A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, Murray Silverstein, and Sara Ishikawa


  1. A Pattern Language is the second in a series of books which describe an entirely new attitude to architecture and planning. The books are intended to provide a complete working alternative to our present ideas about architecture, building, and planning – an alternative which will, we hope, gradually replace current ideas and practices

Key Takeaways

  1. Overview
    1. The elements of this language are entities called patterns. Each pattern describes a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem, in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice.
    2. In the patterns marked with two “**”, we believe that we have succeeded in stating a true invariant…the pattern describes a deep and inescapable property of a well-formed environment
    3. We believe that this language which is printed here is something more than a manual, or a teacher, or a version of a possible pattern language. Many of the patterns here are archetypal – so deep, so deeply rooted in the nature of things, that it seems likely that they will be a part of human nature, and human action, as much in five hundred years, as they are today. We doubt very much whether anyone could construct a valid pattern language, in his own mind, which did not include the pattern Arcades (119) for example, or the pattern Alcoves (179)
    4. A pattern language has the structure of a network. This is explained fully in The Timeless Way of Building. However, when we use the network of a language, we always use it as a sequence, going through the patterns, moving always from the larger patterns to the smaller, always from the ones which create structures, to the ones which then embellish those structures, and then to those which embellish the embellishments…Since the language is in truth a network, there is no one sequence which perfectly captures it. But the sequence which follows, captures the broad sweep of the full network; in doing so, it follows a line, dips down, dips up again, and follows an irregular course, a little like a needle following tapestry
    5. Finally, a note of caution. This language, like English, can be a medium for prose, or a medium for poetry. The difference between prose and poetry is not that different languages are used, but that the same language is used, differently. In an ordinary English sentence, each word has one meaning, and the sentence too, has one simple meaning. In a poem, the meaning is far more dense. Each word carries several meanings; and the sentence as a whole carries an enormous density of interlocking meanings, which together illuminate the whole. The same is true for pattern languages. It is possible to make buildings by stringing together patterns, in a rather loose way. A building made like this is, an assembly of patterns. It is not dense. It is not profound. But it is also possible to put patterns together in such a way that many many patterns overlap in the same physical space: the building is very dense; it has many meanings captured in a small space; and through this density, it becomes profound…All 253 patterns together form a language
    6. At the core is the idea people should design their homes, streets, and communities. This idea comes from the observation most of the wonderful places of the world were not made by architects, but by the people.
    7. Every building, every room, every garden is better, when all the patterns which it needs are compressed as far as it is possible for them to be. The building will be cheaper; and the meanings in it will be denser. It is essential, then once you have learned to use the language, that you pay attention to the possibility of compressing the many patterns which you put together, in the smallest possible space. You may think of this process of compressing patterns, as a way to make the cheapest possible building which has the necessary patterns in it. It is, also, the only way of using a pattern language to make buildings which are poems.
      1. Like information theory, the more “surprise” in the shortest message delivers the most information. 
  2. There are 253 total patterns, moving from the macro (towns) to the micro (individual rooms). The invariant patterns [and the patterns which stood out the most to me] are included below
    1. Independent Regions – small and autonomous regions that are independent spheres of culture
    2. City Country Fingers – green, public land that sit between houses, neighborhoods, industries, etc…
    3. Mosaic of Subcultures – homogenous character of modern cities kills all variety of life styles and arrests the growth of individual character
    4. Scattered Work – artificial separation of houses and work creates intolerable rifts in people’s inner lives
    5. Local Transport Areas – cars kill all social life in a city so make personal, local transportation effective
    6. Identifiable neighborhood – people need an identifiable spatial unit to belong to
    7. Network of learning – creative, active individuals can only grow up in a society which emphasizes learning instead of teaching
    8. 4-story limit – high buildings make people crazy
    9. 9% parking – when the area devoted to parking is too great, it destroys the land. The physical environment creates the potential for all social communion, including even communion with the self
    10. Men and Women – separation of sexes distorts reality and perpetuates and solidifies the distortions. Make certain each piece of the environment is made with a blend of both men’s and women’s instincts. Keep the balance of masculine and feminine in mind for every project at every scale (yin/yang)
    11. Activity Nodes – community facilities scattered individually through the city do nothing for the life of the city, they must have the critical mass to attract people 
    12. Promenade – people need a  place to go see other people and to be seen
    13. Household Mix – no one stage in the life cycle is self-sufficient. People need support and confirmation from people who have reached a different stage in the life cycle, as the same time that they also need support from people who are at the same stage as they are themselves
      1. Galilean Relativity
    14. Old People Everywhere – old people need old people, but they also need the young, and the young people need contact with the old. The very young keep the old engaged and the old teach the young
    15. Work Community – if you spend eight hours of your day at work, and 8 at home, there is no reason why your workplace should be any less of a community than your home
    16. University as a marketplace – concentrated, cloistered universities with closed administration policies and rigid procedures which dictate who may teach a course, kill opportunities for learning
    17. Market of many shops – not one massive grocery store but a series of different shops with a variety of foods and goods 
    18. Housing in between – wherever there is a sharp separation between residential and nonresidential parts of town, the nonresidential areas will quickly turn to slums…Slums happen when these rhythms break down
    19. Looped local roads – nobody wants fast through traffic going by their homes
    20. Green streets – local roads need only a few stones for the wheels of the car and most of it can still be green
    21. Network of paths and cars – cars are dangerous to pedestrians; yet activities occur just where cars and pedestrians meet
    22. Main gateway – any part of town will be emphasized if people have to cross a gateway to enter the boundary
    23. Quiet backs – people need to be able to pause and refresh themselves with quiet in a moral natural environment
    24. Accessible green – people need green open places to go to; when they are close they use them. But if the greens are more than 3 minutes away, the distance overwhelms the need
    25. Small public squares – too large and they will feel deserted
    26. Holy Ground – holy grounds are gateways and generally hard to reach, helping to separate normal life from the sacred
    27. Common land – without common land, no social system can survive
    28. Connected play – if children don’t play enough with other children during the first 5 years of life, there is a great chance that they will not have normal social lives moving forward
    29. Grave sites – no people who turn their backs to death can be alive. The presence of the dead among the living will be a daily fact in any society which encourages its people to live
    30. Local sports – the human body does not wear out with use, but when it is not used
    31. The Family – the nuclear family is not by itself a viable form – several generations and cousins/aunts/uncles/close friends are needed in a single or loosely knit multiple household. The kitchen is the most vital realm
    32. House for a small family – the relationships between children and adults is most critical. Must have 3 distinct areas – a couple’s realm, a children’s realm, a common area to connect them both. Each room is “owned” by the appropriate persons – a child may enter the adults room but they have to respect that they do not rule this area
    33. Self-governing workshop and offices – no one enjoys his work if he is a cog in a machine. Buddhist function of work is 3-fold: chance to utilize and develop his faculties, enable him to overcome ego-centeredness by joining with others in a common task, and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence. Some studies have shown that the single best predictor of a long life is the extent to which he is satisfied with his job
    34. Master and apprentices – the fundamental learning solution is one in which a person learns by helping someone who really knows what he is doing. Enmesh work and learning and organize work around a tradition of master and apprentices so that they can work and meet together 
    35. Individually owned shops – no massive conglomerates
    36. Street cafe – place to relax and watch people
    37. Site repair – buildings must be built on the worst land, not the best (so that the best land is left to look at and cultivate)
    38. South facing outdoors – best light and atmosphere
    39. Positive outdoor space – purposefully designed and not simply what is left over after the building is constructed. Like yin and yang, indoor and outdoor space must always get their shape together
    40. Entrance transition – buildings with a graceful transition between the street and the inside are more tranquil than those without 
    41. Arcades – covered walkways at the edge of buildings play a vital role in the way that people interact with buildings
    42. Intimacy Gradient – sequence which corresponds to their degree of privateness (front is for public, back only for family and closest friends)
    43. Indoor sunlight – right rooms facing south to make entire house sunny and cheerful
    44. Common areas at the heart – constant informal contact among its members is crucial for survival 
    45. Couple’s realm – the presence of children in a family often destroys the closeness and the special privacy which a man and wife need together. Make a special part of the house distinct from the common areas solely for the couple
    46. Sleeping to the east – wake up with morning light
    47. Farmhouse kitchen – make the kitchen bigger than usual and big enough to include the family room space, with enough chairs for everyone to sit, and bright and comfortable
    48. A room of one’s own – no one can be close to others, without also having frequent opportunities to be alone
    49. Sequence of sitting spaces – put in places to sit all over the building
    50. Communal eating – without communal eating, no human group can hold together
    51. Small meeting rooms – larger meetings leads to people getting less out of them
    52. Home Workshop – as the decentralization of work becomes more and more effective, the workshop in the home grows and grows in importance
    53. Light on two sides of every room – when they have a choice, people will always gravitate to those rooms which have light on two sides, and leave the rooms which are lit only from one side unused and empty
    54. Outdoor room – enough enclosure around it that it takes on the feeling of a room even though it is open to the sky 
    55. Connection to the earth – make the boundary between building and nature ambiguous
    56. Greenhouse – build a greenhouse as part of your home or office so that it is both a room of the house and part of the garden
    57. Garden – somewhere quiet and safe to sit and be with nature as well as a place to grow your vegetables and plants
    58. Alcoves – no homogeneous room, of homogeneous height, can serve a group of people well. To give a group a chance to be together, as a group, a room must also give them the chance to be alone, in one’s and two’s in the same place
    59. Window place – create a place to sit and be next to windows
    60. Fire – there is no substitute for fire, the need for fire is almost as fundamental as the need for water
    61. Eating atmosphere – heavy table in the center to seat everyone, with a light over it and enclose the space with walls or contrasting darkness
    62. Workspace enclosure – people cannot work effectively if their workspace is too enclosed or too exposed. A good workspace strikes the balance
    63. Thick walls – thin walls make homes feel impersonal and dead
    64. Open shelves and built in seats
    65. Secret place – a place to keep important things that almost nobody knows about
    66. Structure follows social spaces – not the other way around
    67. Root foundations – the best foundations of all are the kinds of foundations which a tree has – where the entire structure of the tree simply continues below ground level, and creates a system entirely integral with the ground, in tension and compression
    68. Radiant heat – this pattern is biologically precise formulation of the intuition that sunlight and a hot blazing fire are the best kinds of heat
    69. Different chairs – people are different sizes, they sit in different ways so furnish with a variety of different chairs
    70. Pools of light – uniform illumination serves no useful purpose whatsoever. In fact, it destroys the social nature of space and makes people feel disoriented and unbounded
    71. Things from your life – decor and the conception of interior design have spread so widely that very often people forget their instinct for the things they really want to keep around them – family pictures, remembrances, collections, old adventures
  3. Other
    1. We do not believe that these large patterns, which give so much structure to a town or to a neighborhood, can be created by a centralized authority, or by laws, or by master plans. We believe instead that they emerge gradually and organically, almost of their own accord, if every act of building, large or small, takes on the responsibility for gradually shaping its small corner of the world to make these larger patterns appear there
      1. Conscious or intuitive understanding of complexity, self-organizing criticality, emergence 
    2. Schools are designed on the assumption that there is a secret to know everything in life; the quality of life depends on knowing that secret; that secrets can be known only in orderly successions; and that only teachers can properly reveal these secrets. An individual with a schooled mind conceives of the world as a pyramid of classified packages accessible only to those who carry the proper tags. New educational institutions would break apart this pyramid. Their purpose must be to facilitate access for the learner: to allow him to look into the windows of the control room or the parliament, if he cannot get in the door. Moreover, such new institutions should be channels to which the learner would have access without credentials or pedigree – public spaces in which peers and elders outside his immediate
    3. Have to fix the position of individual buildings, according to the nature of the site, the trees, and the sun, this is one of the most important moments in the language

What I got out of it

  1. The playbook for creating perfect environments – from entire towns down to individual rooms. Master key to tapping into people’s subconscious and making them feel calm, secure, and abundance – allowing them to go all-in. Like most great books, the ideas and lessons apply far broader than simply the realm it is immediately describing. Many are time invariant and universal, tapping into deeply held and genetically programmed human universals, as Donald Brown would call them