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Thank you, Christopher Alexander 🌞
On his legacy of pattern languages and beyond
Christopher Alexander passed away on March 17, 2022.
I’ve been interested in his work ever since it was introduced to me while studying Urban Design in the Netherlands back in 2004. Everyone pointed towards this book called A Pattern Language.
For years I dreamt about one day having the time to read it. And apparently I wasn’t the only one. It was always unavailable on long holds at the library, and unusually expensive to buy (I thought) for a book I didn’t know I wanted to keep.
I eventually took the plunge and bought it anyways - 10 years later.
While I did start reading A Pattern Language last year, I am far from done. I may never be done. Reading this epic tome feels like reading a dictionary: it is a long, unfiltered text which follows no overarching story other than systematically going through each entry, from A to Z.
There’s something I must admit to you, dear reader: it is the larger idea that has inspired me the most - not the actual individual entries as presented in the book.
I stumbled across this video of him describing how the project for A Pattern Language came about (credit: this thread on twitter):
This was totally eye opening to me. As an architecture student, he did not take what was taught at face value. He asked some very basic questions about how architecture adapts in the environment which led him to question everything about the profession. So much so that he declined a big job because he felt that he’d mess it up.
He felt that he wasn’t equipped with the right knowledge to do this job well.
The book A Pattern Language was born out of this painful gap he felt existed, and he worked on it for 10-15 years before it was done. Over a decade of work to scratch a deep, existential-level itch!
On top of this, it was never his intention to hand over this book to designers so they could now design better. This book was meant to go in the hands of the community. The people who actually would be living in this place, which would either enable or stifle the concept of “life” in the environment.
In another recording, he is asked about how to start work using his pattern languages, and he goes:
Well that goes right to the heart of the issue actually, because in order to make a diagnosis like that what you're looking for is the presence or absence of life… You can't do the diagnosis without being willing to make that judgment. And I say well there we go, we're plunging right into the whole thing because of course the question is can one make such a judgment? is it reasonably objective? is there really such a thing? and technocrats will not admit that there is any such thing so if you have a technocratically-organized bureaucracy they either will refuse to perform that or will perform it quite wrong ... by assigning arbitrary technical criteria of various sorts. (link to video)
This methodology is not for the designer filled with aspirations about saving the day with their de-contextualized design methods. This is not the desk architect. This is not the planner with the zoning map. This is the individual who is willing to go out into the field and feel what a place needs in order to have more life. It requires the designer to shrink their ego and be a whole person coming in to it - unburdened by personal desires of fame, prestige, and temptations to add their little spin on things.
Whew. This is a lot of work!
And frankly, when I got into Urban Design and Urban Planning, this is the sort of work I thought we were going to learn about. I thought we were going to learn how to build communities together.
Instead, we were taught something very, very different. It was something I knew was not right. It didn’t feel right.
Najla Alariefy (@najlaalariefy) explained this well in her thread on Alexander’s work relating to the fundamental differences between emergent and planned communities:
When you look at the end results, it’s so easy to spot which ones were planned, and which ones were emergent. The planned communities can literally have just one person designing all of it. On the other hand, emergence requires some kind of invisible coordination among all agents (residents) who are actively building in the community.
Planners and designers simply cannot plan or design their way to emergence.
Yet, it is the emergent places that we know we desire the most. We travel to see these places. We all have the capacity of spotting it.
The de-emphasis on the designer is possibly also why Christopher Alexander’s ideas were not broadly adopted by the construction industry, as Kasey Klimes (@kaseyklimes) explains in his primer on Alexander’s work:
The limited uptake of his ideas is predictable, but quite unfortunate.
Alexander’s desired approach of putting design power in the hands of the people may have been viewed almost wholesale incompatible with the industrial complex responsible for delivering new urban fabric (architects, planners, engineers, construction).
Yet, I believe he was the closest to crystallizing the knowledge on how to create the best conditions for strong, vibrant, comfortable and whole communities.
I’m determined to continue studying his work, in the hopes of understanding how I can implement the best of his insights in my own work, and at scale.
In fact, I think we will be studying his brilliant work for a long long time. There’s still so much to unpack.
RIP Christopher Alexander