The Landscape Guide

3.3 Christopher Alexander's Pattern Language

Contents list

Alexander launched the California answer to the problem of design complexity in 1977. The theory was explained in three books: The Timeless Way of building (1979), A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction (1977), and The Oregon Experiment (1975). Although colloquially described as "Alexander's', the Pattern Language has six authors, numerous collaborators and was the result of eight years' work at the Centre for Environmental Structure. If one came across the Centre's title in a telephone book, one might take it for a geological research centre. As geologists also look for structures, one could learn from one's mistake.

The central argument of the Pattern Language is that, in the face of complexity, humans have evolved archetypal designs, which solve recurrent problems. These solutions are called patterns. In primitive societies, birds and humans had ways of using mud and grass to make dwellings. They remained constant from generation to generation. In modern societies, a greater range of patterns is available. Yet, the Pattern Language argues, there are still ways of doing things that, over an endless period of time, have satisfied complex human requirements. An ancient example is finding a choice location for an outdoor seat. Neglect of this pattern has led to a modern tragedy. Most outdoor seats in most towns are woefully sited: their locations are unprotected, isolated, noisy, windy, claustrophobic, too hot or too cold. The ancient pattern was to place a seat near a tree, with its back to a wall, in a sunny position with a good view (Figure 3.4). The archetype for this solution balances prospect with refuge. Jay Appleton, in The Experience of Landscape, sees this as a fundamental human need: it satisfies human desires for safety, comfort and a good vantage point ( Appleton, 1975). To avoid blunders, planners and designers must have this information.

Using the ancient patterns will, Alexander asserts, produce "the quality without a name'. He explains: The first place I think of, when I try to tell someone about this quality, is a corner of an English country garden, where a peach tree grows against a wall. The wall runs from east to west. The sun shines on the tree and as it warms the bricks behind the tree, the warm bricks themselves warm the peaches on the tree. It has a slightly dozy quality. (Alexander, 1979) (Figure 3.5) In seeking to describe the quality, Alexander considers the following adjectives: alive, whole, comfortable, free, exact, egoless and eternal. But each is rejected. The Pattern Language is described as "timeless'. Most of the book is devoted to accounts of the 253 patterns. As archetypes for good places, they have great theoretical importance for planners, architects and landscape designers. Tony Ward is quoted on the dust-jacket of the Pattern Language as saying "I believe this to be perhaps the most important book on architectural design published this century. Every library, every school, and every first-year student should have a copy'. With regard to the social aspect of design, I wholeheartedly agree