A Pattern Language: A user’s guide to the seminal architectural handbook

“A complex of buildings with no center is like a man without a head.” This sentence conveys the ethos of A Pattern Language (1977), the instructional tome written by architect, design theorist and Harvard Graduate School of Design alumnus Christopher Alexander (PhD '63) along with five of his colleagues at the Center for Environmental Structure at the University of California, Berkeley. The bestselling architectural handbook is itself in many ways a man without a head: a sprawling guide to building and planning that has seen renewed relevance lately as a model for marrying physical spaces with ideological frameworks.

A Pattern Language lays out over 1,100 pages how our buildings—and by proxy our cities—are not entities at a remove from human beings, but rather their manufactured extensions. And as with any body (headless or otherwise), the whole structure is only as healthy as its individual parts. No facet of our cities and towns should be unwelcoming to their citizens, and no room in a house should feel neglected. A space should “feel right,” the authors argue, and that feeling is tied to the congruence between physical and social spaces.

Separated into three sections, Towns, Buildings, and Construction, the book contains 253 patterns defined as “problem[s] which occur over and over again in our environment.” Problems like how to orient the rooms in a home around naturally-occurring light and dark, so that the flow of movement “guides people toward the light whenever they are going important places: seats, entrances, stairs, passages, [and] places of special beauty.” Or the problem of the lack of intimacy between couples when children are present. “Their role as parents rather than as a couple permeates all aspects of their private relations.” The solution: the creation of a private “couple’s realm… a world in which the intimacy of the man and woman, their joys and sorrows, can be shared and lived through.”

For each of the archetypal facets of our homes and communities, the authors offer a solution for living well in the form of gentle-yet-pointed advice that can be adapted to individual circumstances. This in turn creates a diagnosis-and-solution rhythm that continues throughout the dense—if charming, and frequently idiosyncratic—book. Not every pattern will be useful or applicable to every individual home or community, the authors point out, but a good portion could potentially be—every home has a main door; every city has a system of roads—and how they build off of and influence each other will determine the unit’s health.

Every society which is alive and whole will have its own unique and distinct pattern language. Every individual in such a society will have a unique language, shared in part, but which as a totality is unique to the mind of the person who has it. In this sense, in a healthy society there will be as many pattern languages as there are people—even though these languages are shared and similar.

A Pattern Language

The authors are primarily concerned with the alienating effects of poor architecture and design, which leads them to recommend means by which life at work—as well as in the city and at home—involves contact with others. With entries such as 140. Private Terrace on the Street, the authors aim to facilitate happiness and tranquility by virtue of a delicate fusion of public and private areas. When combining this goal with an equally emphasized desire to put humans in constant proximity to nature, they demonstrate their focus on physical and mental wellbeing in the form of a balance between social interaction and Zen-like serenity. For this reason, Modernism and Classicism alike have no place in these pages, as their aesthetic and philosophical foundations, the authors imply, have little concern for their inhabitants’ health.

A Pattern Language, in large part due to its encyclopedic nature, stimulates introspection and healthy debate about what environments, both personal and professional, we currently inhabit and how they might be improved. One can cast aside the given prescriptions at will, but Alexander and his coauthors encourage readers to contemplate their reactions to nearly every aspect of the built environment.

A Pattern Language has been used as a reference in research and coursework at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Continue reading about Toni L. Griffin's 2019 course Patterned Justice: Design Languages for a Just Pittsburgh and the Rouse Visiting Artist Lecture by Fritz Haeg, Nils Norman, and Julieta González.

Photography by Maggie Janik