A Pattern Language Explained

Michael Mehaffy
Saturday, 2nd January 2016

Understanding patterns is a key concept in permaculture. But what are they? How can we 'see' them with systems thinking and how can we apply them? Michael Mehaffy, long time student and colleague of Christopher Alexander, explores this new frontier of design.

Christopher Alexander is famous for his book on architecture, A Pattern Language. What is not so well known is that Alexander has spent at least as much of his life in building as in writing, and he and his colleagues have produced some 300 buildings as well as gardens, neighborhoods and rural landscapes. Alexander’s career now spans over half a century, with written works that are acknowledged landmarks of design theory.

His first book in 1964, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, was widely celebrated at the time; one review by Industrial Design magazine hailed it as, “one of the most important contemporary books about the art of design, what it is, and how to go about it”.

His later work has also had a remarkable influence in software, open source computing, sociology, biology and other diverse disciplines. The software for smart phones, most computer games and many other applications is built on ‘pattern languages of programming’, also called ‘design patterns’. The open-source technology of wiki, the basis of Wikipedia, Google Sites and innumerable others, was a direct outgrowth of pattern language technology.

But Alexander’s work was always grounded in the physical act of making – specifically of constructing healthy environments around human beings and their diverse lives. Throughout his career he has built a neighborhood in Mexico, a portion of a village in India, a preparatory university in Japan, a dormitory building and master plan for a university in Oregon, a homeless shelter in California, and many more structures around the world.

His structures are the opposite of ‘starchitecture’ – the abstract art that people are supposed to find exhilarating or provocative, but often find only discordant, confusing and ultimately enervating. He sees this trend as part of a larger problem, that architecture has lost its way, become mere artistic packaging for the industrialization of the built environment.

Art has become corrupted, he thinks, and has used its allure – along with the allure of great universities – as a marketing arm, selling a fantasy of the future that is ultimately toxic. This is the unsustainability of today’s architectural orthodoxy, rooted in a deeper technological unsustainability. As a result, Alexander cares little for the ‘wow factor’. Instead, his concern is the sometimes humble task of accommodating human life, and the small moments of a day well lived.

Some architects are known to sneer at his sometimes humble structures – but they should not discount the iconoclastic challenge he throws down before them. Their embrace of the diktat of a reductionist form language – what Koolhaas called ‘Modernism’s alchemistic promise, to transform quantity into quality through abstraction and repetition’ – is nothing less than a professional bankruptcy, he says. Like Koolhaas, he believes this entire project is a colossal failure, a hoax, leaving us in a ‘crater of modernity and modernization’. But unlike Koolhaas, Alexander sees a path out of the crater, rooted in nature, and in human resilience. From the very beginning, Alexander’s work has always been concerned with the fundamental technology of design within a building or making process.

Technology in this sense is not inherently dead and mechanical, but simply our knowledge of making, our techne + logos. In a real sense one can speak of a ‘living technology’, or a technology that understands and exploits living processes. As readers of this publication are likely aware, this is a fundamental goal of permaculture.

A Pattern Language: How Parts Transform into Wholes

Alexander, who was first trained as a mathematician and physicist, was always concerned with the processes by which parts transform into wholes. He asks how nature implements this part-whole relationship and how we by comparison, in our current human version, might be getting it ‘wrong’ – might be triggering a kind of technological malfunction, and damaging living systems.

This core interest was what occupied his Harvard PhD dissertation, documented in his first book, Notes on the Synthesis of Form. As it happened, an earlier generation of organization theorists, design theorists, computer programmers and many others, had been struggling to manage the increasingly large and complex new design structures of that era. (Computer software was a problematic example.) Alexander provided some helpful conceptual tools to do that. In essence, his tools were patterns: not things, but relations of things, or even relations of relations, which could be identified and re-combined and re-used, in a language-like way. Hence, the result was a ‘pattern language’. But Alexander was not only offering a useful innovation. Alexander’s argument amounted to a powerful technological critique, revolving around the observation that we are doing something wrong in the way we make things.

We are substituting an oversimplified model of structure-making – one more closely related to our hierarchically limited way of conceiving abstract relationships – in place of the kinds of transformations that actually occur regularly in the Universe, and in biological systems especially. (Alexander articulated this argument further in a classic 1965 paper, ‘A City is Not a Tree’.)

The result of this deficiency is nothing less than a slow unfolding technological disaster – what we recognize today as the sustainability crisis. Growing numbers of people do understand that we must urgently reform our ways of doing things. But some seem to think we can patch up the current system with ‘bolt-on’ approaches – perhaps new photovoltaic systems, or electric cars.

What Alexander argues is that we have to make fundamental reforms –not only in specific technologies, but in our very way of thinking about technology.

Unintended Consequences

Our tools have been reductionism, and the economies of scale and standardization. We have been isolating things and treating them as independent sub-entities and then manipulating them in combinations. This has actually worked extremely well – but only up to a point. As any systems theorist or ecologist will tell you, the context, not the ‘thing’ in isolation, is the key to the behavior of a system.

Why does this matter? Because the structure around the thing we have made can produce unintended consequences. We can successfully isolate an antibiotic drug, only to find that new pathogens have mutated to resist it. We can make automobiles that solve our transportation problems – that even seem to be marvels of modernity – only to find later that we have also engendered traffic jams, strip highways full of gas stations, and ultimately, climate change.

The history of the sustainability crisis has been a history of technological failures of just this kind. We are now having to come to terms with the unsustainable nature of this technology, and the nature of the transition ahead. There is growing evidence that the transition must occur, and the only real question is whether it will be at all on terms of our own choosing.

The ‘technology of life'

This is where Alexander’s work is most intriguing, and possibly useful. He argues that there is much to learn from biological systems – from, as it were, the ‘technology of life’. In this living process, there is more than an isolated linear reaction to each of the series of challenges that face an organism. There exists an adaptive evolution within a whole-systems context, a way of sorting through many contextual variables and finding a solution that not only satisfies any single condition, but is likely to be optimal in balancing and coordinating a great many conditions. (There is a close relation to the phenomenon of resilience.)


A section of the exterior at West Dean Visitor Center, England.

The New Frontier of Design

This is especially evident in the way that organisms generate form – what biologists call ‘morphogenesis’ or form-generation. The form is not a mere collection of parts that are stamped out and gathered into an artistic composition; rather, it emerges from a continuous transformation of elements, in an unfolding process that follows something called ‘symmetry-breaking’. That means that the original symmetrical form (say, a round egg) gets broken down the middle, and a new symmetry forms – perhaps the beginning of a tube, say, with a spine at its core.

Alexander noted that in this process, there is typically a step-wise sequence that re-uses and articulates what came before, and that differentiates it into more articulated parts. In embryogenesis, for example, the egg cell starts as one whole and then it divides, and makes more wholes with a differentiated order. This contextual, form-generating differentiation continues through more stages, until, through the power of compounding, the result is fantastically complex and ordered. This is what Alexander sees as the new frontier of design. It is less about fancy technology, or expressive art, than about engaging life through successful step-wise adaptive processes.

The importance of the artist is undiminished; but it is to elucidate this structure and amplify its meanings – and not to supplant life with abstract art. Importantly, we are supplementing the economies of scale and standardization with the necessary (and heretofore missing) economies of place and differentiation. We are building living (human) structures, in which art takes its rightful, responsible place.

Michael Mehaffy is a long-time colleague and former student of Christopher Alexander. Michael came to architecture in the 1970s after studying music and philosophy. He is on the boards of two international journals of sustainable urban development, and three international NGOs dedicated to sustainable development including the Sustasis Foundation: www.sustasis.net

Green Archictecture Day takes place in Brighton on Saturday 19th March 2016. It is held by Brighton Permaculture Trust and the Low Carbon Trust. It is an annual event exploring how we can live and work in greener buildings. This year's speakers include Ben Law, Michael Mehaffy (who will talk about redefining architecture to work with natural processes, integrated with human settlements and ways of life), Cat Fletcher and Nicolas Pope.

For more information and tickets, visit https://brightonpermaculture.org.uk/courses/greenarchitecture

Lead image: Eishin Gate. A portion of the Eishin School in Japan, showing the fusion of traditional local design and newer concrete engineering techniques.

Further resources

What we do to nature, we do to ourselves

What is permaculture - part 3: design

Planning and building Transition homes


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