A Pattern Language and the New Urbanists

As a philosophy Pattern Language is less indicative of what your building will look like and more descriptive of how you will go about designing it. And yet, the architects in this movement share a philosophy that respects the basic tenets of the past.

If we are to reject modernism as a dominant style and build our structures on some other philosophical basis why don’t we just return to a Classical or a Gothic model? We could even return to some earlier vernacular form.

That is an option for some buildings and in some situations, but the world has changed. Many of the old guilds have disappeared. The old ways were labor intensive and would make buildings too expensive when compared to modern ways of building. There are also the practical, engineering considerations. With steel and reinforced concrete we can build skyscrapers, but there are no ancient models to follow for such buildings. The closest we could come would be to copy the Gothic towers, but I put it to you that if you build Gothic with modern materials and put it to modern uses, like an office building, you have moved away from a Gothic model and are entering new ground.

So the problem that the New Traditionalist must overcome is how to apply the wealth of knowledge from several millennia of design and apply it to the modern world. One such method has been suggested by Christopher Alexander.

Pattern 117 - A Sheltering Roof

For afficianados of natural homes NaturalHomes.org has set up a series of photos illustrating various patterns. This one is Pattern 117 - "Sheltering Roof". To quote from their website "If the roof cannot be felt visually around the home it doesn't satisfy the psychological need for shelter. The roof shelters if it embraces, covers and surrounds the process of living. Alexander's advice is to make the entire surface of the roof visible, bring the eaves low to about 6’6” (2m) where people gather, like entrances and seats and build the top storey of the building right into the roof."

In 1977 Alexander and the Center for Environmental Structure published a book, A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. In it he identifies 253 patterns, which are common design problems that have had a common solution. For instance, pattern 112 concerns the change from being in a public space and entering into a private space. It is titled “Entrance Transition” and it notes that there is a greater harmony in a building that allows for a graceful transition into the building. Thus entry into the building should be funneled through a transition space. This transition space offers a shift in the texture, light and view presented to the individual as he enters into the domain of the structure. An example of this is an entry way through a gate into a garden leading up to a front door.

These 253 patterns are essentially the way man without architects solved the basic design challenges of the past. In identifying these patterns and putting them together in a type of pattern book, Alexander is essentially creating an open source architecture. Architects who use a pattern language share their solutions to these same problems, so you can go back and look at how others have dealt with pattern 133, “Staircase as a Stage”. The list of patterns themselves can expand over time as the universe of practitioners expands.

It is called a language, because these patterns form a type of grammar. Architects versed in these patterns share a way of communicating that other architects lack.

While this pattern language idea is being used in architecture today, it has probably found its greatest success in the field of computer programming. The idea itself was influenced by programming practices and has influenced that field in return. Programmers often draw from common solutions, and the idea of a pattern language is almost a given. The programming languages are constantly being revised, but they face the same problems, and the patterns can be applied across multiple languages.

In today’s interconnected world where we have open source solutions in a variety of fields all communicating over the internet, a pattern language solution for architecture seems like a natural fit. In fact the intent of A Pattern Language was to devolve design authority to those who use architecture and away from a central planning model. Pattern 12 is “Community of 7000” and it refers to the idea that an individual in a group of more than about 7000 has lost his voice. The idea is to shrink the urban planning model down to the neighborhood level and allow neighborhoods to control the look and feel of the architecture and urban design.

It is in this regard that the pattern language movement overlaps with the New Urbanism, which seeks to make our cities more livable by returning to more livable neighborhoods. New Urbanists recognize that the role of the architect goes beyond making nice buildings and gives them a role in making nice cities.

The pattern language approach and the New Urbanists movements are content neutral. They do not say that you have to build Greek Classical buildings, nor do they specify Early English Decorated Gothic. They say something like this – “we are going to design with timeless values and we are going to be considerate of the community around us, both in space and time”. It may be that some neighborhoods restrict a look to a certain style, and there is a certain tyranny there, but it is a level of control brought down to the neighborhood level. It is not a philosophy that guides you on how to build a Greek Temple, Vitruvius will do for that. It is a philosophy for how to build a town or a neighborhood that you will want to live in.

This is all very idealistic. Ugly buildings can be built using patterns, and powerful interests can corrupt neighborhood planning boards. It is not a perfect solution. Yet it can be an improvement.

In The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth: A Struggle between Two World-Systems (to be published in 2012) Alexander tells of the struggles of building the Eishin Campus in Japan. This was a whole campus, twenty-some buildings, that Alexander built in the early 1980’s. In it he applied not just the architectural patterns, but his collaborative ethos. He involved the users of the buildings in understanding their needs. He considered the prevailing architecture of Japan and blended it into something that was inspired by tradition without being merely a reenactment village. It is not quite a traditional Japanese village, but it is a far cry from the modernist buildings of Tokyo. Rather it is a look wholly appropriate for its purpose and in tune with Japan.

The University of Oregon applied Alexander’s techniques in developing their own planning documents and that story is detailed in The Oregon Experiment. Prior to publication of A Pattern Language Alexander was hired by the University to develop a community approach to development. This book tells that story.

These two books give insight into what is possible. While academia has not caught on, the theories architectural schools teach are not those of Alexander, many communities have. The New Urbanists are using these same collaborative techniques to change the environment in which architects function.

It remains to be seen who will have the most impact. Postmodernism seems to hold sway in dynamic China, which is rushing headlong into the future by repeating the mistakes of the past. But, taking the long-term view, in a hundred years, when many of the Postmodern icons will have been dynamited, people will still be reading Alexander. They may keep some of Gherry’s buildings around as part of a historic building trust, but they will be building with Alexander’s ideas. At least that is my hope.

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