A Pattern Language
Don’t go to architecture school; devour this book instead and use it to design buildings and places that really work. This 1,000-page encyclopedia contains two hundred design patterns found in the buildings and cities that people love. For instance, pattern number 167: “Balconies and porches less than 6 feet deep are hardly ever used.” Therefore make balconies wider than 6 feet. Each pattern is what computer programmers call a heuristic: a compressed principle that can be unpacked in many ways. Each pattern is illustrated with exemplary examples and photos, and sociological evidence from studies of real places.
Employ this book to design attractive, timeless buildings (or towns) by combining as many of these patterns as can be consistently contained in one project. Does the house have a hat? An obvious central entrance? A transition zone between public and private? All these are eternal patterns that have worked in the past and will make a place better. First published 45 years ago by Christopher Alexander and team, this book has influenced tens of thousands of architects and urban planners who credit it with giving them tools to make buildings and towns that operate at human scale.
I used this pattern language to design our own house and my studio and both are structures that people love to be in. Among the many fancy homes I have visited, my three favorites are houses designed by the owners using Alexander’s pattern wisdom. These spaces are comfortable, humane, inviting, and the structures treat inhabitants intelligently.10/17/19
In both format (patterns) and content (timeless wisdom) this is a core text for anyone building anything at human scale.
A building cannot be a human building unless it is a complex of still smaller buildings or smaller parts which manifest its own internal social facts.
Ceiling Height Variety
A building in which the ceiling heights are all the same is virtually incapable of making people comfortable.
In some fashion, low ceilings make for intimacy, high ceilings for formality. In older buildings which allowed the ceiling heights to vary, this was almost taken for granted.
Pools of Light
Uniform illumination--the sweetheart of the lighting engineers--serves no useful purpose whatsoever. In fact, it destroys the social nature of space, and makes people feel disoriented and unbounded.
On no account place buildings in the places which are most beautiful. In fact, do the opposite. Consider the site and its buildings as a single living eco-system. Leave those areas that are the most precious, beautiful, comfortable, and healthy as they are, and build new structures in those parts of the site which are least pleasant now.
Always place buildings to the north of the outdoor spaces that go with them, and keep the outdoor spaces to the south. Never leave a deep band of shade between the building and the sunny part of the outdoors.
Make a transition space between the street and the front door. Bring the path which connects street and entrance through this transition space, and mark it with a change of light, a change of sound, a change of direction, a change of surface, a change of level, perhaps by gateways which make a change of enclosure, and above all with a change of view.
Lay out the space of a building so that they create a sequence which begins with the entrance and the most public parts of the building, then leads into the slightly more private areas, and finally to the most private domains.
A Buddhist monk lived high in the mountains, in a small stone house. Far, far in the distance was the ocean, visible and beautiful from the mountains. But it was not visible from the monk's house itself, nor from the approach road to the house. However, in front of the house there stood a courtyard surrounded by a thick stone wall. As one came to the house, one passed through a gate into this court, and then diagonally across the court to the front door of the house. On the far side of the courtyard there was a slit in the wall, narrow and diagonal, cut through the thickness of the wall. As a person walked across the court, at one spot, where his position lined up with the slit in the wall, for an instant, he could see the ocean. And then he was past it once again, and went into the house.
What is it that happens in this courtyard? The view of the distant sea is so restrained that it stays alive forever. Who, that has ever seen that view, can ever forget it? Its power will never fade. Even for the man who lives there, coming past that view day after day for fifty years, it will still be alive.
This is the essence of the problem with any view. It is a beautiful thing. One wants to enjoy it and drink it in every day. But the more open it is, the more obvious,the more it shouts, the sooner it will fade. Gradually it will become part of the building, like the wallpaper; and the intensity of its beautify will no longer be accessible to the people who live there.
If there is a beautiful view, don't spoil it by building huge windows that gape incessantly at it. Instead, put the windows which look onto the view at places of transition--along paths, in hallways, in entry ways, on stairs, between rooms.
If the view window is correctly placed, people will see a glimpse of the distant view as they come up to the window or pass it; but the view is never visible from the places where people stay.
Balconies and porches which are less than six feet deep are hardly ever used.
Everybody loves window seats, bay windows, and big windows with low sills and comfortable chairs drawn up to them.
It is easy to think of these kinds of places as luxuries, which can no longer be built, and which we are no longer lucky enough to be able to afford.
In fact, the matter is more urgent. These kinds of windows which create "places" next to them are not simply luxuries; they are necessary. A room which does not have a place like this seldom allows youth feel fully comfortable or perfectly at ease. Indeed, a room without a window place may keep you in a state of perpetual unresolved conflict and tension--slight, perhaps, but definite.
Bedrooms make no sense.
Don't put single beds in empty rooms called bedrooms, but instead put individual bed alcoves off rooms with other non sleeping functions, so the bed itself becomes a tiny private haven.
Now, try to imagine how, on your particular site, you can establish this pattern. Stand on the site with your eyes closed. Imagine how things might be, if the pattern, as you have understood it, had suddenly sprung up there overnight. Once you have an image of how it might be, walk about the site, pacing out approximate areas, marking the walls, using string and cardboard, and putting stakes in the ground, or loose stones, to mark the important corners.
While you are imagining how to establish one pattern, consider the other patterns listed with it. Some are larger. Some are smaller. For the larger ones, try to see how they can one day be present in the areas you are working on, and ask yourself how the pattern you are now building can contribute to the repair or formation of these larger patterns.
(This is a Cool Tools Favorite from 2012 — editors)