I just learned that Christopher Alexander, the principal writer and force behind A Pattern Language, died on March 17. This is to remember him, someone who made me see with a new focus.
A Pattern Language of Work
earlier version written in October 1997
There are 253 patterns Christopher Alexander et alia’s _A Pattern Language_. There are over 30 that I identify as the patterns that make for human and humane work:
9 Scattered Work 19 Web of Shopping 32 Shopping Streets 41 Work Community 42 Industrial Ribbon 43 University as a Marketplace 46 Market of Many Shops 47 Health Center 61 Small Public Squares 80 Self-Governing Workshops and Offices 81 Small Services Without Red Tape 82 Office Connections 83 Master and Apprentices 85 Shopfront Schools 86 Children’s Home 87 Individually Owned Shops 88 Street Cafe 89 Corner Groceries 90 Beer Hall 91 Traveler’s Inn 92 Bus Stop 93 Food Stands 101 Building Thoroughfare 146 Flexible Office Space 148 Small Work Groups 149 Reception Welcomes You 150 A Place to Wait 151 Small Meeting Rooms 152 Half-Private Office 156 Settled Work 157 Home Workshop
These patterns can be roughly assembled into four groups – work, shopping, learning, and structure:
9 Scattered Work 41 Work Community 42 Industrial Ribbon 80 Self-Governing Workshops and Offices 81 Small Services Without Red Tape 148 Small Work Groups 156 Settled Work 157 Home Workshop
19 Web of Shopping 32 Shopping Streets 46 Market of Many Shops 47 Health Center 87 Individually Owned Shops 88 Street Cafe 89 Corner Groceries 90 Beer Hall 91 Traveler’s Inn 92 Bus Stop 93 Food Stands
43 University as a Marketplace 83 Master and Apprentices 85 Shopfront Schools 86 Children’s Home
61 Small Public Squares 82 Office Connections 101 Building Thoroughfare 146 Flexible Office Space 149 Reception Welcomes You 150 A Place to Wait 151 Small Meeting Rooms 152 Half-Private Office
Finally, these patterns and their underlying rules can be developed into sentences and paragraphs to tell something like a story:
A community should be built on walking distance so that all the basic needs can be met within a comfortable walk. Scatter work throughout the community so that there is less of a separation between living and working. No bedroom communities, no 5 pm deserted office blocks, no commutes. Build work communities, groups of a dozen or so businesses with common areas, throughout the whole community. Those activities that are noisy, dangerous, dirty should be concentrated in industrial ribbons at the edge of communities and serve as their boundaries. Work should be organized in small work groups, self-governing workshops and offices, providing small services without red tape and opportunities for home workshops and settled work.
Build a web of shopping which decentralizes services throughout the community into short, pedestrian shopping streets that are perpendicular to vehicular traffic. The shops should be individually owned rather than franchises or chains and concentrated in a market of many shops, like farmers’ markets and flea markets, with push carts and kiosks, peddlers and street performers. There are opportunities for many businesses: cafes, restaurants, food stands, and bars with entertainment, health centers, corner groceries, inns and bed and breakfasts…
Education should also be decentralized with the university organized as a marketplace where anybody can give or take a course (the January Independent Activities Period [IAP] at MIT, the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, any “open university” are models already in existence). Another model is that of master and apprentice, practical mentoring, where the community becomes part of the curriculum with shopfront schools and intergenerational learning from birth to death so that teaching and learning is perpetual and integral within the life of the community.
Now, how do we make that work economically, here and now in the cities and towns we already have?
Pattern Language for Urban Agriculture
I have all three volumes of his first set and all four volumes of his second set (the latter self-published) on my shelves.
Christopher Alexander has been a guiding light for the software development community for more than thirty years.
An example of the radical approach promoted by Mr. Alexander is that in citing a building, the first step is to choose the least desirable and most uninviting part of the available land — and site the building there.
He similarly proposed that when building a planned community, the first step is to design the facades and greenspace that make up the streetscape. Dividing the resulting buildings into individual units for sale or rent is the last, rather than first, step in Mr. Alexander’s approach.
I mourn the loss of one of my most revered philosophers and icons.
I’ve been eying the four volume second set for the last few days but it costs over $200. Do you think it’s a good investment of $$$ and time?
It depends on how you measure the value of your investment and time.
I find the second set fascinating and provocative. It is also much less directly relevant to my day-to-day work (I’m a software developer) than the first set.
The truth is that my copies of his first set are dog-eared from daily usage for years. The volumes in my copy of his second set are much more pristine.
If I was going to invest $200 in reference materials, I would acquire new-quality hard-copy of everything written by Edward Tufte first. I suspect that the life’s work of Donald Knuth is also higher on my list.
PS: NYTimes has yet to do an obituary for Christopher Alexander.
Mr. Alexander was always somewhat of a cult figure among software developers. I have the impression that he was so far outside the mainstream of architecture that actual practicing architects have no idea of who he was what he wrote.
Heh. Nevertheless, everybody — even at the NY Times — is able to recognize a barn in a field no matter where in America they go (it’s less true in Europe).
I’m not sure how many people besides software developers ever seriously engaged the question “What makes a building a ‘barn’?”