Tag Archives: Architecture

On Christopher Alexander

I spent some time digging into Christopher Alexander, one of the more influential architects of the 20th century.

I don’t have a natural interest in architecture, but I found his thinking to have wide ranging application – from software to biology to creativity. I later learned that his seminal book, A Pattern Language set the foundation for the first wiki (the tech behind Wikipedia), as well as the agile software development movement.

His thinking around value, quality, life, evolution, wholeness, and simplicity will stay with me for a long time to come. If you get some fraction of the value and joy out of reading this teacher’s reference guide as I did reading the books, I trust it to be a worthwhile use of your time

The Nature of Order: The Luminous Ground (Book 4)

Summary

  1. Quantum mechanics would not have been of more than academic interest to a few university professors if it were not for its immense field of practical applications, such as in electronics. Here, too, in the sphere of building, we have a practical aim. We wish to create living structure in the build world; we wish to apply this model of the universe in order to reproduce the phenomena that we are interested in.

Key Takeaways

  1. The “I” is that which connects all of us. It may occur in a leaf or in a picture, in a house, in a wave, even in a grain of sand, or in an ornament. It is not ego. It is not me. It is not individual at all, having to do with me, or you. It is humble and enormous; that thing in common which each of us has in us. It is the spirit which animates each living center. When I am building, I am searching for the “I” – the myself, lying within all things. It is that shining something which draws me on, which I feel in the bones of the world, which comes out of the earth and makes our existence luminous …I can feel it, nearly always, almost before I start. Or, rather, I do not usually let myself start until I can feel this thing.
    1. The life in a structure can be measured by the extent that it awakens this connection to the personal
  2. My hypothesis is that all value depends on a structure in which each center, the life of each center, approaches this simple, forgotten, remembered, unremembered “I”…that in the living work each center, in some degree, is a connection to this “I”, or self…that the living steel and concrete bridge is one in which each part is connected to this self, awakens it in us…that the living song is one in which each phrase, each note, is connected to this self, awakens it in us, reminds us of ourselves…I believe that the ultimate effort of all serious art is to make things which connect with this I of every person. This “I” , not normally available, is dredged up, forced to the light, forced into the light of the day, by the work of art…Effectively, what all this amounts to is that in the process of making things through living process, gradually I approach more and more closely knowledge of what is truly in my own heart…I learned to value only that which truly activates what is in my heart. I came to value those experiences which truly activates what is in my heart. I came to value those experiences which activate my heart as it really is. I sought, more and more, only those experiences which have the capacity, the depth, to activate the feeling that is my real feeling, in my true childish heart. And I learned, slowly, to make things which are of that nature
  3. Gradually, I began to recognize that in the midst of that cleverness, which I never truly understood anyway, the one thing I could trust was a small voice, a tiny soft-and-hard vulnerable feeling, recognizable, which was something I actually knew. Slowly that knowledge grew in me. It was the stuff which I was actually certain of – not because it aped what others had taught me, but because I knew it to be true of itself, in me
  4. Flaw of a mechanical world view is that it does not and cannot take into account our inner, subjective lives. Matter and mechanisms compared to actual experience. This is what Whitehead calls the bifurcation of nature and I believe we can again weave them together into a united, single picture
  5. One of the key questions I’m seeking to answer is “What is the life that we discern in these things?” The buildings that have life create relatedness between the person and the universe. This relatedness is primary, inherent and not there because of you. Centers are ‘beings’ – having life and related to you – becoming “I-like”. With practice, you can discern the things that have more life – those that are genuinely related to your self – and those which are less so typically found in innocence, playfulness, openness, coupled with iteration and unfolding
  6. 4 Propositions
    1. Each center is a focused zone of space which may be characterized by saying that, to some degree, space in that zone itself comes to life. Life is an attribute of space itself and increases in some measure according to the organization of the space. The degree of life of any given portion of space, thus appears like a color, or like an overall attribute – a quality which appears in the space itself, along with the structural organization that also signals its appearance
    2. To the degree a c enter is a living center, it is also a picture of the true self, and – very startlingly – has this character for all people, not just for any individual
    3. The structure-preserving transformations which continually modify one wholeness in space and replace it by another that preserves the structure of the first, slowly cause space to be filled with unfolded I-like centers
    4. Only a deliberate process of creating being-like (or self-like) centers in built structure throughout the world, encourages the world to become more alive
  7. The more life something has, the more it seems to internally glow
  8. The self exists ‘underneath’ all things and the greater the connection to this, the brighter a thing shines, the more life it has. It is luminous, connected directly to wholeness, to heaven, to “I”, to unity
  9. Color Properties
    1. Hierarchy of colors
    2. Colors create light together
    3. Contrast of dark and light
    4. Mutual embedding
    5. Boundaries and hairlines
    6. Sequence of linked color pairs
    7. Families of color
    8. Color variation
    9. Intensity and clarity of individual color
    10. Subdued brilliance
    11. Color depends on geometry
  10. A thing does not get its unity from being beautiful. The unity comes from the fact that the various centers are harmoniously connected, and that every center helps every other center. That is the great thing and it is this which causes real unity to exist. But above all, it comes from the fact that in the thing, throughout the thing, we see the I in every part, at every scale. We see only one I, the same I, shining out from every part.
  11. Making wholeness heals the maker – When you make a beautiful thing, the depth of the person within becomes more vivid, lives more intensely for a moment. In each of us, a person is existing or waiting to exist. This person – the most free version of that person – does exist, occasionally, for brief glimpses. When one of us becomes free, this latent person inside comes to the light of day, exists then for a few moments, more vividly, more intensely. People are deeply nourished by the process of creating wholeness because there is a direct connection between the living structure of the world and the achieved person-ness we experience in ourselves…Here we come to the core connection between the field of centers – the phenomenon of life in the physical world – and the process of human growth, self-knowledge, insight, and human discovery of the true self which resides in every person. They are profoundly linked. It means that at root, the process by which a person comes in touch with wholeness – as it is in the world and as it is in the world around them, and as it is inside themselves – the more, then, that person actually discovers the meaning of their own existence, sees himself accurately in relation to phenomena, and the more  that person becomes aware of the real structure which exists inside him and which links him to the universe.
  12. In order to create living structure, we need to please ourselves. And you need only please yourself. But you must please yourself truly. And to do that you must first discover your own true self, come close enough to it, and to listen to it, so that I can be pleased. It all comes down to self-awareness and authenticity
  13. The best things are always childlike, vulnerable. I move towards the vulnerable by asking what I would really like, if I were doing it for myself and only myself. Therefore, the fundamental question we have to ask as we produce order is: does it create feeling in me, does it make me feel more whole within myself, when I confront it? This childish level of awareness is not normally available to us. Indeed, paradoxically, it is only the awareness of order which can allow us to release ourselves enough to even get this level of awareness…What I have described in these 4 books is the structural part of what you need in order to reach this human childlike part of yourself. It works because living structure – what I call the field of centers – really is a mirror of the human heart. It is only knowledge of this structure, and the practice of making it, which gives you a key to unlock your own heart
  14. What pleasing yourself truly IS, is the process in which we create living structure…Creating living structure is to be attained, in the end, by the greatest and most sublime process which can happen: that each person lives, works, exists, in such a fashion that they truly please themselves
  15. It is worth really contemplating this fact. For when you finally realize that these two things, 1) pleasing yourself and 2) doing what is right is one and the same, you will not only feel free to do them, but you will also have reached a deeper level in your understanding. At that stage, you will finally understand how the oneness of some system in the universe is not only an abstract thing outside your own self but that it is also finally and truly personal, the most personal thing there is. All that I have written in these four books leads, in the end, to the core of what is most vulnerable, most personal in us.
  16. This brings me, then, to a last aspect of the process which produces life in things, a necessary state of mind. The core of this necessary state of mind is that you make each building in a way which is a gift to God. It belongs to God. It does not belong to you. It is made to serve God, to glorify God. It is not made to glorify you. Perhaps, if anything, it humbles you. Of course, I do not say this with any intention to suggest that this state of mind is specifically Christian…The essence of this state of mind is that the building must not shout. Emotionally, it must be completely quiet…The reason why I must try and make the building as a gift to God is that this state of mind is the only one which reliably keeps me concentrated on what is, and keeps me away from my own vainglorious and foolish thoughts
  17. The more any portion of space is unified, the more inseparable it becomes from all the rest. So, in the end, the intricacy and richness of a beautiful thing does not arise from the desire to make something rich or intricate, it only arises from the particular desire to make it perfectly one in itself, and with the world. It is perhaps surprising, but necessary to recognize, that I cannot make a thing which has this not-separateness, unless I honestly want it. That means I must give up my wish to draw attention to myself. I must honestly want the thing which I am making to become part of the greater world, inseparable from it. In order to see, or feel, or listen for the glimmers of the I, it is necessary to be in a very definite state of mind. I have to want to be not-separate…It requires definite intention to become one with the world
  18. This is, perhaps, the central mystery of the universe: that as things become more unified, less separate, so also they become most individual, and most precious

What I got out of it

  1. A beautiful, thought provoking ending to what was a life changing series for me

The Nature of Order: A Vision of a Living World (Book 3)

Summary

  1. Architecture becomes living when non-mechanical, fluid, unique to its circumstances, responds to what is there rather than impose on what is there (similar to aikido), grow with nature, arise out of nature, looseness and symmetry. Deep feeling appears in these buildings, as it does in nature, because they emerge through subtle adaptation from the whole, and because at each stage of their unfolding they support the whole

Key Takeaways

  1. A proper environment makes you feel like you belong to it – a feeling of joy and connectedness that hinges on the sensation that we have the right to be there, that we belong to the world and it belongs to us. Only living process can generate belonging. When living processes are working well, our belonging comes about naturally
  2. Buildings should enliven the land they’re on
  3. Seek an interlocking of positive and negative space. What is most remarkable of all, is that the structure which is created by a feeling for centers and by a  conscious and deliberate aim towards the feeling of the whole, will often turn out to be an efficient structure…Apparently good engineering structure follows, directly or indirectly, from the use of living process
  4. Save 20% of building cost towards gardens and outside structures
  5. Shared vision not gotten through a meeting, but from talking to each person quietly, one at a time, drawing from each individual his, her, their most important feelings, and their most authentic visions
  6. In each case, the forms, because they are generated in time, not designed at the drawing board, display qualities of life, and do have life…One of the most fundamental aspects of a living world is that every part of it will be unique. If we learn to use a living process well, its most essential nature will be to create structures which are unique, because they are perfectly adapted to their local unique conditions
  7. In general, the geometry will be created by differentiation, not by addition or accretion, the parts given their dimensions by differentiating operations within the space of the land, or within the space of the room where the thing is being made
  8. City planning comes about as a sequence of adaptive acts, a result of unfolding in time. It unfolds directly from people’s ordinary instincts
  9. Close your eyes and dream up your idyllic space – ideal working conditions, natural centers, windows, entrance, main work surface, daylight, working chairs, computer setup, reclining chair, different chairs, thick walls, filing, desk lights, comfortable sofa
  10. Fine structure – every element has to have a living center, details that make it come to life. The field of centers is a convenient way of representing the substance of our minds. It is the substance itself which actually creates the field. Life will not exist in a building unless it exists in the actual physical fabric of the building, in all the details of the way the thing is made. The actual physical geometry of the foundation, walls, windows, roof edge, boards, tiles, plaster, paint work, moldings is itself crucial to the existence of life. The sensuous quality of the building comes from its detail; substance is fundamental to beauty. Wholeness will not exist in the large unless it also exists in the small…and for it to exist in the small, it must be made. The large scale order is absolutely interwoven and dependent on the tiniest details of the microstructure. The large scale order depends for its existence on the most subtle ordering of details at the smallest subatomic scale. And the same is true, and must be true, in architecture. If we are trying to construct a field of centers in a building, we must realize the field will not be whole, cannot even sustain itself as a structure, unless it is carried through from the larger scale structure to the fine structure. The macrostructure of the field is dependent on the microstructure of the field. If it is ignored or treated without respect, the larger field will fail
  11. Unfolding vs. construction / production – this must happen in the actual construction of the building, not only on paper. This is incredibly difficult to do in practise. Same is true for the details, the colors you use. If it is living, it will have its own, luminous, inner light
  12. In a building which has life, whatever is made is always the simplest thing consistent with its necessities of feeling and with the close and continuous attention to feeling while it evolves into form. This, I think, is the closest I can come to describing the core of architecture. When everything is going right, when the fundamental process is used well, what comes out is not only natural, not only simple, not only living structure. It has, too, an archetypal quality – something savage (wild, untamed)
  13. Each living structure has the minimal structure for its situation that carries weight of feeling, leading to a structure in which local symmetries are so densely packed that the highest possible density of local symmetries occurs, but without having an overall symmetry
  14. In the best cases, in the cases which have the most life, the building form will most often by interwoven in some fashion with nature itself. In the best cases, it will seem, almost indistinguishably, to be part of nature, thus forming a seamless whole. The clearest way I can say this, is to point out that it will – in this case – seem extremely ordinary. It will appear normal, and be normal

What I got out of it

  1. Pragmatic implications of Alexander’s ideas as it relates specifically to architecture and construction

The Nature of Order: The Process of Creating Life (Book 2)

Summary

  1. In book 2, the author defines conditions for a process to be living, capable of generating living structure rather than life destroying. It is all about the process – poor process, poor result. This awareness of continuous becoming is the most essential portion of the building process. It must unfold in such a way to allow wholeness to spring forth.

Key Takeaways

  • Real kindness is something quite different, something valuable in itself. It is a true process, not guided by the grasp for a goal, but guided by the minute to minute necessity of caring, dynamically, for the feelings and well-being of another. This is not trivial, but deep; sincerely related to human feeling; and not predictable in its end result, because the end result is not the goal. Unlike the goal-oriented picture, which is imposed intellectually on our substance as persons, real kindness is a process true to our essential human instinct and to our knowledge of what it means to be a person. But the machine-age view showed a process like kindness as being oriented toward a goal, just as every machine too has its purpose – its goal, what it is intended to produce.
    • Not just goal oriented, but process oriented
  • The wholeness is essentially preserved at each step, and the new structure is introduced in such a way that it maintains and extends – but almost never violates – the existing structure. It is globally structure-preserving. That is why the unfolding seems smooth
    • All about process – not just what we do, but how we do it. 9/10 of the beauty is from the process itself
  • Living process to be guided by feeling – adherence to the whole. If this were to be truly understood and followed, it would change nearly everything we know about modern society. This is a gargantuan shift, but humans and human nature are more in tune with feelings than with mathematics…The idea that feeling itself can become criterion and instrument – that what is done, no matter how large or how small, can become personal, connected to the personal self of all human beings – and that this process then opens the door to a new form of society. That is truly revolutionary. That can shake the world
  • You might say that this is all just common sense. I believe you would be right. But this common sense flies in the face of many processes which 20th century architecture and construction practice set in place. When we try to make a building in such a way that it gets its life, what we have done here is the most natural way to do it: we get one thing right at a time. We do what we know. We get things right as we come to understand them. That gets good results. Expressed in the language of this book, it is a process of unfolding in which centers are established, modified, improved, one at a time
  • This is a startling and new conception of ethics and aesthetics. It describes good structure as a structure which has unfolded “well,” through these transformations without violating the structure that exists. The structure we know as living structure, is just that kind of structure which has unfolded smoothly and naturally, arising step by step from what exists, preserving the structure of what exists, and allowing the “new” to grow in the most natural ways as a development from the structure of “what is.” This startling view provides us with a view of ethics and aesthetics that dignifies our respect for what exists and treasures that which grows from this respect. It views with disfavor only that which emerges arbitrarily, without respect for what exists, and provides a vision of the world as a horn of shimmering plenty in which the “new” ‘grows unceasingly from the structure that exists around us already. That this horn of plenty is inexhaustible, and that we may conceive an everlasting fountain of novelty without ever having to beat ourselves over the head for the sake of novelty per se – that may perhaps be one of the greatest potential legacies of this new view of the world
    • What is natural, of value, is that which unfolds naturally from the whole that exists
    • Do one small, good thing, then another, and another…
  • Growing bone adds material at the point where stress is greatest
  • Paying attention to the wholeness = love of life
  • By preserving structure, one always gets surprising results. The creative work is to illuminate, to reveal what is already there…but this takes depth of perception and love…certainly profound knowledge of the nature of space and its structure. To do it, successfully, we are called upon to make another crucial revision in our views about the nature of things: we have always assumed that the process of creation is a process which somehow inserts entirely new structure into the world…in the form of inventions, creations, and so on. Living process teaches us that wholeness is always formed by a special process in which new structure emerges directly out of existing structure, in a way which preserves the old structure, and therefore makes the new whole harmonious. Thus the process of making wholeness is not merely a process which forms centers or the field of centers in space…it is a process which gives special weight to the structure of things as they are. The enigma is that something new, unique, previously unseen – even innovative and astonishing – arises from the extent to which we are able to attend to what is there, and able to derive what is required from what is already there…and that all this, then, will lead to astonishing surprises. It is a process in which we most deeply express our reverence for what exists
  • When we published The Pattern Language for the Peruvian houses, people in Peru said that our pattern language and our houses we designed from the pattern language were a more accurate reflection of Peruvian reality than even the Peruvian architects had managed…The essential technique in the observation of centers, in any social situation, and in any culture, is to allow the feelings to generate themselves inside you. You have to say, “What would I do if I were one of the people living here, what would it be like for me?” thus inserting yourself into the situation and then using your own common sense and feelings as a measuring instrument

What I got out of it

  1. Always be structure-preserving, seeking to naturally unfold what is already there, keeping wholeness and life. This process is what creates beauty, harmony, balance, life

The Nature of Order: The Phenomenon of Life (Book 1)

Summary

  1. In these books, I have tried to show that there are shareable areas of human experience which lie beyond the areas presently touched by science. I have set myself the task of trying to raise these new matters – the deeper issues which mechanistic science has not so far dealt with – to the level of knowledge we are used to, from having a culture based on science…This is valuable because it is based on the same high standard as science, but in a new realm of social existence. We only allow ourselves to claim we know something if that “something” is shareable – in principle – even if it is in the realm we call feeling or experienced wholeness. That is the breakthrough I may perhaps have made. If I am right, the world of science has been extended. I have simply found a way of taking the scientific standard of shared knowledge based on common observation, and extended this idea so that it covers inner realities, not only outer ones

Key Takeaways

  1. In what follows I shall try to show that there is a way of understanding order which is general and does do justice to the nature of building and of architecture. It is a view which, I hope, is adequate to understanding the intuitions we have about beauty and the life of buildings. It is a view which tells us what it means for a building to be a great building, and when a building is working properly. It is, I believe, a common-sense and powerful view, with practical results. The life which appears is an attribute of space itself, life is structural
  2. One of my key claims is that all space and matter, organic or inorganic, has some degree of life in it, and that matter/space is more alive or less alive according to its structure and arrangement. Another claim is that all matter/space has some degree of “self” in it, and that this self, or anyway some aspect of the personal, is something which infuses all matter/space, and everything we know as matter but now think to be mechanical. If either of these claims comes, in future, to be considered true, that would radically change our picture of the universe. Indeed, one might then say that the universe as we have known it for the last 400 years, even in the exciting and fascinating versions of physics and cosmology which have come under discussion in recent decades, would then have to be replaced by a fundamentally different and more personal view of matter.
  1. I managed to identify 15 structural features which appear again and again in things which do have life…The 15 ways in which centers can help each other come to life. In effect, the 15 properties are the glue, through which space is able to be unified. The 15 properties provide the ways that centers can intensify each other. Through the intensity of centers, space becomes coherent. As it becomes coherent, it becomes alive. The 15 properties are the “ways” it comes to life
    • Levels of scale
    • Strong centers
    • Boundaries – help product and maintain the core (stability and coherence)
    • Alternating repetition
    • Positive Space
    • Good shape
    • Local symmetries
    • Deep interlock and ambiguity
    • Contrast
    • Gradients
    • Roughness
    • Echoes – designs which are deeply familiar, fractal, but we’re not quite sure why
    • The void – at the heart of perfect wholeness is a void, like water, infinite in depth, surrounded by and contrasted with the clutter of the stuff and fabric all around it…The calm is needed to alleviate the buzz
    • Simplicity and inner calm – Wholeness, life, has a way of being simple. In most cases, this simplicity shows itself in a geometrical simplicity and purity, which has a tangible geometrical form. It is a quality which is essential to the completion of the whole. It has to do with a certain slowness, majesty, quietness, which I think of as inner calm…The quality comes about when everything unnecessary is removed. All centers that are not actively supporting other centers are stripped out, cut out, excised. Wheat is left, when boiled away, is the structure in a state of inner calm. It is essential that the great beauty and intricacy of ornament go only just far enough to bring this calm into being, and not so far that it destroys it…Simplicity and inner calm is the Occam’s razor of any natural system: each configuration occurring in nature is the simplest one consistent with its conditions. The surface of a boiling fluid takes the shape which has least energy per unit mass. Many naturally occurring forms are given by minimum principles of this kind
  1. Life occurs to the degree that centers help each other and cement their wholeness: the helping between centers is caused by 15 properties, and on the recursive appearance of these properties among the centers from which wholeness is made
  2. 90% of what all humans feel are all the same, 10% is different
  1. Wholeness
    • Wholeness = local parts exist chiefly in the relation to the whole, and their behavior and character and structure are determined by the larger whole in which they exist and which they create…The whole, the wholeness as a structure, always comes first. Everything else follows from this wholeness, and from the centers and sub-centers which are induced within it. The wholeness is entirely distinct from the parts which appear in that wholeness. It is a field-like structure, a global, overall effect.
    • My argument is that the existence of wholeness is something real in the world, whether we choose to see it or pay attention to it, or not. It is a mathematical structure which exists in space. I believe that a holistic view of space – which shows how structure appears in space as a whole, as a result of local symmetries and centers – follows from careful observation of what exists
  1. The danger of over-education is that it tends to lead to a mechanistic mindset which diminishes the ability to see wholeness.
    • You don’t search for wholeness, it comes to you. The ability to see wholeness requires an unfocused view in which we do not select what we pay attention to or force attention in a certain mental direction. Instead we see, watch, drink in the configuration of the wholeness which we can see before us. Words, concepts, and knowledge all interfere with our ability to see wholeness as it is. To see wholeness accurately, we must not pick out those artificially highlighted centers which happen to have words as names, since these are often not the most salient wholes in the real wholeness. What we must do instead is to watch, quietly, receptively and in an unfocused state, for those centers which are most salient in the real configuration as it is
    • which we meet in the world, the more deeply it affects our own personal feeling
  1. The right kind of physical environment, when it has living structure, nourishes freedom of the spirit in human beings. In the wrong kind, lacking living structure, freedom of the spirit can be destroyed or weakened. If I am right, this will suggest that the character of the physical world has impact on possibly the most precious attribute of human existence. It is precisely life – the living structure of the environment – which has this effect. The best environment is one in which each person can become as alive as possible – that is as vibrant intellectually, physically, morally, and in which people can reach, as far as possible, their own potential as human beings. One may assume, too, that each person naturally does everything possible, to be alive. Freedom lies in the ability a person has to react appropriately to any given circumstance. The perfectly free human being is a person who, no matter what she or he encounters, can act appropriately
  1. There is, in effect, a stress reservoir in the body. The amount of stress being coped with fills this reservoir, to different levels at different times. But as the stress reaches the top of this reservoir, the organism’s ability to deal effectively with the stress decreases. This then gives rise to the “stress” as used in its popular meaning. The organism is overloaded…Perhaps the most important finding of modern research on stress is that this stress is cumulative, because it is all in one currency, so each seemingly disparate stress effects fills the same stress reservoir. Almost any unresolved problem, even when small, adds to the reservoir of stress, and can reduce a person’s ability to function well. So long as challenges faced are within the limits of the stress reservoir, a person is actively solving problems, and becomes more alive, more capable, more rewarded in the process of meeting the challenges.
    1. Thus life itself is a recursive effect which occurs in space. It can only be understood recursively as the mutual intensification of life by life. The field of centers, which intensifies centers by virtue of their pure geometry, then creates life through this helping action in the geometric field
  2. Mach’s Principle – behavior of any one particle is affected by the whole universe
    1. Dostoevsky had a similar belief where every human was responsible for every other human and their actions. It’s insane, but to me there also seems to be something disturbingly true about it
  3. Thus the bootstrap effect – the way that centers affect one another, and mutually intensify each other, conceived as the basic property of space and matter – may give us a coherent understanding of the way that life, a new and non-mechanical phenomenon, can be created within only so-called dead matter – the “awakening” of space
  4. Things tend to be “equal” unless there are particular forces making them unequal. In addition, the existence of local symmetries corresponds to the existence of minimum energy and least-action principles. Many – perhaps all – natural systems obtain their organization and energy from the interaction of opposites. We see this in a fundamental way with elementary particles and on a biological level we see it in the contrast of male and female which exists in almost every kind of organism. It appears in the cycle of day and night. It appears in the contrast of solid and liquid phase which provides the action and catalysis in chemical reactions. More informally, it exists in the contrast of dark and light in the surface of a butterfly, which attracts the mate

What I got out of it

  1. A beautiful and quite radical book discussing truth, value, quality, beauty, design. If he is correct in his ideas, it would change how we’d have to think about nearly everything, from architecture to philosophy

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

Summary

  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