Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Understanding the Pattern Language of Design

Last month we reported about the architect Christopher Alexander receiving the Vincent Scully Prize from the National Building Museum "to recognize exemplary practice, scholarship or criticism in architecture, historic preservation and urban design."

Just in case you didn't check him out, it is important to understand what Alexander has done for architecture and urban planning. His classic book, A Pattern Language, (1977) undertakes Alexander's ambitious goal to catalog the entire built environment—from cities to closets—as a collection of 253 discrete "patterns."

In the book, each pattern was explained, supported by research, and illustrated by sketches and photographs. The patterns were linked to others that work well together from large to small. A pattern called "Neighborhood Boundaries," for example, says that strong neighborhoods require clear edges and restricted access. Entryways range from formal steps leading to the U.S. Capitol to the sidewalk, front steps, portico and door of your house. Another example is "Ceiling Height Variety" that recommends varying ceiling heights between large and small rooms to create different degrees of intimacy.

A Pattern Language became popular among people (nonarchitects) building their own homes and architects alike. The pattern language calls for architectural features such as sheltering roofs and small window panes that goes against Modernist design preferences for flat roofs and large sheets of glass. There is indeed an anti-Modernist bias in the book made even clearer in Alexander's next book, The Timeless Way of Building (1979), which was an attack on modern construction techniques and on contemporary architecture.

All of Alexander's ideas, some controversial, are worth knowing about and can provide principles for much of design education.

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