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


(Best book ever.)
posted by FLAG (BASTARD WATER.) (Acorus Adulterinus.) at 10:42 PM on December 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


An excellent book - I'm slowly reading it now, and I feel it really speaks to me. If ever I get to design/renovate that house, I will be seriously considering some of the ideas found in it, and the other books: The Timeless Way of Building and The Oregon Experiement

Sadly, his website suffers from severe bad design.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:45 PM on December 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sadly, his website suffers from severe bad design.

So much so that I didn't want to link to it - lest someone say "What could he know about design?"
posted by Trurl at 10:48 PM on December 15, 2011


But I have had the (glib) feeling more than once that at its heart it is a blueprint for re-creating Hobbiton.

You say that like it's a bad thing.
posted by scalefree at 11:17 PM on December 15, 2011 [5 favorites]


"A Pattern Language" is not a book to read, cover to cover. It's really a compendium of what WORKS in vernacular architecture, at human scale - meant to be dipped into as a kind of human vernacular operating manual. It's notable that Alexander was initially trained as a mathematician.

I have referenced Alexander's works many times, but one of his references stands out. His researchers discovered that once you get beyond 3-4 stories, you are removed from the life of the street, or byway. I've never forgotten that, and when I travel always make a point to request a room no higher than the 3rd floor. There are at least a thousand gems like this in the book.

Anyone who cares about architecture, city planning, community, etc. should have this book.

Here's a good academic biography of Alexander
posted by Vibrissae at 11:18 PM on December 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


But I have had the (glib) feeling more than once that at its heart it is a blueprint for re-creating Hobbiton.
Where can the need for concealment be expressed; the need to hide; the need for something precious to be lost, and then revealed?
Hmm, you may be on to something here.
posted by scalefree at 11:19 PM on December 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


As a software engineer, I got in in my head to read A Pattern Language, if not just for the bragging rights. I had it on my night table, and read a few patterns each night. Slowly and surely it changed the way I approached architecture, and really how I approached the physical world around me.

Examples: I like 110 Main Entrance and 112 Entrance Transition mentioned on this page. How many modern buildings break these two patterns? Before I read it spelled out, I had no idea what was wrong with a building, just this feeling of unease.

I'd recommend this book for anyone, really.
posted by Harald74 at 11:43 PM on December 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


I just got my copy of this back after lending it to my cousin, whilst she studied architecture. A timely reminder! It's a book you can really lose yourself in.
posted by The River Ivel at 5:07 AM on December 16, 2011


I think this is a great book, and actually works as a practical guide to architecture. However, it does not fulfill the promise of its title- which suggests that it will boil down the various forms of architecture to their essential conceptual structures. Rather it has a definite ideology concerning how people should live-i.e. in as 'natural' a way as possible (with certain ideas about what environments humans are most naturally adapted to). What I was really hoping for however, when I picked it up, was something that really functions as a language of architecture because it can take a highly abstract concept like 'transition' or 'container' and provide a grammar that systematically delineates the ways in which such things can vary.
posted by leibniz at 5:23 AM on December 16, 2011


> But I have had the (glib) feeling more than once that at its heart it is a blueprint for re-creating Hobbiton.

Nope, in THE SHAPE OF INDOOR SPACE he denounces "organic and hippielike" architecture as "as irrational, as much based on images and fantasies as the rigid crystals they are trying to replace", and goes on to argue that the best shape for a house is made up of rough rectangles.
posted by Tom-B at 5:39 AM on December 16, 2011


Hmm I wonder then what his opinion of Jugendstil would have been
posted by infini at 5:40 AM on December 16, 2011


>However, it does not fulfill the promise of its title- which suggests that it will boil down the various forms of architecture to their essential conceptual structures.

You need later books for that, in The Nature of Order vol.1 he delineates the 15 essential properties of design

>Rather it has a definite ideology concerning how people should live-i.e. in as 'natural' a way as possible (with certain ideas about what environments humans are most naturally adapted to).

The main thing in his work is that it's based on human feeling rather than nature, he argues that even with cultural and personal variation, at the core human feeling is roughly the same for everyone, in this way design can be objective.

In The Nature of Order vol.1 there's a whole chapter based on André Kertesz's photos of Paris in the 20s, the argument being that it's a wholly artificial environment, and yet it works because it makes possible for human feeling to express itself.
posted by Tom-B at 5:49 AM on December 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


> Hmm I wonder then what his opinion of Jugendstil would have been

He probably loves it! (he's still alive). Modern reinterpretations such as the dancing house, not so much.
posted by Tom-B at 5:51 AM on December 16, 2011


trurl, thank you for this post! Christopher Alexander is my favorite artist ever, I've been studying his work since 2003. For me he's the guy who's gone the deepest into the mystery of human creativity.
posted by Tom-B at 5:53 AM on December 16, 2011


(Best book ever.)

Stewart Brand said it might be the most useful book in all of The Next Whole Earth Catalog - which is tantamount to the same thing.
posted by Trurl at 6:07 AM on December 16, 2011


The main thing in his work is that it's based on human feeling rather than nature, he argues that even with cultural and personal variation, at the core human feeling is roughly the same for everyone, in this way design can be objective.

Yes. I can attest to this.
posted by infini at 6:25 AM on December 16, 2011


I have the book on my shelf, but I have to be very careful taking it down. If I'm not cautious, I get sucked in for days following all the little rabbit holes.

(see compelling structure, 221)
(see addictive personality 251)
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 6:46 AM on December 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


We read a passage from this book at the funeral of a friend.
posted by Jode at 6:53 AM on December 16, 2011 [5 favorites]


It's such a great book, yet so easy to dip into and experience the knowledge within.

His researchers discovered that once you get beyond 3-4 stories, you are removed from the life of the street, or byway. I've never forgotten that, and when I travel always make a point to request a room no higher than the 3rd floor.

I have doubt that he prescribes that, but I seem to recall this issue was researched elsewhere before Alexander.
posted by Jehan at 7:03 AM on December 16, 2011


personal disclosure: i originally joined metafilter over ten years ago as user worldsystema to post about christopher alexander and the patternlanguage site coming online and if you will please forgive the self links, i recently nominated him for the templeton prize whilst being aware of the contrary opinion of richard dawkins

"a pattern language" is the bible of the architecture of anarchy and the single best guide to creating HEAVEN ON EARTH (0) currently available in design theory and practice. it constitutes the seeds of an extremely powerful moral, political and economic critique of our society which for its complete realization will require the inevitable displacement of capitalism

in the future christopher alexander will be remembered in the same breath as rene descartes and galileo galilei because in "the nature of order" he has done nothing less than lay the foundations for a new cosmology that will guide our making of the world after the global reset

the web presence of this work simply does not do it justice but i am hoping this may change as there is a chance that i will be able to raise the topic with him in march next year
posted by paradise at 7:07 AM on December 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


also, the best video format intro to his work i can find is the vincent scully prize symposium

and the end of his latest talk at berkeley in may 2011
posted by paradise at 7:29 AM on December 16, 2011


it is a blueprint for re-creating Hobbiton.

It really is. Tolkien and Alexander had similar views of the world.
posted by michaelh at 8:31 AM on December 16, 2011


I love this book too but I've always wondered, is it influential on actual architecture? It seems to be to architecture what Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is to philosophy. And I don't mean that kindly.

Maybe the book is influential more on do-it-yourself architecture. I have a friend who built a cabin in the Berkshires using this book as inspiration and it came out just fine. I certainly have enjoyed reading it and using it to reflect on building design. But I know enough professional architects to wonder if the book does more than give amateurs warm fuzzy feelings.
posted by Nelson at 8:32 AM on December 16, 2011


michaelh, have you a cite for that?
posted by paradise at 8:42 AM on December 16, 2011


I've wondered the same thing, Nelson. I love the book and don't quite understand why the reaction of architects in general has been to ignore it. There's been some influence, though - I believe Sarah Susanka (of the Not So Big House) is a fan. Fans of A Pattern Language who want to see how you might put some of his ideas into a house may be interested in her books.
posted by echo target at 8:48 AM on December 16, 2011


The University of Oregon adopted the idea of a pattern language for campus planning. I'm don't ahve personal experienceon how it's worked out long-range as I haven't been back for decades but there's some mention of good/bad in my link.

The thing to note here is that the book is called A Pattern Language not The Pattern Language - part of Alexander's point is that you can develop your own pattern languages (and not just about architecture) by observing what works and distilling patterns from your observations.
posted by skyscraper at 9:09 AM on December 16, 2011


I'm don't ahve = I don't have. Sheesh.
posted by skyscraper at 9:11 AM on December 16, 2011


Here's a interview of Alexander on the radio show Studio 360:

Alexander told architects and planners to design homes on emotional and spiritual principles – not on traffic flow. The revolution didn’t quite come. But the book had a surprising influence on another group of experts: the computer scientists who were just beginning to shape the Internet.

In software engineering, his ideas on patterns are frequently used.
posted by ShooBoo at 9:19 AM on December 16, 2011


Sadly, his website suffers from severe bad design.

I very briefly did some freelance web development consulting on his website a decade ago. He was very dedicated to his ideas for it, which is to say, to re-inventing every wheel.
posted by Zed at 12:49 PM on December 16, 2011


michaelh, have you a cite for that?

It is my own opinion from reading them and some people they had both read like Ruskin. Here's a link I googled to give an idea of Alexander's mindset. http://booksontrial.wordpress.com/authors/christopher-alexander/
posted by michaelh at 1:34 PM on December 16, 2011


Within the profession, and from my personal experience, architects like what Alexander has to say, but are deeply suspicious of anything that smacks of a recipe. As in "How can I get a cascade of roofs without it looking like that sketch in the book?" If you know an architect, you can probably get a whole dinner conversation out of it.
When I was in school in the late eighties, this was required reading.
posted by Carmody'sPrize at 2:16 PM on December 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


#110 Main Entrance drives me CRAZY about schools. With modern buildings you so often can't tell where the main entrance is. It's worse when it's an old building and they've moved the main entrance to a side entrance, because the "real" main entrance has been locked up because visitor entry couldn't be controlled. If it's not visually obvious where to enter a school, for the LOVE OF GOD put a yard sign that says "Visitors' entrance this way." They cost like $30. It makes them so unwelcoming as community gathering spots when there's no obvious main entrance, or the main entrance has been moved.

In many of our recent renovations of older buildings, we've put fairly significant funds into the main entrance and to visitor control in the main entrance. It's improving because we have good architects, but still maybe 1/3 of the buildings in the district I go to and I can't tell how to get into the parking lot, where visitors park, and/or where the damn door is.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:25 PM on December 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


michaelh, thank you for that link. there are some nice quotes there that i had not seen before

stratford caldecott nominated him for the templeton prize in 2009 and has written on tolkien but i must admit i feel disinclined to connect the two
posted by paradise at 2:47 AM on December 17, 2011


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