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The Timeless Way of Building

by Christopher Alexander

Last tended to January 17, 2021

A Timeless Way of Building is Christopher Alexander's introductory book on the idea of Pattern Languages. It was published after his classic A Pattern Language, but designed as an precursor to that volume.

Read as part of the Hyperlink Academy's course on Designing Neighbourhood Scale Software

Chapter 14 - Patterns Which Can Be Shared

Patterns used to culturally inherited and passed down within communities. We now "no longer even know the simplest patterns that were once implicit in" our habits. We now need to explicitly, precisely, and scientifically define patterns.

Each pattern has three parts: a context, a problem, and a solution

  • The context is a set of relationships.
  • The problem is a system of forces which occur repeatedly
  • The solution is a configuration that allows those forces to resolve themeselves.

The pattern is both a process and a thing – a thing which is alive, and a description of the process which creates that thing.

To identify a pattern, we have to make the inner structure of the pattern clear. When we see a system or pattern 'working' out in the world, we should ask:

  • What is happening?
  • Why is it helping to make the place feel alive?
  • When/Where will this pattern work?

Examples of architectural patterns:

  • Homes that balance public and private space make them more liveable. Giving family members space to be together, and semi-private spaces to spread out their individual homework, arts & crafts, and hobbies. Ways to work alone in communal rooms with alcoves.
  • Entrances to homes that create a space for transition – for people to mentally and physically prepare to enter a different kind of space to the busy, public street. Doorsteps, cloakrooms, welcome mats, and entranceways create transitional experiences.

We discover patterns through observation. We look for what is working in the world - things that make places alive. We then try to identify places that lack that pattern, or ones that do it poorly.

Once we properly understand the problem, it leads us to how we might solve to problem.

Discovering patterns is difficult, slow, complex work. We have to pay close attention over time.

Be specific in your pattern definitions. People often try describe patterns in loose, generic terms, when we really require a specific, well-defined description.

Don't just say "entranceways should signal a transition is hapening," try to be specific: "the door needs to be 20 feet away from the street, needs to have a change of surface in the transition walkway, needs to be visible from the street and and from windows inside the house, and should be distinct in character from both the street and the inside of the house."

We need to express simple patterns in precise terms. This is difficult because there are no perfectly fitting abstractions.

Patterns have certain properties. To create a new pattern, ask "What new entities do I want to put in the world, to create those properties?"

If you can't draw a diagram of it, it isn't a pattern. A pattern defines a field of spatial relationships, which means there is always a way to visualise it.

The 10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design are a good example of a pattern language outside of architecture.

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Maggie Appleton © 2021