Welcome back to #ModernistMondays! At TTC, we are constantly inspired by modernist architects and artists from past and present. To showcase some of our favorites, we launched #ModernistMondays, where we highlight one modernist each month to explore with quick, interesting facts. This month’s entry is a bit different - we often turn to our design library for inspiration, and “A Pattern Language,” an architecture book by Modernists Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein is one of our favorites. The influential book asserts that all construction, building, and community problems are part of a system of patterns. Alexander passed away in 2022 at his home in the United Kingdom so we thought this entry would be timely. His ideas and practices around environment, design, philosophy and science live on in his twenty one published books and built works in Asia, North America, and Europe.
(banner photo from Medium.com)
In the 1970s, three colleagues and five students at Berkeley’s Center for Environmental Structure, led by architect and professor Christopher Alexander, were inspired by the idea that many of the world’s “wonderful places” were made by untrained “lay” people, rather than architects. Alexander and his team began working on a collection of patterns they saw often repeated in society, often referencing human behavior and its relationship to the built environment. “A Pattern Language” was the result - a book of over 1000 pages and 253 patterns, published in
"A Pattern Language" (photo from GSD.harvard.edu)
Described as a “fundamental view of the world” by Christopher Alexander himself, “A Pattern Language” is a broad view of the built world divided into interlinked patterns. These patterns are organized by “Towns,” “Buildings,” and “Construction,” and average a few pages each. Every pattern is, essentially, a piece of advice for common design needs in society, from residential window placement to commercial entryway design.
The patterns and solutions in the book are hypotheses that can be combined to form design guides. For example, the five patterns entitled “Private Terrace,” “Sunny Place,” “Outdoor Room,” “Columns at the Corners” and “Raised Flowers” can be combined to loosely instruct someone to design their porch.
In this month’s entry, we are sharing five of the beloved book’s useful takeaways.
DEBUNKING GOOD DESIGN.
A large part of “A Pattern Language"'s message is that designers are not the only ones capable of making design decisions. Alexander and his colleagues were believers in trusting our natural design tendencies and allowing human needs to determine our choices. The book suggests that design professionals often make homeowners feel as if they cannot change anything themselves “because they are not party to the mysteries of Good Design.” Good Design, a reference to the trends and techniques the industry is favoring at the time, is not always applicable to every space, and can discourage everyday people from making design decisions on their own.
SOMETHING IN COMMON.
“A Pattern Language” criticizes suburban design for its lack of common spaces for children to interact.
This can be traced back to the human nature of parents who, “afraid of traffic or of their neighbors, keep their small children indoors or in their own gardens.” A lack of common spaces leads to isolation for people of all ages, but for children, social development is especially important. Alexander suggests that when spaces that naturally isolate people from one another are built, consideration should be given to new spaces that encourage socialization. New structural growth, a suburban development, for example, should be paired with a new nearby playground in order to foster interpersonal growth.
Outdoor social time can be incorporated into private residences as well. While designing this California home, we created an outdoor space to facilitate gatherings with friends and neighbors. (photo and design by The Turett Collaborative)
ALONE TIME IS DESIGNED.
While the book suggests plenty of common spaces, it also advises that homes should account for individual space. For teenagers and children especially, where a sense of identity is being developed, having access to a personal space allows for better interpersonal growth in communal spaces of the home. Ideally, Alexander suggests a “cottage,” optionally attached to the main home, where the teen can access the common areas but maintain their own privacy. (Some of his ideas are harder to picture in settings where space is at a high premium, both in crowded cities and where housing in general is scarce.) For people of all ages, it can be difficult to strike a balance between support and autonomy at home, but individual spaces can make a big difference.
For children and teens, a space that reflects their interests and gives them autonomy is key. (photo and design by The Turett Collaborative)
CAFES ARE MORE THAN JUST CAFFEINE.
“A Pattern Language” digs into the real reason city societies love cafes. They are, according to Alexander, a place where city dwellers can “watch the world go by.” A cafe is best located on a highly-trafficked block, where people can come in from a busy path to be lazy for a moment, observe their community, and escape from the action of the street. The optimal city cafe has open doors and tables that extend from the cafe into the street.
NewsBar, 1990’s a Flatiron cafe designed by TTC, was a bustling community gathering place. (photo and design by The Turett Collaborative)
THE CASE AGAINST STAIRS.
If a door is thought of us as a social control, funneling who comes in or out of the space, internal stairs can be considered damaging to the natural flow of the building. Internal staircases are thought to limit occupants’ direct access to the street. What is preferable to many internal staircases, “A Pattern Language” suggests, are many external staircases leading to private entrances in a building. While Alexander is aware that this design ideology is not often shared in Western design (most residential and commercial buildings operate with internal staircases), buildings with various internal staircases can feel “authoritarian and over-centralized.”
A Tribeca single-family home features outdoor staircases to allow for multiple entrances and exits from the 6-story home. (photo and design by The Turett Collaborative)
Often credited with the founding of pattern language, and in response to those who are doubtful, Christopher Alexander said that
“People should design for themselves their own houses, streets, and communities. This idea may be radical…but it comes simply from the observation that most of the wonderful places of the world were not made by architects but by the people.
The patterns discussed in this entry, as well as all 253 patterns featured in the book, are available at PATTERNLANGAUGE.COM/LABYRINTH
A portrait of Alexander. (photo from Arquitecturaviva.com)
“About Chris,” PatternLanguage.com; “A Pattern Language,” Wikipedia; “A Pattern Language: A user’s guide to the seminal architectural handbook,” Harvard.edu; “Christopher Alexander,,” NDion.de; “Christopher Alexander, 1936-2022,” ArquitecturaViva.com; “A Pattern Language,” Blas.com; “This Is the Most Calming Book I’ve Ever Read,” The Cut
GSD.harvard.edu, Arquitecturaviva.com, The Turett Collaborative