Seeing It Slant: On “A Pattern Language”

A Pattern Language is a kaleidoscope passing itself off as a book, one of those texts that’s almost impossible to categorize or even satisfactorily describe. Over the past couple months, it’s also reinvigorated how I look at designing stuff. Not just for taking a new angle on “well designed” furniture or cabinetry or houses—although it’s useful for those—but for way bigger stuff: helping us imagine different ways cities interact with the countryside, or think about communal waiting rooms, or conceptualize spaces to meet the needs of the very old or the very young in our communities. Or even where fruit trees do/definitely don’t belong, or the aesthetic qualities of compost.

To be clear, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this thing without reservation, but I’ve definitely found it engaging, inspiring, and occasionally mildly irritating. And I don’t really even fault it for the ways I do find it irritating, since it feels like a book that’s a product of its time, charmingly trapped in the amber of the late 1970s.

If you’re an architect, urbanist, or software designer, you might already be well acquainted with this particular book, but it’s likely unfamiliar to most woodworkers. But that’s ok. I’m a big believer in going across state lines, so to speak, to look for inspiration. A product of the Center for Environmental Structure at the University of California, Berkeley, A Pattern Language was published in 1977. It’s a collaborative work penned by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein, among other famous mid- and late-20th century architects and designers.

Here's what the book is up to: all 1171 (!) pages of the book are driven by the democratic assumption that “people should design for themselves their own houses, streets, and communities,” which “comes simply from the observation that most of the wonderful places of the world were not made by architects but by people,” as the dust jacket puts it. Alexander and his colleagues concocted the idea of a “pattern language” to pinpoint what they meant by this tendency, majestically describing how groups of people—across cultures and time periods—organically arrive at similar design principles and quirks that solve “problems” (whether it’s how to organize a neighborhood street or where to place a doorknob) with safe, beautiful, and people-centered solutions.

If you’re not a design nerd who’s into this kind of thing, I could potentially cause you some serious brain damage with the super abstract “generative grammar” metaphor Alexander and his crew pioneered that further develops their notion of a “pattern language.” It’s worth noting that it’s extremely influential: the first Internet wiki, the New Urbanist movement that’s been the engine for how urban planners and architects have totally revamped inner-ring city suburbs over the past thirty years, and the revamping of the University of Oregon’s campus were all primarily influenced by this book.

It’s also more than a little controversial in its sweeping pronouncements for what should guide how we make both charming towns and houses, and (in my reading) definitely has a nostalgic whiff of 1970s California utopianism to it. It’s like The Whole Earth Catalog meets Sim City. (My old college roommate, an architect who has remained the same lovable, unrepentant grump-o-saur as when I first met him twenty years ago, remains especially annoyed by the book’s format, caustically noting that a “list of pleasant things is not a theory.”)

As a woodworker and a guy who works on stuff around the house, though, I’m not necessarily looking for a grand unified theory of why “pleasant things” are “pleasant,” or why we should blow up California suburbs and replace them with denser, more walkable communities with lots of fruit trees. And, actually, I quite like books that take the form of lists. What I’m looking for, ultimately, is weird, alarmingly specific ideas that take my own design choices in ways I couldn’t have predicted, and—hot dog, reader!—is this book full of those kind of idiosyncrasies.

To entice you, and to illustrate what I mean, here’s a list of some the “patterns” Alexander and crew describe in detail in the book: “Lace of Country Streets,” “Grave Sites,” “Adventure Playground,” “Teenage Society,” “Stair Seats,” “Foot Stands,” “Sleeping To The East,” “Child Caves,” and “Pools of Light.” A couple months ago, I wrote a blog post about things hidden beneath old floorboards, so I was particularly interested in pattern no. 204: “Secret Place”: 

My favorite pattern, though, has got to be “Zen View,” AKA pattern no. 134. Alexander begins this pattern by retelling an old story. It’s about a Buddhist monk whose house overlooked the ocean, and who designed his house and a slit in his courtyard wall so that 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.” Alexander uses this story as a microcosm for how we ought to position windows that look at jaw-dropping things—rather than “spoiling” a beautiful view by building “huge windows that gape incessantly at it,” we should design buildings that only provide fleeting glimpses of them in “places of transition,” like the turn in a stairwell, so that by restraining these glimpses to rare moments, their power and novelty remain untarnished by overexposure. 

So, I wonder: how could I design a piece of furniture such that its most interesting facet is one I see only in passing, at the opportune angle, so its sense of wonder never diminishes? How can I creepily build more “secret places” into my home, and pass on the stories of those places? A Pattern Language might be a controversial book among architects, but it’s an exceptionally good book for helping small-scale craftspeople ask fruitful questions to help us better stories about the stuff we make. 

A good design book, after all, doesn’t give us dead designs to dutifully copy and perhaps tweak—it sets off a firework of dozens of different possibilities.

One final note: the book isn’t cheap, even if you buy it secondhand, but your local public library can probably track down a copy for you, and if they can’t, your local university library almost certainly has one you can surreptitiously page through in their reading room, surrounded by undergraduates more likely interested in scrolling through TikTok than studying. 

-Cameron Turner


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