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The best design book ever

by Steve McKee on December 11, 2005

There exists a book so potent in its design insights that I believe it will be used for decades, perhaps centuries, to come. Its name is “A Pattern Language” and it was written about thirty years ago by Christopher Alexander and a team of researchers.

It finds the underlying concept behind almost every aspect of what makes our built environment supportive of human life and then, in a series of numerous short chapters, describes these principles in a way that’s easy to understand and use in your own design. The result is a large number of “patterns,” nuggets of understanding into the way we live in our homes, offices and towns and how to enhance this living.

In chapters that average just three or four pages with names like “Intimacy gradient” and “Activity pockets” and “Tapestry of light and dark” our houses are examined in ways you probably never thought about. And even if you did, you never analyzed numerous building types the world over with a team of researchers and then turned the analysis into a recipe that’s this easy to follow.

For example, why do some courtyards live and support the emotional life of its users while others are static and dead? What is it about window seats we find so appealing and, understanding this, what then is the specific recipe for a successful window seat? How is family life best supported in the common areas of a house?

A favorite pattern of mine is number 112, the one called “Connection to the earth.” This pattern says: “Connect the building to the earth around it by building a series of paths and terraces and steps around the edge. Place them deliberately to make the boundary ambiguous – so that it is impossible to say exactly where the building stops and earth begins.” This is a good guiding principle to create a house with ground level terraces and house walls that extend to become garden walls which blur the distinction between where the house stops and the garden starts. I once had a client gasp at how good this idea sounded.

With this book we have a tool for infusing life-affirming qualities into all aspects of a house or office or city. It gets to an understanding of the life forces at work underneath things based on observing how humans have lived for many hundreds of years. In this regard, it’s a sort of western feng shui, if you’ll all excuse the misuse of that term.

The authors are quite insightful about the innermost feelings that make us human beings. They are as much social scientists as architects. That is actually the strength of their analysis. Various studies about human behavior are cited, though usually with just the pertinent conclusions mentioned in order to avoid weighing things down too much.

Despite the thickness of this book (1171 pages), it proves to be highly skimmable, thanks to the short chapters with their bold titles and introductory photos. Each chapter has a very telling name and then a statement highlighted in bold print at the beginning and end of each chapter that first explains the dilemma, and then describes a solution. You can just read the highlighted statements and get the essence of the information. For further detail you can read the page or two of supporting prose in between.

The book starts with large patterns concerning towns and eventually ends with finer patterns regarding construction detail. My favorites tend to be in the middle. There’s a whole series on gardens and yards too.

Patterns that are related to each other are cross referenced in a way that allows you to travel about the book easily. (These links are very similar to the “hyperlinks” that websites and good software have that allow you to take shortcuts to related info.)

There are numerous photos that are wonderful in supporting the text. They are smallish and black and white but contain the essence of what’s being discussed. The entire world is the source for these images. One picture may be from 60 years ago in some little courtyard in a village in Hungary; the next page may have a photo taken recently of a front porch in Mendocino. Hand drawn sketches or diagrams are also included to help illustrate aspects of the patterns.

Another favorite of mine is called “Entrance transition” which discusses the way that a well-designed approach to a house will allow people to switch from their “street behavior” to a more relaxed intimate spirit of the house. This is done through the use of an entrance path that does things like change direction, change level or light quality, or even provide a change of view to transition people into a sense that they are entering a different realm. Upon arrival at the front door, this porch location should feel like a private domain, quite different from the sidewalk out front. This helps explain the importance people instinctively place on the value of a front yard or garden, even if they rarely ever “use” these yards.

Usually people who are fans of this book tend to use some of the principles to guide their thinking on certain aspects of their house design, but continue to let the other more common impulses guide their wish list, such as images from home design magazines, or pictures from the real estate section of the Chronicle. That’s just fine.

I’m mentioning this book here, not because I expect everybody who is getting ready to build or remodel a house to go out and get it. In fact, I expect very few to dole out the fifty or sixty plus dollars for this tome of a book. You hard core types, go ahead and get a copy. Mostly I just think it’s important to simply know and take comfort in the fact that such a resource even exists in the world, and that some designers are making use of it.

Just a few years ago a different but similar book called “Patterns of Home” was published by some of the researchers who helped write the original “A Pattern Language.” This spin-off book is a coffee table type picture book in which ten of the 253 patterns are discussed and shown with modern glossy pictures. It’s the equivalent of a “children’s bible” in which only certain favorite stories are shown, and done so with lots of pictures. It’s okay, if you’re content to just dabble. If you want the real deal, you hold out for the genuine item, with its many pages and all its nuances. “A Pattern Language” is a whole continent waiting to be explored.

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