Empty Chairs at Empty Tables

June 1st, 2003

Patterns of Home: The Ten Essentials of Enduring Design by Max Jacobson, Murray Silverstein, and Barbara Winslow (Taunton Press, 2002, 288 pp, US $34.95)

In 1977, a group of authors led by Christopher Alexander published the following in their book A Pattern Language: "We hope, of course, that many of the people who read, and use this language, will try to improve these patterns—will put their energy to work, in this task of finding more true, more profound invariants—and we hope that gradually these more true patterns, which are slowly discovered, as time goes on, will enter a common language, which all of us can share." Two of those original authors, Max Jacobson and Murray Silverstein, along with Barbara Winslow, are practicing what they have preached by publishing a new book, Patterns of Home. After 25 years of practicing architecture, they feel qualified to reiterate, or refine, or elaborate on what they call patterns.

What is a pattern? According to A Pattern Language, a pattern "describes a problem that occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of a solution to that problem, in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over." These folks looked around at the world and compiled a list of all the ways that human beings have built a better world, and then they explain why the pattern works so well and how we can follow it. Most patterns relate to the design of the built environment, but they are very connected to sociology, psychology, economics, and plain common sense about what makes us happy in the world.

A pattern is only determined after looking at a great deal of human history, and a great deal of human behaviour around the world. A book of patterns is not the place to express wishes or speculate about how the world could be. All patterns must be supported by the observable phenomena of human behaviour. Beer halls, food stands, fruit trees, and alcoves have all been built by many societies, so they are included.

But one must also judge that a certain pattern is a good one. A good pattern is almost always determined by how well it functions over time. This gives the designer a reasonable hope that if we use the pattern again, it will succeed. In this way, patterns are meant to be very practical. Every pattern should be implemented in the future, and every pattern can be demonstrated to work from the past. "Dancing in the Street," for example, used to be popular and important for social well-being, and still is in some traditional societies. But modern, urban life has gradually forgotten about it, and now we must bring it back.

This empirical approach establishes a pattern as a norm for good design. This is distinguished from classical modernism which imposed pure form, a product of the mind, upon the environment. After a century of modernism and a century of building gleaming boxes in a park, we might ask if it is a pattern yet. When does your pure form become my empirical data?

Well, humans have, unfortunately, persisted in bad patterns. In fact, part of the empirical support for a good pattern is to show off the demerits of a bad pattern. For example, a long thin house is suggested as a pattern instead of a large square house. So even though the world has built many square houses, it is considered a bad pattern because a thin house has better access to natural light, the street, and the garden, among other things.

Underneath all the supporting evidence and empirical data is the conviction that the truth is being spoken. A Pattern Language is loaded with "therefores" and printed on very thin paper, suggesting its kinship with the Bible.

But the similarities are more than superficial. The authors try their best to convince the reader that the patterns recommended are indeed true, good, beneficial, or beautiful. There is a refreshingly dogmatic quality to the text that simply puts forth pattern after pattern with supporting research, diagrams, sketches, and photographs and then concludes with instructions for implementation without any backpedalling. "Many of the patterns here are archetypal—so deep, so deeply rooted in the nature of things, that it seems likely that they will be a part of human nature, and human action, as much in five hundred years, as they are today."

With that kind of boldness, A Pattern Language has inspired devoted fans with a vision for our environment. And devoted fans will surely expect great things from any subsequent offering by some of the same authors. Indeed, Patterns of Home appears to assume a similar stance. The subtitle claims to offer "The Ten Essentials of Enduring Design." Here they focus only on those patterns relating to designing houses. And they have reduced the number of patterns to only 10.

" Practice has made us realize that the really crucial patterns are far fewer in number than we had previously thought. . . . While there may be many dozens, even hundreds, of patterns that go into the making of homes, there are only a handful that we would now say are essential." Gone are patterns like "Teenagers Cottage" and "Half-inch Trim."

What we lose in breadth, however, we gain in depth as each pattern is paid a great deal of attention with many drawings and photographs. The text includes different sorts of captions and special boxes to explain things. This arrangement gives the book a glossy magazine feel, but the special text boxes are the best part. The shaded boxes are especially helpful with titles such as "Patterns in Context." These highlight which of the other patterns in the book are especially relevant to the one being discussed.

The idea that patterns are interrelated is crucial to successfully designing with pattern languages. A Pattern Language emphasizes this point: "No pattern is an isolated entity. . . . This is a fundamental view of the world. It says that when you build a thing you cannot merely build that thing in isolation, but must also repair the world around it, and within it, so that the larger world at that one place becomes more coherent, and more whole." Just as languages of words need several words working together to form a coherent sentence, languages of patterns need several patterns working together to form a coherent environment.

Another type of shaded box actually sneaks in a separate pattern inside one of the 10 essential patterns. The first pattern, "Inhabiting the Site" also contains the shaded box, "Don't Build on the Best Spot," which is another title for their rather famous pattern "Site Repair" appearing first in A Pattern Language.

Site Repair is the idea that buildings should be built in the worst part of the site so that the ugly part is then destroyed and the pretty parts are preserved. This is a very good pattern. But why is it a pattern? Why is it essential? The authors say that building a house is "an active attempt to inhabit the land and make it our own. To inhabit is to enter into a more permanent relationship with a place. . . . But we mustn't destroy the features that brought us to the site in the first place."

So it is a pattern because humans have always wanted to relate to our environments in the best possible way. This old oak tree, or that sunny patch of grass should be preserved because we want those things around us. Of course it isn't true that we have always decided to keep these things when building. In fact, development of land frequently destroys the better parts of a site.

So are they actually supporting the pattern from human history or are they telling us what we ought to do? They manage to do both by showing you all the ways the pattern has worked so well and decrying the failures when we have not followed the pattern. But in the end the pattern-maker (or pattern-describer) simply judges which patterns work well and urges them upon us.

Another pattern, "Parts in Proportion," shows the difficulty in supporting the pattern as in fact a pattern or a norm for design. This pattern states that everything must be designed just right so that it feels well-proportioned.

For centuries, architects and theorists have struggled to explain why certain proportions have a feeling of rightness. The authors here offer all the major theories. They appeal to our innate sense of proportion, they appeal to laws of geometry, they appeal to the human body, and they appeal to proportions found in nature, citing growth patterns and the shape of potatoes. Rather than come down hard with strict laws of well-proportioned design, they fire a shotgun at the problem with helpful tidbits encouraging the use of balance and variety in unity, among others.

Patterns of Home is not the type of book to come down hard on any design theory despite its dogmatic predecessor. A Pattern Language responded to the dogma of modernism which had come to dominate the world of design by the middle of the twentieth century. Patterns of Home has no such revolutionary ambitions.

A Pattern Language states very frankly that modernism has dehumanized our built environment, and it seeks to restore us to our surroundings in a healthy and happy way by looking back to patterns that were widely used before modernism disrupted them. In our present context, Patterns of Home does not have the benefit of such an enemy as modernism. It is firmly in the tradition of the type of post-modernism that A Pattern Language first articulated. It describes design ideas that are already accepted by the broader design community. It offers a currency that is already the coin of the realm.

Thus Patterns of Home reads with all the excitement of Better Homes and Gardens, rather than urgently describing, clarifying, and illustrating norms for designing our homes. Part of the problem is that the type of homebuilding illustrated is extremely limited in scope. The authors have every right to focus on patterns only of the home. But unless you want to build a brand new house for no less than half a million dollars in a nice town and country setting, you will have to work mighty hard to extract any useful patterns from the buildings illustrated.

Where A Pattern Language inspired us with a vision for our environment at every scale, budget, and cultural context, Patterns of Home is relevant to less than one per cent of the world's population. My initial flip through this book led me to conclude that all patterns of home can be summed up into three: lots of big rooms, lots of big windows, and lots of big porches.

But it is still perfectly fine to write a book to help only a few people design better homes. Even here the book fails to adequately convey the patterns. The photography, though plentiful and in full color, does little to pull out the pattern at hand from the scene photographed. If we allow the sketches and diagrams, which appear frequently, to inform and guide how we read the glossy photographs, then we are much more likely to emerge with a clear idea of the pattern. But this requires no small effort on the part of the reader. Colour photographs are first of all so realistic that patterns are difficult to abstract from all the fuzz of reality. A simple sketch usually communicates patterns more quickly and clearly. Moreover, the photography is your standard, glossy magazine fare, where everything is shot from a safe, convenient distance, where walls are at generic 45 degree angles to give a broad view of everything. No attempt is made to isolate the pattern.

The photography also has an antiseptic quality. The windows are closed, chairs are neatly tucked under the table, and the stair treads show no signs of wear. The pictures do nothing to convince us about patterns because apparently no one has ever lived here before.

Patterns require time to develop. And they require people to develop them. Out of more than 300 photographs, only one contained a human being. No one to cook with the olive oil and three vegetables placed neatly on the kitchen counter.

I criticize the photography because it does a disservice to the rest of the book which contains good information about implementing the patterns. Big colour photographs tend to call attention to themselves and distract from the message of the text. And while that message may lack the vision and scope of its forbear, it should be a useful guide to designers and anyone planning to build a new home.

Topics: Arts Culture
 

Benjamin Kaufmann is a London-based fashion and beauty photographer.

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