The Landscape Guide

3.4 Enemies of Christoliher Alexander's liattern Language

Contents list

Kimberly Dovey, in an article on "The Pattern Language and its enemies', praises the language as "a very powerful ideology indeed, perhaps the most rigorous single knowledge-base in current environmental design theory' (Dovey, 1990). But he then reviews a savage host of 13 -isms charging downhill upon the language. The line of battle stands as follows: Dualism, Positivism, Empiricism, Capitalism, Consumerism, Individualism, Postmodernism, Formalism, Relativism, Gigantism, Puritanism, Totalitarianism and Pessimism. Like a good general, Dovey places the foes in four groups (Figure 3.6):

Epistemological: Alexander's Taoist assertion, that the aim of environmental design is to produce "the quality without a name', attracts opposition from Western Dualism, Positivism and Empiricism. None of these philosophical movements has room for a quality that cannot be put into words but which is supposed to be objectively verifiable.

Political: Some of the patterns are in opposition to Capitalism, Consumerism and Individualism. They imply a reorganization of society along socialist lines, with controls on the property market and compulsory acquisition of private land.

Ideological: Alexander's piecemeal approach to development is opposed to the Gigantism, Totalitarianism and the Puritanical desire for order that characterizes large corporations and government departments.

Aesthetic: In emphasizing the human context of environmental design, Alexander goes against the Postmodernism, Formalism and Relativism of current architectural theory. These tendencies emphasize style as the central objective in building design.

In this foul horde, some enemies oppose Alexander, some oppose individual Patterns and some oppose the interconnecting Language. This makes them easier to deal with. In a short essay one can only propose strategies for deflecting the force of the charge:

Epistemological enemies can be defused by letting go of the claim that patterns have objective certainty. For example, I disagree with Pattern 144's instruction to "Concentrate the bathing room, toilets, showers, and basins of the house in a single tiled area', but I can see that others may give it their support.

Political enemies can be thrown off the scent by removing a few patterns from the list. For example, Pattern 79, which would make life difficult for students, could go: "Do everything possible to make the traditional forms of rental impossible, indeed illegal'.

Aesthetic enemies can be accommodated by accepting, as Alexander has done, that there is an aesthetic dimension to environmental design. For example, Pattern 134 states: "If there is a beautiful view, don't spoil it by building huge windows that gape incessantly at it'.

b can be dealt with by accepting that there are roles for both piecemeal and comprehensive approaches to planning. Some patterns, number 68 for example, actually incite us to comprehensive planning: "Break the urban area down into local transport areas, each one between 1 and 2 miles across, surrounded by a ring road'.

Instead of dealing with the Pattern Language at the level of high theory, I recommend scrutiny of the individual patterns. Each is set out according to an eight-part rule:

  1. a number and a name;
  2. a photograph, which shows an archetypal example of the pattern;
  3. a paragraph on upward links, explaining how the pattern in question can help to complete larger patterns;
  4. a statement of the problem, giving its essence;
  5. a discussion of the empirical background to the pattern;
  6. a statement of the solution, giving its essence;
  7. a diagram, to show the main components of the solution;
  8. a paragraph on downward links, explaining how it can provide the context for smaller patterns.

Let us take two examples, both of which I have abbreviated and labelled:

Name: Pattern 92 Bus stop

Upward links: Pattern 20 Minibuses

Problem: Bus stops must be easy to recognize, and pleasant, with enough activity around them to make people comfortable and safe.

Empirical background: Bus stops are often dreary, shabby places where no thought has been given to "the experience of waiting there'. They could be comfortable and delightful places, forming part of a web of relationship

Solution: Build bus stops so that they form tiny centres of public life. Build them as part of the gateways into neighbourhoods, work communities, parts of town. Locate them so that they work together with several other activities, at least a news-stand, maps, outdoor shelter, seats, and in various combinations, corner groceries, smoke shops, coffee bar, tree places, special road crossings, public bathrooms and squares.

Diagram: Figure 3.7.

Downward links: Pattern 53 Main gateway; Pattern 69 Public outdoor room; Pattern 121 Path shape; Pattern 150 A place to wait; Pattern 93 Food stand; Pattern 241 Seat spots.

Pattern 92 is a delightful pattern. Multiple use is a necessity if bus stops are to provide personal security. With well-planned bus stops, cities would be better places.

Name: Pattern 105 South-facing outdoors

Upward links: Pattern 104 Site repair

Problem: People use open space if it is sunny, and do not use it if it isn't, in all but desert climates.

Empirical background: If a building is placed right, the building and its gardens will be happy places, full of activity and laughter. If it is done wrong, then all the attention in the world, and the most beautiful details, will not prevent it from being a silent and gloomy place. Although the idea of south-facing open space is simple, it has great consequences, and there will have to be major changes in land use to make it come right. For example, residential neighbourhoods would have to be organized quite differently from the way they are laid out today.

Solution: Always place buildings to the north of the outdoor spaces that go with them, and keep the outdoor spaces to the south. Never leave a deep band of shade between the building and the sunny part of the outdoors.

Diagram: Figure 3.8.

Downward links: Pattern 111 Half-hidden garden; Pattern 106 Positive outdoor space; Pattern 107 Wings of light; Pattern 128 Indoor sunlight; Pattern 162 North face; Pettern 161 Sunny place.

A moment's reflection on the above patterns will reveal that the 13 -isms are paper tigers. Though a Taoist, a Christian, a Capitalist, a Communist, a Positivist, and a Great Dictator may disagree about many things, they will surely agree that sitting in the sun is pleasant, while sitting in the cold or queuing for a bus on an exposed street corner is unpleasant. As though to prove the point, Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill are shown in the famous Yalta photograph looking wrapped but miserable (Figure 3.9). It is heartening to see three old men, with the fate of the world in their hands, lamenting the simplest of human pleasures. In a sunny place, they might have taken better decisions. If the Alexander patterns can attract broad support from diverse political and philosophical standpoints, they have sufficient truth to justify their use by environmental designers, without worrying too much about their epistemological and political status.

The Yalta photograph also illustrates that in one critical respect the patterns are relative truths, not absolute truths: they depend upon characteristics of the natural environment. Sitting out of doors is not always pleasant. Sunny places are loved in cool conditions. Shady places are necessary in hot arid conditions. Breezy places are desired in hot humid conditions. In the Arctic, shelter is essential and outweighs the need for sun. These climatic points can be broadened into the general proposition that the Alexander Patterns must be integrated with characteristics of the natural environment if they are to succeed. However well Pattern 52, Network of paths and cars, may be implemented, it will not succeed if it ignores the patterns of wind, rain, snow, floods and geological hazards. This consideration argues against the streak of absolutism that, it cannot be denied, exists in the Pattern Language. Many of the patterns seem to say: "Do this. It is right. No other way exists.'

Another point arising from the individual patterns is that they cannot be divorced from aesthetics. Alexander writes that if an outdoor space is badly oriented then "the most beautiful details will not prevent it from being a silent and gloomy place'. Nor will beauty sell many cars if they are unsafe, uncomfortable and unreliable. Yet who can doubt the importance of looks in marketing cars, houses, clothes, holidays and most consumer products? If the patterns in the Pattern Language are to reach their full potential, they must be integrated with aesthetic judgements. The high artistic standard of the photographs in the Pattern Language demonstrates the author's deep awareness of this point. Alexander's 1993 book on the colour and geometry of Turkish carpets provides further evidence on this point. The Pattern Language can gain considerable strength by linking arms with other types of pattern.