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4.4 Pattern language experiments

1. The Alexander initiative

Christopher Alexander and his colleagues at the Centre for Environmental Structure (Berkeley) have published a 3-volume study to "lay the basis for an entirely new approach to architecture, building and planning." (The Timeless Way of Building, 1979; A Pattern Language, 1977 and The Oregon Experiment, 1975) The approach is based on the idea that people should design for themselves their own houses, streets and communities. This seemingly radical idea is based on their documented observation that most of the places in the world where it is attractive to be were designed not by professional architects but by ordinary people.

(a) Unnameable quality: They have a delightfully elegant way (consistent with the arguments of Section KD in 1991) of deliberately not naming the central quality which they believe should be engendered by any development process. "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. The search we make for this quality, in our own lives, is the central search of any person, and the crux of any individual person's story. It is the search for those moments when we are most alive." (The Timeless Way of Building, p.x)

(b) Living patterns: They show how that in order to embody this quality in buildings and in communities, it is necessary to recognize that every place acquires its character by certain "patterns" of events that keep on happening there. These patterns are interlocked with certain geometric patterns in the space in question and it is out of these patterns that our environment is effectively constructed. The vital point however is that such patterns may be alive or dead. "To the extent they are alive, they let our inner forces loose, and set us free; but when they are dead, they keep us locked in inner conflict. The more living patterns there are in a place... the more it comes to life as an entirety, the more it glows, the more it has that self-maintaining fire which is the quality without a name." (p.x)

(c) Reliance on pattern language: At the core of their approach is the point that in designing their environments people always rely on certain "languages", which, like the languages we speak, allow them to articulate and communicate an infinite variety of designs within a formal system which gives them coherence. "A pattern language gives each person who uses it the power to create an infinite variety of new and unique buildings, just as his ordinary language gives him the power to create an infinite variety of sentences." (p.xi)

Alexander's team spent over ten years in formulating what he carefully points out is merely one possible pattern language. It is made up of 253 interrelated patterns. Each consists of a problem statement, a discussion of the design problem with an illustration and a solution. Many of the problems are, in his terms, archetypal in that they are so deeply rooted in the nature of the environment that it is to be expected that they will be as much a part of human nature and action now as in five hundred years time.

(d) Personal pattern language: They perceive the role of their proposed language as the first step in a society-wide process by which people will gradually become conscious of their own pattern languages adding to or adapting those that his team has formulated. They believe that in modern society the design languages people use have broken down. "Since they are no longer shared, the processes which keep them deep have broken down; and it is therefore virtually impossible for anybody, in our time, to make a building live." (p.xii) There is therefore a need to discover and improve collectively the patterns capable of generating and maintaining the living quality.

(e) Complete patterns of forces: In contrast to many fragmented approaches, Alexander shows that the structure of a pattern language is created by the fact that individual patterns are not isolated. "Each pattern depends both on the smaller patterns it contains and on the larger patterns within which it is contained... Each pattern sits at the centre of a network of connections which connect it to certain other patterns that help to complete it... And it is the network of these connections between patterns which creates the language... In this network, the links between the patterns are almost as much a part of the language as the patterns themselves." (p.312-4) He points out that the language is a good one, capable of making something whole, only when it is morphologically and functionally complete. It is morphologically complete when it produces clearly defined designs and it is functionally complete "when the system of patterns it defines is fully capable of allowing all its inner forces to resolve themselves." This requires that the individual patterns should themselves be complete.

2. Possibility of parallel languages

The Alexander initiative is explicitly concerned with the design of buildings and physical environments. And yet so many of his examples respond to social needs. The philosophy and thinking underlying the approach contain many features that are just as relevant to the design of the psycho-social environment as they are to the design of the physical environment. Indeed for the Alexander team any such distinction may be artificial and meaningless.

(a) Design of social structures: There are those however for whom building design is not an option in resolving the psycho-social problems they are facing, as is the case for the many bodies responding to the global problematique. For them the question is whether they could use the principles so admirably formulated in Alexander's The Timeless Way of Building (1979) to assist in building social structures as opposed to physical structures. Is it possible to envisage a pattern language which would enable groups, organizations and institutional complexes to be designed by those concerned, using patterns that are "alive" rather than "dead", as is so often the case? And would a group or organization come to life and acquire that "self-maintaining fire which is the quality without a name", the more living patterns there are active in it?

(b) Design of conceptual structures: Given this possibility, and the frequently deplored fragmentation of the conceptual environment, is it possible that an equivalent pattern language might also he developed to enable people to improve the relationship between conceptual frameworks and bodies of knowledge? Is it possible that a network-based pattern language could render more fruitful and humane the structuring of systems of ideas, especially in the light of the way people are increasingly able to interact with patterns of ideas through interactive information systems? It is extremely probable, both in the socio-organizational and in the conceptual case, that many patterns already exist and simply need to be reconsidered as part of a pattern language which each is able to explore and develop in his own way.

(c) Design of psychic structures: There is also a final possibility that the more basic patterns are of such a fundamental or archetypal nature in relation to man that an equivalent pattern language could be usefully recognized as a way for individuals to order the relationship between their own modes of awareness (Section HM).

(d) Isomorphism between pattern languages: If indeed the configurational attributes making for a fundamental pattern derive as much from inherent characteristics in man's pattern recognizing ability, then it is to be expected that there would be a fairly high degree of isomorphism between the patterns recognized in any domain, whether physical, socio-organizational, conceptual or intra-personal. Evidence pointing towards this conclusion includes that from general systems and especially J G Miller (Living Systems, 1978), that on parallel developments in isolated cultures, and Jung's extensively documented emergence of archetypes in a person with no possible experience of the culture from which the form derived (The Collected Works, 1953-71).

3. Experimental elaboration of parallel languages

Alexander's initiative is unique in the manner in which it concretizes subtle relationships amongst a comprehensive range of phenomena oriented around the needs of man. It does not involve the imposition of a closed conceptual framework and yet a measure of coherence is provided. The referents for his pattern language have the merit of being comprehensible to all in their own physical environments.

(a) Physical patterns as templates: As a first step in exploring the elaboration of parallel languages, it is therefore appropriate to attempt to use Alexander's pattern language as a "template" or substrate to provide guidance in the identification and interrelationship of patterns in such parallel languages.

The procedure adopted was to endeavour to formulate an abstract pattern from Alexander's example in the physical environment (see Section MP in 1991). This was used with the physical pattern to guide the elaboration of a socio-organizational equivalent. All three were then used to guide the formulation of an equivalent for the conceptual domain. Finally all of them were used to clarify a possible pattern within the intra-personal domain. The full procedure was applied to some 60 of Alexander's 253 patterns. An abstract pattern name was however specified for all of them. This is presented with an indication of Alexander's physical referent. The structure of the network of cross-references presented corresponds to the network identified by Alexander between smaller patterns and the larger patterns that they constitute. The names given are however the abstract pattern names derived as indicated above.

(b) Physical patterns as metaphors: In terms of the earlier discussion (relating to Section MP in 1991) on metaphors, each set of patterns, whether at the socio-organizational, conceptual or intra-personal level, bears a metaphorical relationship to Alexander's physical set of patterns. But although the procedure involved a search for a parallel to the physical set in other domains, it is the physical set which can be more usefully considered as the metaphor through which the patterns and relationships at the other levels can be clarified and comprehended. In a number of cases, however, the obvious attractiveness of the parallel in one of the other domains may offer insight into the merits of the physical pattern identified by Alexander. Others may raise questions about the completeness or appropriateness of the pattern at any level, especially in those cases where the Alexander team has flagged the pattern as being less than satisfactory as formulated.

(c) Questionable generality: Another question is whether the patterns identified by Alexander are of general relevance rather than being largely determined by his own context. The work does contain many examples from outside the USA. As to whether any such pattern language is of a more arbitrary nature than a spoken language, he states: "The language, and the processes which stem from it, merely release the fundamental order which is native to us. They do not teach us, they only remind us of what we know already, and of what we shall discover time and time again, when we give up our ideas and opinions, and do exactly what emerges from ourselves." (The Timeless Way of Building, 1979, p.xv)

(c) Questionable significance: The basic question this exercise raises however is whether the jargonistic language conveys any new meaning or whether the whole exercise is totally artificial. It is clear that the vocabulary used to identify the parallel patterns is barbaric compared to the poetry of Alexander's elegant presentation. In part this is due to the nature of the exercise and to editorial inadequacies. But it is in part due to the lack of an attractive vocabulary with which such a rich set of distinctions can be made. Are there is fact equivalent distinctions to be made?

(d) Quality enhancing distinctions: The whole exercise was undertaken on the assumption that new responses are desperately needed to the global problematique. These new responses can benefit from recognizing the kinds of quality-enhancing distinctions that can be usefully and fairly unambiguously made with regard to the organization of the physical environment. It is possible that it may be many years, if not centuries, before a patterning of such detailed distinctions is called for in the domains of the parallel languages. But even if the exercise is only a stimulus to further exploration of the relevance of Alexander's approach in other domains, much will have been accomplished.