Monday, January 28, 2008

Reading List: A Pattern Language

Some books are classics. You read them, you reference them, you let them gather dust on the shelves until one day something jogs your memory and makes them vital again. This, along with other more obsessive reasons, is why I tend to collect design books with never any thought of letting them go. And design books tend to be heavy, sometimes in content, and often in heft.

:: image via Architecture.MNP

No book proves both of these points like Christopher Alexander's tome, 'A Pattern Language'. Written in 1977, this book elucidates a series of broad to specific patterns of development. The recent post by Architecture.MNP linked to a fantastic online version of the pattern language - which seems even more useful when framed in a hypertext format. Building on the strengths of the linking pattern heirarchy, this online tool allows you to access the pattern with paging through the book, even including illustrations. Each one is nested within a larger order of magnitude, and reduced to smaller constituent parts. For instance, Pattern #14: Identifiable Neighborhood, is connected from:

"... the Mosaic Of Subcultures (8) and the Community Of 7000 (12) are made up of neighborhoods. This pattern defines the neighborhoods."

These are further reduced to the parts that:

"...mark the neighborhood, above all, by gateways wherever main paths enter it - Main Gateways (53) - and by modest boundaries of non-residential land between the neighborhoods - Neighborhood Boundary (15). Keep major roads within these boundaries - Parallel Roads (23); give the neighborhood a visible center, perhaps a common or a green - Accessible Green (60)‹or a Small Public Square (61); and arrange houses and workshops within the neighborhood in clusters of about a dozen at a time - House Cluster (37), Work Community (41).... "

The online version allows for simple jumping from point to point, and back, which is a true mark of the successful pattern - context and detail. The site includes illustrations from the book, such as this visual discription of Pattern #4: Agricultural Valleys:

:: image via A Pattern Language

The language is timeless, although the vocabulary may be in need of updating. For instance, usage of the term 'green street' has evolved, and the concept remains, but as seen in Pattern #51 - Green Streets, the definition differs somewhat from our current use:

"There is too much hot hard asphalt in the world. A local road, which only gives access to buildings, needs a few stones for the wheels of the cars; nothing more. Most of it can still be green."

:: image via A Pattern Language

While the original pattern still has merit, the idea of pattern languages is an interesting point-of-departure for any type of analytical undertaking. An example, somewhat dated as well, takes the idea to separate application of the principle, Ecotrust developed their Conservation Economy Pattern Language, the goal to provide a framework for an "...ecologically restorative, socially just, and reliably prosperous society."

More recent, Alexander's new series is a four-volume set entitled The Nature of Order, investigating a broad world-view of architecture in four parts: The Phenomenon of Life, The Process of Creating Life, A Vision of a Living World, and The Luminous Ground. I have yet to check this out, other than a cursory glance at the bookstore, but i imagine they involve some density - and patience to get through, but alas, something as light as understanding the Nature of Order should require a bit of heavy thinking.

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