On a cold, rainy day there’s nothing like a stolen moment waiting for a prospective client and a thick book to fill it. What makes it even more profound is when I have a small fixation rattling around in my head and the book is the tome that ties together all the little pieces of thought I’ve been trying to crystallize. The fixation is human networks of connections that define who we are and where we’re going socially, politically, and technologically. The book is “A Pattern Language” by the Center for Environmental Structure – Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein, and a few more.
“A Pattern Language” is the culmination of work done through the late 1960s and 70s to define a built world that fits with the social and ecological needs of humans. It applies understanding from architecture, planning, building, and sociology to create a series of “pattern” that can be applied in ways that give coherence to a whole without forcing a structure that is stifling and mechanical. The patterns are stated in simple declarations, followed by 2-3 pages of explanation, and a description of how to apply the pattern.
One example is an old favorite of mine, Pattern 167, “Six Foot Balcony”. The statement is, “Balconies and porches which are less than six feet deep are hardly ever used.” There are two pages of examples of balconies that work and don’t work, and then the conclusion – “Whenever you build a balcony, porch, gallery, or terrace always make it at least six feet deep. If possible, recess at least part of it into the building so that it is not cantilevered out and separated from the building by a simple line, and enclose it partially.” Simple and practical.
The patterns aren’t all this simple, of course. Those of you who are familiar with my complaints about our proposed transit line, the Central Corridor, may not be surprised to see that “A Pattern Language” has quite a lot to say about appropriate transit planning in the concluding statement of Chapter 16, “Web of Public Transportation”:
“Treat interchanges as primary and transportation lines as secondary. Create incentives so that all the different modes of transportation plan their lines to connect the interchanges with the hope that gradually many different lines of many different types will meet at every interchange. Give the local communities control over their interchanges so that they can implement the pattern by giving contracts only to those transportation companies which are willing to serve these interchanges.”
There is a lot in here, but those of you who have followed the Central Corridor debate should be able to see immediately where and how things have gotten as ugly as they have by not following this pattern. More interestingly, the role of companies that serve transit is stressed, which is to say entities that are not necessarily government. What matters in design is the pattern, not the institution.
That’s ultimately what “A Pattern Language” is all about, after all. Our built world is often stunningly out of alignment with our social networks because it was built to serve institutions that included development corporations and government first, humans second. If you approach the world from the needs of people things look a lot different. In fact, they look a lot more like the network structures we see developing online, more spontaneously.
This is, in many ways, a frontier of “New Urbanism”, but it’s ultimately much more than that. It’s how our understanding of the needs of humans makes our cities healthier and stronger in the Fractal Era – the developing time when recurring patterns define the structure and not the other way around. It is about people and the systemic connections that define their networked lives, not the institutions that take care of the mechanical details.
But this work is not remarkably well known among the professional planners that I know. Many claim to have read it, but when I make arguments based on “A Pattern Language” I can see that we have little common frame of reference for understanding each other. It certainly hasn’t sunk in, which I find terribly sad.
On a cold wet day, I can curl up with this tome of 1170 pages knowing that what I have in my hands is a distillation of a tremendous amount of wisdom that will, some day, be understood well enough to make our physical world more humane, urbane, and healthy. It makes me feel warm if a bit wistful. Once again, knowing what to do has proven a lot easier than making it happen. Yet through the sound of raindrops outside I know that slowly, “A Pattern Language” will continue to change our built world.