“A Pattern Language” by Christopher Alexander

A Pattern Language

The World as It Should Be (Built)

At the beginning of the book, it reads “Do what you can to establish a world government, with a thousand independent regions, instead of countries”. That statement alone should alert the readers to the fact that this book is not just a do-it-yourself manual for home builders, although it is a very good manual too, as the reviews on amazon.com can attest.

This book is very ambitious and impressive in the breadth and depth of its coverage, touching on politics, economics, public services, health care, education, agriculture, environment, communities, transportation, work and  family relationships, child raising, eating, sleeping and (for lack of a better word) excretion. There is a pattern for “Birth Places”, and a pattern for “Grave Sites”, and just about everything in between.

Dr. Alexander condensed his philosophy, knowledge of anthropology, intuitions, experimental observations, many years of studies of traditional buildings and cultures into this book. It’s eminently practical, thought-provoking and inspiring. A pleasure  to read.

In a Nutshell

The world consists of entities with boundaries and centers. A region, culture, town, organization, building, street, house, family, person, these are all entities. The job of an architect is to build structures that allow these entities to “live” and develop in harmony. It often involves identifying the center within each entity, the relationships between the entities, and constructing the boundaries between the entities properly.

Throughout the book, one finds the recurring theme: how to strike the right balance between enclosure and openness, individuality and communality, decentralization and coordination,  structural integrity and dynamic flow, goal and process, order and freedom.

Apparently, Dr. Alexander is strongly in favor of decentralization. He argues that public services, universities, government agencies should all be decentralized, so that they are more accessible to the people and more robust in responding to their needs. Workplaces should be decentralized and more integrated into family and communal life, just like the way they were in traditional cultures, thus resolving the conflict between work and family.

He believes that cultures, regions or individuals can only exist and develop their own unique characters when provided their own space (physical realm)  with identifiable boundaries. And that it’s also crucial to establish and develop communications and connections. Many of the patterns are devoted to the establishment of distinct physical realms and providing abundant channels for communications and smooth transitions.

Random Musings on the Patterns

1. Hierarchy of Open Space

mirrored lake view lake view

What is Beauty

Compare the two photos above, I believe that most, if not all, people would feel the one on the left is more beautiful. Why? Because there is hierarchy of open space (structure and depth) in the photo on the left, whereas the photo on the right is flat. Despite my best efforts, I could not fully capture the beauty on camera. The sceneries in the photos don’t look as beautiful as they did when I was in the midst of them, and the feeling of serenity and connection is almost lost. It seems as though beauty is not a static quality that can be easily captured on paper but a dynamic entity that has to be experienced through interaction. Somehow we feel a deep connection between that structure in space and ourselves. That is Beauty. As the saying goes, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. Not because beauty is a subjective matter and therefore varies from person to person, but because we are very much connected to, and part of, the thing we perceive as beauty. Each person is unique, his orientation in and connection to the world are also unique, therefore, he finds beauty in things that are unique to him.


“We have written this book as a first step in the society-wide process by which people will gradually become conscious of their own pattern languages, and … embark on the construction and development of his own language”.

On a personal level, we may become conscious of the forces and patterns in our own lives, and resolve the conflicts in relations to ourselves, to others, and to our surroundings, that we may indeed be able to grow and become more complete. On a large social scale, it could lead to a gradual, grassroots, wide-spread, fundamental changes in the way we understand and live our lives, the way we perceive the universe and the way we evaluate the world we built (whether it’s congruent with the principles of the universe). This is no less than a scientific and social revolution!


“The compression of patterns into a single space, … is the most ordinary economy of space. … It is also the only way of using a pattern language to make buildings which are poems”.

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