Buildings That Are Poems

March 1 st 2002

A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977, 1216 pp, $104)

In 1977, Christopher Alexander and his Center for Environmental Structure colleagues unleashed the idea of pattern languages.

According to Alexander, "Every individual act of building is an act in which space gets differentiated. It is not a process of addition, in which preformed parts are combined to create a whole, but a process of unfolding, like the evolution of an embryo, in which the whole precedes the parts, and actually gives birth to them, by splitting."

The basic elements with which Alexander works are "patterns": concise descriptions of problems which occur again and again in our environment, and the core of a solution to that problem, stated in such a way that the solution can be used again and again, but never in the same way twice.

These patterns are interwoven with one another. When we shape towns or buildings, we are working with complexes of problems which cannot be addressed simplistically. Alexander provides us with the basic grammar and vocabulary with which to talk about these problems without excessively reducing their complexity. By identifying the most significant problems, and their related patterns, it is possible to weave together a complex of solutions for the specific task we face, be it developing a new urban neighbourhood, or building a new bathroom.

This book, and Alexander's thinking in general, has been widely influential. It is used by architects and builders when designing houses or other buildings. This influence is obvious, for instance, in the work of Sara Susanka (The Not So Big House and Creating the Not So Big House). It is a basic text in the New Urbanist Movement (see for instance the Charter of The New Urbanism by Michael Leccese, or Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream by Andres Duany, et al.). Astonishingly, it has spawned an entire literature for computer programmers, starting with Design Patterns by Erich Gamma. As I was writing this, I came across an instance of Alexander's influence on economic thinking.

Alexander and his colleagues construct their pattern language on the presupposition that there is some order to reality, and that this is discernible not only in mathematical or geometrical patterns and proportions, but also in the built environment and in human social interaction. This is similar to our presupposition at the Work Research Foundation that there is an enduring design to economic life.

According to Alexander, his patterns for architectural design are not enough to generate the kinds of buildings and towns that are truly alive. There is as great a need for skillful practice from the designers, craftspeople and end-users as there is for clear patterns in terms of which to talk about the design problems. But without these patterns—especially in a time like ours, when decades of modern architecture have blighted our cities and towns—it is very hard to build towns and buildings that have the same density of meaning as that we find in poems.

Topics: Cities

Gideon Strauss was the editor of Comment from 2000 to 2010. He is currently Associate Professor of Worldview Studies at the Institute for Christian Studies, a graduate school of philosophy in Toronto, and a senior fellow with the Center for Public Justice in Washington DC. Gideon also facilitates vocational discipleship in churches in his native South Africa.