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Hi Graham! What are your thoughts on the overall theory given by Christopher Alexander and Nikos Salingaros? How well does it sit with the Hannes Meyer’s Approach and the overall approach that you have been advocating for in architecture? I have some idea about Leon Krier and his work with Prince Charles in Britain and its overall acceptance and performance with the public. I have also seen the new urbanism and Classical architecture stances (Blogger of ‘Architecture here and there’ actually follows you and endorses misfit architecture) and I am not really interested in ornamentation, it is political at times and may increase conservative outlooks, not that its bad or good, but something as big as architecture shouldn’t be polarised to such extents plus rationally speaking ornamentation only adds to cost of overall scheme, of course, it is altogether different point if it actually enhances the experiences and brings in more people then it is increasing the performance metrics of the space. But then classical is totally out of question, it is too polarising and wasteful. Something like Arts and crafts and Art deco found in New York and Mumbai, where the planning and structures are integrated as a whole with ornamentation and patterns is good.

I think I know who asked me this [and my apologies Mohamad if I didn’t reply directly at the time] but it was about three years ago when I was re-reading the first eleven pages of Alexander’s Notes on the Synthesis of Form, a book I was exposed to as an undergraduate. Alexander’s later book, A Pattern Language is the more influential and my take on it now is that if you use his pattern language to design a building then you’ll probably end up with a reasonable simulacrum of a comfortable and possibly pleasing building and, provided every other building is designed the same way, a consistent environment. This isn’t the same as it being the absolute beauty some claim it is. Subjectivists always have a hard time understanding how some people want to believe in an absolute anything.

Well before the 1970s when semiotics and linguistics were suddenly everywhere, there was had already been much framing of architecture in terms of language. There was no lack of books with titles such as The Language of Architecture. Most were naïve borrowings of the word language and claimed tangible qualities such as Massing and Solid and Void constituted a vocabulary, and that they were given meaning by a set of rules such as Rhythm and Balance and Proportion and Hierarchy that constituted a grammar or a syntax at least. As the 20th century wore on, the vocabulary was expanded to include qualities such as Space and Light. Lacking in all of these “languages” were the floors and walls and openings and other things that architects actually manipulate to create any of this vocabulary. The one thing I do like about A Pattern Language is that it’s about things architects actually manipulate. The one thing I still don’t get is how this new “vocabulary” can make original statements as would a proper language. If it can’t then what we have is more akin to a phrasebook than a language. This is not a put-down. Phrasebooks have their uses.

What prompted me to finally finish this draft was finally reading Rayner Banham’s 1990 essay “”Banham, R. (1990). “A Black-Box-The Secret Profession of Architecture” in which he writes “Looking back on the early days of his [Alexanxer’s] “pattern language,” he revealed one of its apparent failures to his biographer, Stephen Grabow:

“Bootleg copes of the pattern language were floating up and down the west coast, and people would come and show me the projects they had done, and I began to be more and more amazed that, although it worked, all these projects looked like any other buildings of our time … still belonged perfectly within the canons of mid-century architecture.”

This seems to suggest that A Pattern Language is no recipe for delight. Banham goes on to say that whatever it was that Alexander’s patterns created, it wasn’t architecture but a set of patterns, each of which had, or contained, a certain moral imperative to persons attuned to that code. Here, Banham was provocatively making a distinction between those architects who believed in that code, and those that didn’t but, even before reading Banham’s essay, I’d thought Alexander’s pattern language was really just an updated pattern book that codifies design moves for particular circumstances in particular cultures. I never hear much said about its assumptions and limitations and this makes me feel it’s always been presented as something much greater than the approximation it is. I expect it found favour because it promotes (and continues to be used to promote) the notion that the language of aesthetics is universal as long as it’s occidental.

And then in the early 1990s we had design coding. This was a different kit of parts popularized by people such as Leon Krier and Andrés Duany but it did much the same thing but for cities, even though everyone was now calling it urbanism. Calling it by the umbrella term of New Urbanism made it look like a proper noun. One of its patterns was to make sure there was something of “interest” (such as a small church with a steeple) indicated as a red dot at every T-Junction. The history of patterning still has to be written. When it is, we will have to be careful what we call it. The term Pattern Language haas come to be generally accepted and understood.

Books of houseplans and designs were once known as pattern books and were a reasonable way of making sure the purchasers of houses were delivered what they ordered. Even the two middle images below show the same plan with and without an attic storey. I remember growing up in Australia and looking at the property pages in the Sunday newspaper, the same plan could be chosen with either “Contemporary”, “Colonial” or “Conventional” elevations. Now, as then, suburban housebuilders have their various offerings.

About 20 years ago there was much criticism from the direction of Rem Koolhaas on the copy-paste nature of much building design in China, particularly in the boomtown of Shenzen circa the year 2000. As befitting a man with a global practice and a business plan, the implication was that patterns and copying and pasting were bad, and that bespoke everything was preferable. This is not a recipe for incremental improvement and learning how to make something better. What is denigrated as “copy and paste” is really only the use of patterns and models for construction expedience and the resultant economic gain. These are not bad things if their benefits are mutually shared. There are many types of patterns and not all of them are implemented for the user satisfaction and the quality environment of Alexander’s claims.

But even supposedly bespoke houses follow a set of norms even if they’re less explicit. In Western countries, the living room will normally have the best view but, if one adopts the principles of Vedic design, it will always be the room facing the auspicious direction. [I forget which one it is.] Although less codified, the principles of Feng Shui can be used to derive a domestic layout that would be different again but equally satisfying to people following that set of beliefs and cultural norms. When applied to architectural design, both Vedic and Feng Shui can be thought as codified vernacular intelligence regarding things like not having the toilet upwind, or having the entrance facing a body of water if possible (as cooling breezes are likely to come from that direction), and so on.

In the end, we all fall back on patterns of some kind, whether it’s a set of rules, a certain set of ways for doing things, or some typology that is known to work. All of these patterns have developed over time and, given more time, will continue to adapt as circumstances change. I’ve just finished reading Alan Colquhoun’s 1969 essay Typology and Design Method. He mentions early twentieth century technological objects such as steamships and locomotives.

Even though these objects were made ostensibly with utilitarian purposes in mind, they quickly became gestalt entities, which were difficult to disassemble in the mind’s eye into their component parts. The same is true of later technical devices such as cars and aeroplanes.

The fact that these objects have been imbued with aesthetic unity and have become carriers of so much meaning indicates that a process of selection and isolation has taken place which is quite redundant from the point of view of their particular functions. We must therefore look upon the aesthetic and iconic qualities of artifacts as being due, not so much to an inherent property, but to a sort of availability or redundancy in them in relation to human feeling.

This means that any perceivable aesthetic quality is a value-adding add-on to someone. It seems like a reasonable description of how architecture works. This relegates architecture to the realm of designer sunglasses. [This is not a common viewpoint. I wonder how Colquhoun’s career went after?] Fifty years on in the here and now, it’s unfortunately the built environment that’s being played with. I can’t let myself get too upset about this shit, although perhaps I should. Colquhoun goes on to say that patterns are helpful but they can only take us so far and that it’s possible to have multiple patterns satisfying the same parameters and, at the end of the day, one still has to make a decision. Perhaps, just perhaps, in 1969 he laid the basis for our wanting ways to automate this apparently burdensome process of making architectural decisions that Alexzander latched onto.

What appears on the surface as a hard, rational discipline of design, turns out rather paradoxically to be a mystical belief in the intuitional process.

Nothing’s changed. We’re still being offered new and exciting ways of creating patterns or typologies or what it’s now fashionable to call “states”. The “creative process” has stayed the same and is still about deciding which state to run with. Regardless of which generation of patterns is used, they all work to help us maintain our mystical belief in the intuitional process. Same old.

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  • says:

    I think you hit the nail right on the head with “codifies design moves for particular circumstances in particular cultures.” In ‘Notes’, Alexander was working through the math side of what would later get picked up by computer folks as what they saw as vital in the ‘Pattern Language’ (it wasn’t the architecture).
    But between those two books was the sublime “Community and Privacy” in which he and Serge Chermayeff apply the analytical ideas at architectural scale. Tellingly, they work great for *analysis* but, as with Ian McHarg, all the overall patterns in the world won’t get you a design scheme.
    My sense is that Alexander realized the limits of the maths path and shifted to the underlying patterns as the base units. That’s what the coders picked up on and called ‘object oriented programming.’ Each pattern is an object-device that does a specific bit of work, and their assemblages make for complex outcomes.
    If we set aside the Modern desire for novelty and the client-seeking you so adeptly mention, then we’re at the New Urbanists, who missed the function for the form in their shape grammars. To be fair, the first ones – Duany/Playter-Zyberk – were indeed looking at the climate-driven vernacular of the the American Southeast for their Seaside and Celebration projects, but once the style picked up steam and wound up in the rainy Pacific Northwest or Mediterranean LA, it was all about looks and NIMBYs.
    Shape grammars weren’t Alexander’s cup of tea, but the adoption of a system of parts that do work is instructive. Alexander’s patterns were just that: intended to be all function and no(t yet) form.
    In this sense, the patterns are simply devices that do work yet derived from a specific culture. Other cultures would have other patterns, though here we’re about to stumble over the ‘universal human truths’ discussion and we’ll swerve to avoid that trap…
    If much of conventional architectural practice is necessarily applying *parts* that do work – details, pattern books, etc – but which are then *fit* into a specific site. Suburbia and greenfield sites excepted, of course. But this is a weak form of designing – fitting rather than inventing – and that, I’d think, is what underlies Koolhaas’s gripes. Yet it is precisely the bread-and-butter of most workaday practices in an environment which favors speed, efficiency, and budget over bespoke artwork artifacts…
    As an old saw once said, “You can’t make a Cadillac out of a Buick” – Koolhaas’s aim was to upsell Cadillacs!