Reading Christopher Alexander’s “The Timeless Way of Building”

17Aug15

A review of the book: A Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander

In the Timeless Way of Building (first published in 1979), Cristopher Alexander exposes his theory of the use of pattern languages in architecture. The idea of pattern languages has not only been influential in architecture but also in other fields such as software architecture, education, and interaction design. Reasons enough to revisit the writings that started it all.

I won’t be surprised if many who started reading The Timeless Way for similar reasons as I had, will put it away after reading just a few pages. At first reading the book almost comes across as a religious text. Alexander introduces “the quality that cannot be named” as the highest ideal in building, which can be reached through “a process which brings order out of nothing but ourselves (…) if we will only let it”. The core of the book is divided in three parts the quality, the gate, the way. It is full of little summaries, often in the form of rules or maxims. These style choices are not my taste, but luckily, in-between all this idealistic chatter, Alexander does unfold an interesting and quite practical theory of design, which is well worth considering.

In the first part of the book, Alexander tries to define the quality that cannot be named. He observes some places are nicer to be in than others, and tries to define a single quality which sets these places apart from others. The quality can be described as a freedom from inner contradictions, the feeling of being whole, or alive, as a kind of freedom, as comfortable, as egoless and eternal. Some places have and others lack this quality. It can be recognized from patterns of events that keep on happening in the place, which give the place its unique character. These patterns of events, in turn, are interlocked with the patterns in space which have co-evolved with the activities. These observations, lead Alexander to two interrelated quests. First he tries to define a process of building that allows for this co-evolution and second he wants to develop a way to capture the best practices in building that sets such placed with a high living quality apart.

In the second part of the book, which I found the most interesting; Alexander sets out to explain the idea of a pattern language which forms the core of his theory. According to Alexander, people have always used pattern languages implicitly in their building practice, but modern architecture has lost touch with this way of building, hence his attempt to make it explicit. Patterns are a particular way to capture the essence of a good building practice. They describe a relationship between elements in space. One example is the rule of thumb that a living room should have windows on both sides. Patterns, are not descriptions of concrete buildings, but they are an abstraction of a building practice focusing on those part that are invariantly present in all buildings with a certain quality. Moreover a pattern solves a problem, or more specific, it relieves a tension between opposing forces. Patterns are thus culturally dependent, although some are more universally applied than others.

A pattern language is a network of patterns. This network has a partial hierarchy, A garden growing wild, can have tree places, which could consist of fruit trees, and so on; different hierarchical paths are possible through the network, so one might arrive at using fruit trees, through different paths. While the patterns form the words of the design language, the network defines the grammar, or at least the collocations of patterns. Using the pattern language is subsequently a process of differentiating space. A designer starts with the first pattern, and then works down the network slowly detailing the space until the design is complete. Although this process quite straightforward, and -perhaps- easy to learn it gives much creative freedom, as the designer can chose patterns, shape them according to the needs of the whole.

In the last part of the book Alexander discusses how a pattern language can be used in real projects. Working from a shared pattern language ordinary people can design, buildings and neighborhoods. Alexander discusses for example the case of the site of a clinic which is designed in a co-creative process by the later users of the clinic as one example. This part is illustrative in the workings of a pattern language, but it is also the part where Alexander returns to his idealistic and egalitarian agenda. He castigates modern architecture and argues that building should be in the hands of the people, not of architects. In Alexanders vieuw buildings need not to be drawn on paper, but can be built from marks on the ground, using a pattern language. Although there is something to these ideas, I guess, a more modest tone would have been appropriate. The practices Alexander preaches here are so far off of modern building standards, that they need stronger arguments than provided in the book.

All in all, there are several strong ideas in the Timeless Way. Alexander puts emphasis on utility, or use over aesthetics as main function in architecture. The ideas of patterns as a way to consolidate best practices is strong, and his celebration the tacit knowledge in craftsmanship and culture may be a dearly needed in modern society and education. It is less clear to what extent Alexander’s program to explicate patterns really fits this idea though. Alexander explicitly positions the practice of explicating patterns as an intermediate step. He believes patterns originate from the building and living culture of a community and explicating them is merely an antidote to the perils of modern building industry. Positioning patterns as an intermediate step, however, raises the question how a transition to the ideal state ought to occur. This question is never answered in the book.

The idea of a pattern language as a design language is certainly strong. Language forms a strong metaphor to understand what design is. The pattern language appears to be an accessible and useful asset in a participatory design project – described in the last part of the book (Alexander shares ideas, ideals and practices with the Scandinavian School of participatory design, that emerged in the same period). On the other hand, composing a language out of a pattern network alone seems to be a poor solution. It seems to me a full-fledged design language needs to integrate more types of knowledge than explicated best practices and principles.

A more general critique is Alexanders tendency to present the pattern language as a solution to all problems. The book, already riddled with references to the Tao, pursuing the quality that cannot be named as the single ideal to strive for, feels religious enough without offering the pattern language as a salvation for all possible problems in building practice. More than as a theorist, Christopher Alexander speaks to us as a believer. If you can handle this, you’ll find in him a fine design theorist too, but I recon this will take a spoonful of blasphemy from your side.

Reading More:

Earlier bookreviews on this site include reviews of Lakoff and Johnsons “Metaphors We Live By“, Donna Harraway’s “Simians Cyborgs and Women” and the Edge booklet “Is internet chaning the way you think?

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