Title: A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction
Author: Christopher Alexander et al.
File Under: Architecture, Practical Beauty
I’ve been meaning to write about this book for a long time — ever since my friend Christina lent me her copy. Since we are (loosely) exploring the idea of beauty here on the blog, it seemed like a good time to delve in a bit — and hey, you never know who you have on your Christmas list who would love this book!
Fair warning: This book is really only for the veeeerrrry geekiest and bookish of you. It raises “thinking about things” to a whole new level.
When I tell you that the authors set about organizing the world — with no irony — you get the idea. To me, it’s delightful — the thought that there is some principle that can be applied to cities and closets. To you, it might be madness. (And granted, the buildings actually designed by the author, Christopher Alexander seem not to be particularly beautiful, which makes you wonder. Still, I think that we can fruitfully discuss his ideas, and believe me, I do — to anyone who will listen!)
The subject of patterns in life — manifestations of order that somehow relate to other kinds of order, and make human life deeper, richer, more possible — instantly grabs my attention. I knew I had to read this book.
And the question of why buildings today (but also streets and towns) are ugly — this question begs an answer, because how can it be that we have vast stores of knowledge and mountains of technology, yet literally millions of people are doomed to live in homes the mere proportions of which are an affront?
How is it that a lone man with an ax (Pa, e.g.) can build a house that, while humble and undeniably small, has charm; but there are whole square miles of land in our country that are devoured by monstrosities of energy-gobbling, Palladio-mocking, plywood palaces that won’t last the span of a lifetime?
A Pattern Language encompasses more than home-building, as I say, but isn’t it interesting that despite the professionalization and industrialization of this activity, our new homes lack that certain something of those of the past? Our constructions might look classical (if that’s what they are trying for), but they aren’t classical. They can’t do it even when they try.*
Bathrooms apart**, there is nothing superior about most present-day construction. But if you are thinking about remodeling or building or even arranging furniture, you need to take a look at this book. If you are involved, as the Chief is, with planning in your town or city, then you must read it, as many of our bylaws and codes make it impossible to have humane communities. Alexander explains why.***
I have so many thoughts about this book. Ultimately, it falls short in failing to understand that the order he extols relates to the objective order of beauty in the cosmos and in God’s mind. This failing means that at times there is an odd spirituality that creeps into his thinking.
And although I understand the pitiful explanation for the truly inadequate visuals in the book, I deplore it. More pictures STAT! Those little scribblings — ugh. So frustrating. But these criticisms aside, I recommend A Pattern Language highly as one of those very few books in life that makes all the little men in your brain run around setting off fireworks!
It’s not the kind of book that I can imagine reading on an e-reader, by the way. You sort of dive into a section, go back, go forward, take a peek at what interests you (porches? benches? alleys? bedrooms for children? kitchen cupboards? street frontage? daylight? windowsills?), reread. Finally you will begin to understand why that step up to her kitchen from the dining room is a feature, not a bug, of grandma’s house, and why that balcony at the resort wasn’t actually appealing.
This book makes you realize the truth elaborated by Michael Oakeshott in Rationalism in Politics, that the things in life that make it beautiful, doable, and enjoyable cannot be reduced to a rational list or be broken into managerial steps. In the past, people built up a body of knowledge that is now hard to recover — a decisive and intentional break having been implemented under the profoundly mistaken notion that going forward, there was nothing we couldn’t figure out on our own.
The result we see all around us in the ugliness and, ironically, considering the emphasis placed on function by those who did the dismantling, inefficiency of our lives. Alexander makes us think about how we can recover some of those old patterns and apply them in our own day.
*I also recommend Get Your House Right: Architectural Elements to Use & Avoid by Marianne Cusato — it has clear drawings of good and bad examples to help you achieve the design you are seeking. I read this at Natasha and Nick’s house, where the advice has been put to good use.
** Joseph got me (well, he got it for the Chief but I devoured it first) The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape, which makes this point about bathrooms. There’s no arguing with a nice bathroom. The rest of the book is one long sustained rant against the modern way of building homes and cities. James Howard Kunstler has some funky progressive ideas and he contradicts himself occasionally. All that aside, the book is thought-provoking as criticism. I especially appreciated the insight that when life was less regulated, rich and poor lived much closer together than they can today, even if they want to. That apartment over the garage or neighborhood business goes a long way to creating a just society, bringing together as it does those who otherwise would live on opposite sides of the city, never encountering each other apart from their economic transactions.
*** Alexander’s, and by extension Kunstler’s, ideas need to be kept distinct from what is called “new urbanism.” In theory this movement incorporates their (and others’) ideas, but in practice it’s often just another exercise in lame and even mocking reference to cherished forms. Until we, as a society, can overcome our desire to regulate everything, we probably won’t have organic and lively communities, architecturally speaking.