A Pattern Language (1977)

By Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein, Max Jacobs, Ingrid Kiksdahl-King, Shlomo Angel


“A Pattern Language is the second in a series of books which describe an entirely new attitude — a complete working alternative — to our present ideas about architecture, building, and planning.”

There does not exactly exist a category of book that A Pattern Language could be completely contained within: it is part textbook, part manifesto, part psychological treatise, and part how-to guide…as in: how to organize one’s surroundings to maximize pleasure and contentment. Within its more than one thousand pages the authors of A Pattern Language present readers a mind-bogglingly complex and potentially life altering set of “rules” by which they can reorder their rooms, their homes, their towns, their world and therefore their lives.

In the introduction, the authors’ set forth their hypothesis: much is wrong with the communities in which we live because no attention has been paid to the psychological and emotional affects the open spaces, roads, buildings, and interior spaces have on the humans that inhabit and use them. Instead, an entirely new way of thinking about city planning, architecture, and living is proposed through two-hundred and fifty three rules of design, called the Patterns.

The book begins with the very broad patterns, “A Distribution of Towns” (which discusses the ideal space between cities, suburbs, country towns, and rural villages) and narrowing down to the widely specific “Different Chairs” (a discussion of why varying styles of furniture is most soothing and comforting to a home’s inhabitants) and covering every possible space and design decision in between.

This is much, much more than just simply a collection of rules about how to lay at streets (in the country laid out to maximize open space; in cities in “webs” that connect areas of dense shopping and entertaining to quieter areas for living) and how many windows a day care center should have (answer: many, all low to the floor, and with views of a garden and play area). Those straight-forward rules are there, for certain, and they offer detailed guidance, but each pattern also strives to go further and solve bigger social problems that poorly designed spaces can contribute to.

Within each of the Patterns are in-depth discussions about the affect that each and every decision made in city planning, or the way one family might chose to live within their own home, might be best arranged for maximize contentment of all residents. There are discussions about improving our lives: why we should not ignore the sole-destroying affects of long work commutes; ways to lessen the isolation of stay-at-home parents; ways that city buildings offering services to the poor can bring people together in positive and uplifting spaces that improve their heath and well-being rather than further depress and degrade those seeking help; why we should consider the mixing of children, adults, and older persons when we create open spaces; why it is important to have places to exercise, dance, shop, and relax that meet the needs of various groups and respect their individual cultural and age related wishes (idea: have family oriented and less rowdy dance halls in town but have wilder dance clubs for the young far outside of the neighborhoods populated by seniors and children.)

There is scarcely one aspect of design and planning that has been overlooked by this book. Each aspect of life — in city, suburb, town, and rural village — has been given equal importance and serious consideration. The author’s want to see us build a world where we can be happy at work, out on the town, in our parks, in our hospitals, in our schools, and in our homes and they propose a set of specific changes — many which could be made easily — to correct deficiencies and improve these spaces.

I cannot begin to explain the draw this book has on me. I find myself opening it often and sometimes reading for hours. Even when I am not reading it, I find myself thinking often about the Patterns that speak to me most: create secret “caves” for my young children to make their own; preserve my bedroom as a sacred “couples retreat” to increase martial happiness;  create outdoor rooms to ensure my family enjoys both the inside and outside of our home, and hundreds more.

While I completely understand few readers are going to track down this hard to find, 1000 page book, but I urge you to consider doing so. You might be surprised by the profound insights an architecture textbook has to offer.


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