Our lives are made up of a set of patterns. Waking up, going to work, coming home, eating dinner, going to sleep. A handful of patterns that we repeat, with a few mixed in over longer time periods – going home for the holidays, or high school reunions. Each culture has its own patterns, and each geography has its own patterns as well. Cold winters and hot summers in the Midwest, or a river flowing in spring, drying out in summer, then freezing over in winter, flowing again in spring. All these patterns create an area. Each little event that takes place helps guide an area’s qualities and characteristics:
Living far from work means driving to work means roads. If you tend to let other drivers in, chances are others in your area will, and that will be the dominant driving culture of the area. If public transit commuters tend to keep to themselves, and you follow along and keep to yourself, you are strengthening that characteristic of the area’s culture.
Patterns that are alive
There are patterns that are alive, as well as destructive patterns. The alive patterns have the quality without a name, or allow you to achieve this quality. What the hell is that? As Alexander writes:
One man is free at that one instant when you see in him a certain smile and you know he is himself, and perfectly at home within himself. Imagine him especially, perhaps, wearing a great wide hat, his arm flung out in an expansive gesture, singing perhaps and for one instant utterly oblivious to everything but what is in him and around him at that second.
When I read this, I think this scene from Babe when Farmer Hoggett sings to his pig with unrestrained feeling. That’s the quality without a name. I’ve felt it before riding a bike downhill. Or gathered in a room with your family talking and laughing after dinner with snow outside and a fire inside.
On the other hand, there are destructive patterns that cause tension in life. Usually you can solve tensions in life, but patterns which reoccur with tension cannot be solved away and perpetually raise the level of stress. One example:
A young boy wants to be close to his family, and to understand the workings of the world and to explore them. But, in a town where work and family are separated, he, too, is forced to make impossible choices. He has to choose to be either loving to his family, or to be a truant who can experience the world. There is no way he can reconcile his two opposing needs; and he is likely to end up either as a juvenile delinquent, who has torn himself entirely from his family’s love, or as a child who clings too tightly to his mother’s skirts.
Of course, there are shades of gray between those two extremes. And Skype allows virtual clinging to skirts while halfway across the world. But these destructive patterns create unresolvable tension. Whereas alive patterns sustain themselves, destructive patterns are not self-sustaining. Tying it into Alexander’s field of architecture, a courtyard that is enjoyable to be in will be taken care of, while an uninviting courtyard will be left to fend for itself. In an alive courtyard, people will come and enjoy it, plant flowers, clean up trash, and become self-sustaining. A closed-off courtyard will grow weeds and have crumbling paths, and will not survive in the long run.
You have an innate sense
You can feel what patterns are alive and which are dead inherently. There are places in which you feel comfortable and alive, and places that make you feel uncomfortable and tense. You might think that these feelings would vary person by person. Perhaps someone who grew up in a city would be more comfortable in a city. But, Alexander states that these feelings of whether a place is comfortable or not is universal. Only when you ask for opinions do people disagree. Feelings for a positive place are 95% universal. Opinions are relative.
Patterns in buildings
With this, there are set patterns in architecture that are alive. Patterns that sound fractal-like. Modular buildings with strictly repeated patterns are not alive. But, buildings built with respect to the natural surroundings and activities are. These buildings have patterns, but patterns with slight variations. And, they are built with respect to a building’s use – because a building itself is a sum of the experiences which take place within it. A building should be built with the purpose in mind, to accomodate the activities that will take place there, and make it what that building is. The users of the building should design it. Actions and the areas in which they occur are tied together, and areas affect actions just as actions affect areas. An uncomfortable building leads to unnecessary stress, just as an uncomfortable event.
One such alive architectural pattern is the ENTRANCE TRANSITION (link to freaky website). There are good entrances to a space that allows for a transition from public to private spheres, and certain ways to achieve such a transition like different lighting, textures, views, or elevation. Such a transition takes away from the sudden, perhaps stress-inducing jolt from indoors to out.
A common pattern language
There are hundreds of these patterns, and they build on each other, organically. Like LIGHT ON TWO SIDES OF EVERY ROOM, or SOUTH FACING OUTDOORS, or ALCOVES. These are what make up the pattern language. Like other languages, you will have a different concept of what ENTRANCE TRANSITION means to you even though you can help define it through pictures and text: “A living langauge must constantly be re-created in each person’s mind.” But, the difference in concepts will overlap enough for everyone to understand what is meant by it. Ready for a little mind blowing?
Even the ordinary language in a person’s mind (English, French, whatever) is created by him – it is not learned.
When a baby “learns” language from his parents, or from the people around him, he does not learn the rules which they have in their languages – because he cannot see or hear the rules. He only hears the sentences which they produce. What he does then, is to invent systems of rules, for himself, rules which are entirely invented, for the first time, by him. He keeps changing these rules, until with them, he can produce a language similar to the language he hears. And at that stage, we say that he has “learned” the language.
Of course, his rules are similar to his parents’ rules, because they have to generate approximately the same kinds of sentences. But in fact, the language he has “learned” is a system of rules, entirely created by him, in his own min. And as he modifies his language, and improves it, deepens it, throughout his life – he does it, always, by creating, and improving rules, which he invents.
A baby learns its own concept of English, perhaps slightly altered from its parents. This slightly alters English itself. Just as an activity you do in a town slightly alters that town’s fabric.
Designing a building that lives
To plan a building, you let the building’s site, activities, and purpose choose the patterns required, and mold these patterns together in your mind, not on paper, as you would with forming a sentence in English. And a complete building is only made up from a handful of these patterns. It isn’t those who studied for years as engineers or architects who should be planning and designing buildings, but those who will be using them, and they should plan it with the common pattern language.
Versus modern building design
Buildings built in this way are timeless, whereas modern buildings are not. A prefabricated window can be easily lifted directly out of a wall with no damage to the wall or the feeling from the area around the window. A window built in to the wall with columns outside and a seat built under the window with the sill as the seat back cannot be easily lifted out. It is deeply integrated into the whole, and overlaps with each element.
Follow your natural instincts
In the end, Alexander says the pattern language is a crutch to begin building egoless, innocent buildings, as these are the buildings that are truly alive. Buildings made to convey some image cannot have the quality without a name because they are too calculated, even if they are calculated to have the quality.The pattern language is meant to free your mind from any preconceived images and start with a void, and do what is natural. He closes it:
Almost everybody feels at peace with nature: listening to the ocean waves against the shore, by a still lake, in a field of grass, on a windblown heath. One day, when we have learned the timeless way again, we shall feel the same about our towns, and we shall feel as much at peace in them, as we do today walking by the ocean, or stretched out in the long grass of a meadow.
One personal case study
Sure, the trees are bigger, but the roof has been sheared off leaving the building headless with no vertical end. The airy interior of the open, presumably hallways have been enclosed, destroying the balcony spaces on the second and third floors, and the windows have lost all character. But, this is still one of the more attractive buildings, because it has retained a sliver of its previous beauty.