Why You Should Read A Pattern Language

by ziggy on November 24, 2012 -- 7 comments -- Follow

Before you take your shovel to the dirt and start digging to build your own home, before you even take pen to paper in sketching designs, I advise you to read Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language.

If you want to understand what makes a good building good, and a particular space work well, this book will teach you the “pattern language” derived from timeless architectural problems and their solutions. A Pattern Language presents compelling design practices and ideas that will make your space more functional and pleasant.

Learn A Pattern Language

Published in 1977, this book is still a go-to reference, and only slightly dated. It’s even the official planning tool for some cities, as the book presents heaps of useful planning information beyond individual homes and buildings. The book has 253 total “patterns”, arranged in a sort of macro to micro scale, with closely related patterns sequentially presented. The idea is that if you want to want to know how to design a successful entrance room (#130), for example, the next pattern “The Flow Through Rooms” will describe how that room might interact with others in a logical arrangement.

This is likely not a book you will read from cover to cover. Instead, it’s an extremely handy reference. Patterns are also rated, meaning that the more validated patterns are given higher ratings, and while the word “rule” is never used, you can expect that these have been implemented so many times to be quite proven.

Each section presents a design problem or consideration and its background, and then a full explanation of a solution, with the core of the answer in bold. The information is arranged in such a way that it is very simple to get to the root of the information quickly and easily.

More Than Designing Buildings

A Pattern Language is not limited to architecture and the construction of buildings. The book addresses community-scale issues, how to effectively design villages and cities, and what a thriving rural life might look like. It touches upon a sort of holistic philosophy of human social organization:

“Individuals have no effective voice in any community of more than 5,000-10,000 persons.”

“At the core… is the idea that people should design for themselves their own houses, streets and communities. This idea… comes simply from the observation that most of the wonderful places of the world were not made by architects but by the people”.

Ultimately, the book is an excellent tool for designers, planners, builders, and anyone interested in the design of human spaces, including single homes, towns, and beyond. It’s a timeless book, derived from all of our (civilized) human experience.

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  • Brad

    Great book, I agree! But while A Pattern Language is a great reference book, it belongs in a pair with its predecessor The Timeless Way of Building. APL is the toolbox but TWoB is the instruction manual. I encourage everyone to read both – borrow the Timeless Way of Building and buy A Pattern Language!

  • Devon M. Dougall

    I have and read A Pattern Language and it is just an excellent book. Basically, if you’ve ever wondered how people create places that feel warm, welcoming and comfortable/peaceful to be in this book explains how it’s done. It’s the little things that do it, actually. Adding a covered entrance for a feeling of protection and comfort, having a porch or deck be a minimum of 6′ wide so it will actually be used, why everyone loves window seats, and so on. Highly, highly recommended read. Thanks for highlighting it.

  • Trish

    It is very expensive and there for really not worth it. Even a used copy of it is at least $30 on amazon.com. Did you find that book at a yard sale or something? That would be a good way to purchase it.

  • There is a lot of wisdom in old books that I think is missing today. For example, one of the greatest books on software engineering, as relavent today and when it was first published, is The Art of Computer Programming. It was first published in 1968.

  • Trish: Yes, we bought it used, and it is still expensive at $30 when you compare it to other books, but it’s the kind of book you can refer to over and over again… and therefore worth it if you do this kind of work a lot, I believe.

  • Devon M. Dougall

    I found my copy on ebay for $19.00 and it was worth every penny!

  • Adam

    There is a danger that some people tend to read this book as a complete “how-to” or “rule book” for designing spaces. It’s really more of a “quick start guide” for design. I notice for instance that you designed your balcony at exactly 6 feet because APL said that was the minimum size. Alexander would really rather you had observed carefully the kind of use you intended to get the size you needed.

    This book is a collection of one man’s observations on the way spaces work. His observations are so thorough and rigorous that it’s tempting to think of them as complete, but they are of course just one man’s observations. He is trying to encourage you to make your own observations and develop your own pattern language.

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