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A Pattern Language

Originally a remarkable book (and now on the web) which explains the psychology of architectural design and how to use a wealth of patterns to design satisfying spaces.

Each of the 253 patterns are illustrated, stated, explained in detail and then linked to other related patterns. This pattern – ‘LIGHT ON TWO SIDES OF EVERY ROOM’ – is related to ‘WINDOWS OVERLOOKING LIFE’, ‘NATURAL DOORS AND WINDOWS, WINDOW PLACE, DEEP WINDOW REVEALS, FILTERED LIGHT……..

Patterns

If you are involved in the design side of self build or custom build and you have ever wondered what makes the difference between a functional but humdrum box and an ‘alive’ and inspiring building then this may be for you.

A Pattern Language originally came out as a book in the late 1970s along with two companion volumes. Much of it is now on a web site which is currently being built and reflects the contents of the books. You do have to subscribe to get at all the information (a little over £3 per month) but if you just sign up for a couple of months you can hardly go wrong.

Even if you only read through the patterns for house design you will come across a huge amount of inspiring information. It is probably one of the only explicit methods available for creating good design. At the least you may avoid the worst pitfalls of bad design and at the best you may design an inspiring and beautiful building which is truly ‘alive’. This is almost the opposite to starting the way many people do: looking for a set of standard house plans.

The principle of a pattern language needs careful understanding and it is explained in detail in the companion book The Timeless Way of Building. It involves writing your own language based on main patterns which contain sub sets of patterns. These cross reference with each other and the process unfolds to create a complete picture. Languages differ because the contexts differ. For instance the language in one climate or cultural setting will differ from that in another. This is why the ‘A’ in A Pattern Language is important. Although this might all sound a bit mechanical, and parts of it are, there is great emphasis on your feelings and imagination playing a strong rôle in the process.

Many of the patterns are specifically or implicitly green and were far ahead of their time when the books were written. A few may need revising now that the context of energy saving has become such a demanding issue.

Although some patterns are considered more definite than others, and although design methods can follow certain definite routes, nevertheless the inter-relationship of patterns is not hierarchical but rather it is web like or Wiki like so that each pattern is related to many others.

Possibly one of the greatest ‘green’ aspects of A Pattern Language is its emphasis on truly satisfying design. What is not deeply satisfying will become worth less over time and will be eventually demolished or changed  (see Alterations and fashion). We are seeing this happen at an increasing rate at present. A great deal of the ugly and dead architecture of the 1970s is being got rid of, with all the waste of embodied energy which that entails.

The Patterns

There are about 90 patterns which relate directly to the design of a house and then lots of others which form a broader context. These are some of the most obvious initially:


76. HOUSE FOR A SMALL FAMILY
77. HOUSE FOR A COUPLE
78. HOUSE FOR ONE PERSON
79. YOUR OWN HOME


104. SITE REPAIR
105. SOUTH FACING OUTDOORS
106. POSITIVE OUTDOOR SPACE
107. WINGS OF LIGHT
108. CONNECTED BUILDINGS
109. LONG THIN HOUSE


Entrances, gardens, courtyards, roofs and terraces –

110. MAIN ENTRANCE
111. HALF-HIDDEN GARDEN
112. ENTRANCE TRANSITION
113. CAR CONNECTION
114. HIERARCHY OF OPEN SPACE
115. COURTYARDS WHICH LIVE
116. CASCADE OF ROOFS
117. SHELTERING ROOF
118. ROOF GARDEN


Paths and squares –

119. ARCADES
120. PATHS AND GOALS
122. BUILDING FRONTS
125. STAIR SEATS


Gradients and connection of space –

127. INTIMACY GRADIENT
128. INDOOR SUNLIGHT
129. COMMON AREAS AT THE HEART
130. ENTRANCE ROOM
131. THE FLOW THROUGH ROOMS
132. SHORT PASSAGES
133. STAIRCASE AS A STAGE
134. ZEN VIEW
135. TAPESTRY OF LIGHT AND DARK


The most important areas and rooms (in a house) –

136. COUPLE’S REALM
137. CHILDREN’S REALM
138. SLEEPING TO THE EAST
139. FARMHOUSE KITCHEN
140. PRIVATE TERRACE ON THE STREET
141. A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN
142. SEQUENCE OF SITTING SPACES
143. BED CLUSTER
144. BATHING ROOM
145. BULK STORAGE
153. ROOMS TO RENT
154. TEENAGER’S COTTAGE
155. OLD AGE COTTAGE
156. SETTLED WORK
157. HOME WORKSHOP
158. OPEN STAIRS


Knit the inside of the building to the outside

159. LIGHT ON TWO SIDES OF EVERY ROOM
160. BUILDING EDGE
161. SUNNY PLACE
162. NORTH FACE
163. OUTDOOR ROOM
164. STREET WINDOWS
165. OPENING TO THE STREET
166. GALLERY SURROUND
167. SIX-FOOT BALCONY
168. CONNECTION TO THE EARTH


Arrange the gardens, and the places in the gardens

169. TERRACED SLOPE
170. FRUIT TREES
171. TREE PLACES
172. GARDEN GROWING WILD
173. GARDEN WALL
174. TRELLISED WALK
175. GREENHOUSE
176. GARDEN SEAT
177. VEGETABLE GARDEN
178. COMPOST


Inside, attach necessary minor rooms and alcoves

179. ALCOVES
180. WINDOW PLACE
181. THE FIRE
182. EATING ATMOSPHERE
183. WORKSPACE ENCLOSURE
184. COOKING LAYOUT
185. SITTING CIRCLE
186. COMMUNAL SLEEPING
187. MARRIAGE BED
188. BED ALCOVE
189. DRESSING ROOM


Fine tune the shape and size of rooms and alcoves

190. CEILING HEIGHT VARIETY
191. THE SHAPE OF INDOOR SPACE
192. WINDOWS OVERLOOKING LIFE
193. HALF-OPEN WALL
194. INTERIOR WINDOWS
195. STAIRCASE VOLUME
196. CORNER DOORS


Give the walls some depth

197. THICK WALLS
198. CLOSETS BETWEEN ROOMS
199. SUNNY COUNTER
200. OPEN SHELVES
201. WAIST-HIGH SHELF
202. BUILT-IN SEATS
203. CHILD CAVES
204. SECRET PLACE


Each of these patterns has a particular context and describes a design problem and how to go about solving it. Each also has links to several other patterns which either interrelate or form a sub set. All this sounds a bit theoretical but an example will help. See below.

Background

The book ‘A Pattern Language’ has a companion volume called The Timeless Way of Building. This is the book which explains the theory behind A Pattern Language.

The nub of the thinking is that all our buildings, their detailed parts and the larger context that they fit into are composed of quite basic patterns which have evolved from fairly simple ‘rules of thumb’ which were understood by most people within the particular society. These patterns then get assembled in myriads of different and unique ways to form what Alexander calls a language, a pattern language. This has happened right down through history and relies not on ‘experts’ designing buildings but on the whole of society being involved in the language of design. This accounts, for instance, for why some of the most beautiful traditional villages in the British countryside are so appealing but yet did not rely on planners, architects, mass production facilities etc. Instead, everyone involved was using a language they all understood based on patterns which had stood the test of time.

The languages that have arisen take into account the whole of that society and reflect its complexity and richness. This holds true for not only the forms that buildings take on but also the materials they are made of.

The problem comes when society at large is not involved in the living language of design and it gets left to a few ‘experts’ who use their own, usually limited and disconnected languages to produce buildings and environments which often turn out to lack real life. At this point there is no common language left worth using.

Alexander’s quest was to investigate what patterns are, in order to be able to recreate them so that they are explicit and can be shared. There is a detailed section in the book about how patterns are discovered, refined and named so that they are invariant, clearly defined and shareable. Each pattern expresses the relationship between a context, a problem and a solution, and patterns can exist at all sorts of scales, from whole geographical areas down to how you might decorate your living room.

Example of a pattern

The patterns themselves are extremely practical and based on observation of how people actually live including the psychology of people’s relationship to rooms, spaces, gardens etc. Here is one example of how a pattern is handled.

167. SIX-FOOT BALCONY

this starts with the statement

balconies and porches which are less than six feet deep are hardly ever used‘ (this is the ‘problem’). It’s easy to check. Go and walk around a bit. Balconies are almost exclusively used to store rubbish, go out for a smoke, cat litter etc.  And yet they are everywhere. Their other main purpose is to add some kind of interest to boring walls.

The explanation then goes on to show what is true in terms of the space needed for people to relax around a table and face each other. There are two other aspects which are seen as important about a balcony: the fact that people like a bit of privacy when using a balcony (a half open enclosure of slats, columns, trellis etc.) and that people like a balcony which sits back into the building slightly so that they don’t feel too exposed (or even unsafe).

There is then a ‘solution’ in the form of a clear statement about how to design a balcony.

Whenever you build a balcony, a porch, a gallery, or a terrace always make it at least six feet deep. If possible, recess at least a part of it into the building so that it is not cantilevered out and separated from the building by a simple line, and enclose it partially.

Finally it links this pattern to other relevant patterns – SITTING WALL (243), COLUMN PLACES (226), HALF-OPEN WALL (193), SUNNY SPACE (161), OUTDOOR ROOM (163), THE SHAPE OF INDOOR SPACE (191).

It is important to keep the context of the pattern in mind. For instance this pattern for a balcony which works for the situation in California where the book was written may benefit from slight modification for the extremely changeable UK climate. Maybe the pattern CANVAS ROOFS (244) could be incorporated to create extra shelter.

For more information on how the patterns form a language you may need to read The Timeless Way of Building because the web site is still being developed. Although the patterns are well documented, the explanation of how they form a language is still not complete.

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