A Pattern Language
Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein, with Max Jacobson, Ingrid Fiksdahl-King, and Shlomo Angel, 1977

A Pattern Language presents 253 "patterns," or tips for ordering the built environment. And by "the built environment" I mean the entire built environment: the first pattern is about how the globe should be divided up into countries (the authors suggest that 1000 countries is just about right) and from there the book gets smaller and smaller in scale until it's talking about where to place beds within bedrooms. So far I have read the first section, "Towns," which shockingly enough is about city planning. (Though I do plan to continue, after 94 patterns and 460 pages, I'm taking a break.)

(By the way, what is with the number 253?)

While I read this primarily because I'm very interested in city planning, my understanding is that many people who aren't especially interested in the built environment have become big fans of this book because of its structure. The structure is indeed very interesting! It immediately reminded me of a couple of things. One is go strategy. Consider the following situation:

Black to play. Now, there is a rule of thumb in go that says that a two-space extension along the third line is proper. This would suggest that Black should play at the circled point. But there is another rule of thumb that says to play away from thickness! Playing at the circled point would essentially be a matter of pitching a stone right at the white wall. Figuring out how to determine which of two opposing rules takes precedence, or how to compromise between them, is a huge part of go strategy.

The analogy to go strategy, incidentally, was how I came to understand why these tips are called "patterns." In go, the terminology is obvious: you actually see the same arrangements of stones over and over, and you start to recognize those patterns and react accordingly. "Okay, so when I see three-fourths of a bamboo joint, I should usually play the fourth point myself." "Aha, that arrangement of stones calls for a shoulder hit right here!" And so forth.

The other thing A Pattern Language immediately reminded me of was standardized test tutoring. Again, there are an awful lot of rules to convey, and the trick for the student is to learn not just the rules themselves but also which ones to apply to a given problem and how to resolve apparent conflicts between them. For instance, when trying the answer choices in a math problem, it's a good idea to start with the middle value, since you can narrow things down — but it's also a good idea to start with the easiest value to work with, since you can test it faster.

Needless to say, it was a revelation to see an approach to one of my favorite subjects, city planning, take shape in a manner that resonated with my occupation and one of my hobbies. It's easy to see why the format has been so influential. Structure is so important in non-fiction — the whole point of which, I would argue, is to organize information and thereby aid the reader in understanding it. I've mentioned this before: rambling books such as 1491 and Salt may be full of interesting data, but without a framework for it, not much tends to stick, at least for me.

And it occurred to me that the very fact that this idea — "non-fiction must have a clear structure" — has appeared in several of my earlier Calendar articles makes it a "pattern" like those in this book. Then I realized that, in fact, there must be many such patterns in the evaluative "language" I have unconsciously developed over the past seven-plus years. So I trawled through my archives looking for places where I had the same reaction to different works. And then I wrote them up. (Aside from the 28 on that page, there were others that came up only once but which I recognized as reactions I'd had to books I'd read or movies I'd seen before I started doing these writeups. So the pattern page may grow over time.)

But the actual subject of this fricking book — or the "Towns" section, rather, since that's what I've read — deserves a few words. What I like most about the authors' approach to city planning is their recognition that we often want opposite things at the same time. For instance, I would like to be able to walk out my door and have all my favorite shops right there within a block or two. And I want to live surrounded by nature with no one else around for miles. I recognize that these goals are not easily reconciliable. But thank you, authors, for not insisting that I therefore simply drop one of them!

I grew up in a place where, to get to the nearest building that wasn't a house, you had to walk a long, long way — if "walk" is even the word, since the steep hills meant that "climb" was more appropriate. And even if you had a car, where would you go? Unless you left town, you were limited to shopping centers with slightly different combinations of chain stores. And in the US, at least, this is more the rule than the exception.

In 2001 I moved to New York City. There I could walk to a subway station, board a train, and go visit some of the world's greatest museums, or have a meal so good that I would remember it years later, or see a show or a movie that wasn't playing anywhere else on earth. Endless opportunities for fun and personal enrichment were just a Metrocard swipe away.

But given the choice, I'd take the first one. As this site documented at the time, it felt like the city of New York was actively trying to kill me. Being stuck in the middle of all those people, all those buildings, all that everything crammed into such a tight space... I can't believe I lasted a year there. I often hear people talk about how to deal with the problem of the suburbs — the problem being that they're ecologically unsustainable and that they're intrinsically soul-destroying — and often their solution is to just gather everyone up into a bunch of New Yorks. To me that's a cure every bit as bad as the disease.

So I was thrilled to see that the main thesis of the "Towns" section of A Pattern Language is that the goal of city planning is to conjure up the magic of the city, to concentrate the population enough to bring about the cultural opportunities that only arise in cities, without the madness of the city that tends to accompany it. Though they recognize that for a society to function people must live communally to a certain extent, they don't lose sight of the fact that people need their own space. Furthermore, they acknowledge that people are different and that they therefore must have the opportunity to position themselves at different points on the continuum between places in the middle of the action and places with peace and quiet.

So a lot of the "Towns" section of A Pattern Language is about different types of clustering. The idea is to stave off both total centralization, where everything ends up in one massive downtown, and total decentralization, in which the urban area is a sort of homogenous gruel with nowhere people really want to go. And the clusters are intended to be different, so you can find the one that speaks to you.

One aspect that the authors don't address as much as they probably should is economics. Perhaps this is because they were writing in the 1970s, before the economies of Reagan and Clinton and the Bushes cratered the middle class and left us with a vast gap between rich and poor — and consequently polarized neighborhoods into, on the one hand, increasingly interchangeable affluent enclaves, and on the other hand, slums. I read an article recently about the way Seattle neighborhoods have become less diverse: "Ballard was old Scandinavians. Fremont was hippies. Capitol Hill was gay. Kent was where whites of modest means moved to escape Seattle school busing. Bellevue was the same for the rich. Today, you can make a joke about Ballard but it's a bunch of wealthy people who work in the information industry. You make a joke about Wallingford and it's a bunch of wealthy people who work in the information industry. Fremont? That would be a bunch of wealthy people who work in the information industry." I suppose it beats the alternative of them all turning into dilapidated nightmares but it's still kind of depressing.

The closest thing I've found to an ideal city is Berkeley, with its combination of great eateries, attractions (the university being #1 for me), climate, and scale — while there's not as much great stuff as in New York, I actually feel comfortable while making use of Berkeley's great stuff and not constantly assaulted. The authors of A Pattern Language seem to agree! Berkeley is the example they turn to again and again to illustrate their principles. So why don't I live there? Mainly because the polarization of wealth and the increasing disappearance of middle-class neighborhoods that has resulted from it mean that the options around here boil down to too pricey, too scary, or too far. I went with door number three and took a place twenty miles away.

Also I'm not a huge fan of Berkeley's housing stock. But that's a discussion for after I read the "Buildings" section.

Return to the Calendar page!