Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 7#1 Bert Mulder 1 Jan 1992


Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language, Oxford University Press 1977

We build information systems: hundreds of people sitting in front of screens that glow and that, interconnected, create an environment supporting their works and desires.


Cover of "A Pattern Language" -

'Enabling technology': it makes them increasingly powerful, extending their ability to draw in, transform and materialise information in many forms. We deal with hardware, software, networks national and international, and data in the form of numbers, text, graphics, audio and video. In this constantly changing, moving and self-transforming world of millions of guilders investment, where hundreds of machines large and small and hundreds of units of software large and small determine what we do, we hardly know what tomorrow will bring. We're computer people, but do we build information systems or do they ‘happen to us’?

Computer power doubles every 12 to 18 months: fast changing technology forces attention to be paid to tools. Applying these brings us among increasingly complex systems that affect our life more and more intimately. Tools grow from simple to complex, information systems turning into information environments: man and information system living in symbiosis, the systems determining us as much as we determine them. How do we build these new forms of co-existent living?

Design precedes building. To build new information environments, we need to look for new methods of design. Methods with which man may clothe himself in technology without leaving his humanity behind. In our methodological search we turn to architects, as theirs is the oldest field of designing environments for human activity. Information environments may well be described in spatial metaphors: they deal with the proximity of information in time, space and concept. Maybe we can adopt these metaphors to look at the familiar and learn.

There are two reasons why looking at architecture may be useful: architectural metaphors may inspire us to see new possibilities and architectural philosophy may show us different attitudes we can adhere to in the creation of environments.

Christopher Alexander is an architect who tries to create to a ‘human-oriented’ methodology in architecture. His book A Pattern Language describes a language for building and planning and is a companion to his, The Timeless Way of Building. The former one is the source book; the second one its practice and origin. In other volumes, such as The Oregon Experiment, The Linz Cafe and The Production of Houses Alexander describes actual implementations of the methodology. Just like the work of Christian Norberg-Schulz, Alexander tries to do justice to existential values in architecture:

''The core of these books is the idea that people should design for themselves their own houses, streets and communities. It comes simply from the observation that 'most of the wonderful places of the world were not made by architects but by the people.
Alexander presents in it a new theory of architecture, building and planning which has as its core that age-old process by which the people of a society have always pulled the order of their world from their own being''

The book is divided into three parts. The first part of the language defines a town or community, the second part gives shape to groups of buildings and individual buildings

(If you have followed the patterns given, you have a scheme of spaces, either marked on the ground, with stakes, or on a piece of paper, accurate to the nearest foot or so. You know the height or rooms, the rough size and position of windows or doors, and you know roughly how the roofs of the building, and the gardens are laid out.)

The last part of the language tells you how to build it, in detail. All in all the language contains 253 patterns.
The elements of this language are entities called patterns. Each pattern describes a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment and then describes the core of the solution to that problem in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over without ever doing the same thing twice.''
(...) the solution – the heart of the pattern – which describes the field of physical and social relationships which are required to solve the stated problem (…) is always stated in the form of an instruction – so that you know exactly what to do, to build the pattern.
Suppose we compare towns with the information environments of organisations, and buildings with the parts within it, such as databases and other applications. The first patterns, those that define a town or community''
'(…) can never be ‘ designed’ or ‘built’ in one fell swoop – but patient piecemeal growth, designed in such a way that every individual act is always helping to create or generate these larger global patterns, will, slowly and surely, over the years, make a community that has these global patterns in it.''
This is design for environments where detail is unpredictable and the system cannot be laid out in advance. Order is not explicit, but implicit, slowly coming forth from the parts of the system and their interactions.
If we want to create environments where every individual act supports the continuing evolution of an information system, how do we go about? The pattern language says there should be a healthy balance between the great and small in ‘the distribution of towns’ (# 2):
If the population of a region is weighted too far toward small villages, modern civilization can never emerge; but if the population is weighted too far toward big cities, the earth will go to ruin because the population isn’t where it needs to be, to take care of it.

Encourage a birth and death process for towns within the region (…)''

Crucial in this is ‘to take care of it’: an active attitude of responsibility. How do you create a population that cares? The ‘network of learning’ (#18) states:
'In a society which emphasizes teaching, children and students – and adults – become passive and unable to think or act for themselves. Creative, active individuals can only grow up in a society which emphasizes learning instead of teaching.
'(…) work in piecemeal ways to decentralize the process of learning and enrich through contact with many places and people all over the city: workshops, teachers at home or walking through the city, professionals willing to take on the young as helpers, older children teaching younger children, museums (…)
This quote describes the structure of help support systems in information environments where people care. Even if you can’t connect these patterns to direct practical implications, they still serve as a strong example of a memo pool that takes human existence as a starting point, and does not destroy it.

Direct applicability of this work is only one part. The other is the method, the turning, again and again, to basic questions. The architects of new information systems are at the same crossroads, having to rethink their basic premises, as Alexander does for building and architecture. Research into the application of computer based tools to support the work of groups of people introduces ‘existential meaning’ into our design.

In future client-server environments, where data will exist close to its source, and consistency lies in the hands of communication with distributed data dictionaries, information environments will follow pattern 87, ‘individually owned shops’:

''When shops are too large, or controlled by absentee owners, they become plastic, bland, and abstract.
Do what you can to encourage the development of individually owned shops. Approve applications for business licenses only if the business is owned by those people who actually work and manage the store. Approve new commercial building permits only if the proposed structure includes many very very small rental spaces.''

The development of Alexander’s work shows interesting parallels with information science. In his first works in 1964 he uses a much stricter method to do justice to the complex requirements of the domain:
We face the following specific, purely mathematical problem. Given a system of binary stochastic variables, some of them pairwise dependent, which satisfy certain conditions, how should this system be decomposed into a set of subsystems, so that the information transfer between the subsystems is a minimum?

In the appendix the design for an Indian village serves as the application of the mathematical approach to the problem. It seems an elegant method that tries to do justice to humane values while structuring the process of design. This approach, that uses mathematics to chart the manifold desires of the inhabitants of the village, attracts much attention. But seven years later, in 1971, he writes in ''Notes on Form:
Indeed, since the book was published, a whole academic field has grown up around the idea of ‘design methods’ – and I have been hailed as one of the leading exponents of these so-called design methods. I am very sorry that this has happened, and want to state, publicly, that I reject the whole idea of design methods as a subject of study, since I think it is absurd to separate the study of designing from the practice of design. In fact, people who study design methods without also practicing design are almost all frustrated designers who have no sap in them, who have lost, or never had, the urge to shape things. Such a person will never be able to say anything sensible about ‘how’ to shape things either.
Seven years after the Notes on Form (in 1977) he publishes A Pattern Language and in 1979 The Timeless Way of Building. Both are used in real life: The production of Houses (1985) describes the Mexicali project in 1976 with people in northern Mexico. It’s only one of the examples.

Alexander tries to do justice to the existential meaning of built structures around us. In that he is not alone. Christian Norberg-Schulz mentions the same problem in his ''Genius Loci:

'(…) a certain change in method has become manifest. In Intentions in Architecture art and architecture were analyzed ‘scientifically’, that is, by means of methods taken over from natural science. I do not think that this approach is wrong, but today I find other methods more illuminating. When we treat architecture analytically, we miss the concrete environmental character, that is, the very quality which is the object of man’s identification, and which may give him a sense of existential foothold. To overcome this lack, I introduced in Existence, Space and Architecture the concept of ‘existential space’. ‘Existential space’ is not a logico-mathematical term, but comprises the basic relationships between man and his environment. (…) The concept of existential space is here divided in the complementary terms ‘space’ and ‘character’, in accordance with the basic psychic functions ‘orientation’ and ‘identification’.
There are several reasons why this material is important for the designers of information environments. It seeks to introduce the existential into methodology and design, accepting man as a central, creative and originating ‘locus of design’. In information science this development is seen already and will become more apparent in the next couple of years, when technology will maintain its own consistency and allow us more freedom.

The material is a strong example of the relationship between philosophy, its ensuing method of design and the results of its application. Its idiosyncratic character makes us ‘stand apart’ and creates an awareness of our own assumptions refining our perception and making us wonder.

I think this material is required reading for people involved in the design of environments of any kind. It would certainly serve to infuse the ossified methodologies of information science with new life. The books are expensive, but I use them again and again as sources of ideas and reference material.

Alexander creates life by using the force of creation as the source for design. This is his first statement in ''The Timeless Way:

A building or a town will only be alive to the extent that it is governed by the timeless way.
It is a process which brings order out of nothing but ourselves; it cannot be attained, but it will happen of its own accord, if we will only let it. To seek the timeless way we must first know the quality without a name.
There is a central quality which is the root criterion of life and spirit in a man, a town, a building, or a wilderness. This quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named.''