Reading the McMansion thread put me in mind of this excellent book. Has
anyone here read it? For folks who haven't, it's a book about "what
works" in architecture and in town planning. It's basically a distilled
collection of rules of thumb regarding good design and building practices.
An example is the rule that states that a good room will have light
coming from at least two directions. In my old added-on house, we have
several submarine rooms that have all their windows in one wall. Bad.
The nicest rooms follow the rule.
With all due respect, I doubt if A Pattern Language was actually the
inspiration for the emergence of software design patterns as a software
architecture issue. I think it's a sort of parallel evolution of thinking,
but coming from an independent origin.
On the other hand, if you can come up with some seminal reference from the
literature, I'd be interested in knowing about it.
We really ought to take this discussion elsewhere, though. This is felony
thread drift in the first degree. If you'd like to pursue this, my real
email address can be worked out pretty easily.
| With all due respect, I doubt if A Pattern Language was actually
| the inspiration for the emergence of software design patterns as
| a software architecture issue.
It was. Gamma, et al., _Design Patterns_. Everyone uses this book now.
| I think it's a sort of parallel evolution of thinking, but coming
| from an independent origin.
Well, I suppose, since you can't directly connect architecture to software
engineering in any but a few limited ways. But _Design Patterns_ quotes
liberally from Alexander in its introductory material and is organized the
same way as _A Pattern Language_. Clearly Gamma intended computer
scientists to use his book the way architects use Alexander.
We have always had "design patterns" both in architecture and in software
design, but they were basically just elements of technique. A wood-framed
stud wall is a technique just as a binary search tree is. Design patterns,
as expressed both in Gamma and in Alexander, reach deeper than that into
problem-solving and use.
My sister is an architect and she's never read all of Alexander (and was
surprised that I had -- it's voluminous). There are other approaches to
architecture just as there are other approaches to making software. But
Alexander and Gamma stand respectively as milestone works in their fields.
I've also read Susanka, and I think she has some good insight. I'm sure
you'll recognize some of her ideas in what I wrote in the McMansion thread.
I find her book less practical, ironically, than Alexander. As for
Alexander, one has to approach him as one would an encyclopedia. One does
not need to read him from cover to cover in order to make use of the
principles he teaches. In fact, the later chapters dealing with
construction methods didn't seem very practical by today's standards.
(who worked his way through engineering and computer science degrees as an
A year and a half ago, my wife and I moved into our newly-built house near
Port Townsend, Washington. Our architect was Ross Chapin, who lives and
works on Whidbey Island. His specialty is small houses, which suited us
perfectly because we're childless and have no need for a large house, and
were also operating under tight budget constraints.
Once we had agreed that he would design our house for us, the first
'assignment' he gave us was to read A Pattern Language, and to note the
patterns that resonated most strongly with us. The idea was that, having
read and absorbed it, we would be communicating with a common language of
design concepts. My wife and I each read it independently, and marked it up
with Post-It notes as page markers as we read it. In our discussions with
the architect during the design process, we frequently referred to specific
design patterns and worked out how we would incorporate them in the final
design. From our viewpoint it was an extremely valuable exercise, and I
believe that it contributed to the excellence of the final product.
The house we ended up with (entirely unlike our original notions, as it
turned out) is only 1157 square feet, but because of the care that went into
its design it seems like a much larger house. Visitors are regularly
surprised at how light-filled and spacious it seems.
As to the book itself, I think that the part of it that works the best is
the part that talks about individual dwellings. Discussions of patterns that
relate to public spaces - universities, town commons, and so forth, were
illuminating as well, since I've personally seen public spaces that were
awkward or impersonal and off-putting, and I can see from the book's
treatment of those patterns how they could have been made more pleasant and
When the book moves on to the design of towns and cities, I think it's going
a little bit off track. The authorship of the book came out of Berkeley
academia, if I remember correctly, and I think it's tinged with a little bit
of that old hippie influence. It's sweet, but impractical, and I doubt if
that part of the story gets much attention from the people who design at
that level (if, in fact, any design goes on at all at that level!)
On Fri, 08 Oct 2004 15:51:57 -0700, Tom Dacon wrote:
Perhaps it's my identity as an ancient hippie that makes me think this
way, but in my opinion the town planning stuff is pretty good. As you
probably know, several intentional communities (made up generally of hip
yuppies, not ancient hippies) have based their design on A Pattern
Language, and those communities appear to be vastly more livable, at least
to my eyes, than what passes for planned communities in general.
I'll give a couple examples to support my opinion. In most places, zoning
laws make it impossible to have a small commercial operation attached to
one's dwelling. The laws are applied inflexibly: an artist's studio or
antique shop is regarded by planners with the same horror as a hog farm.
Another: If you've traveled widely in foreign countries, you've probably
been through a town where the houses fronted on the street, so as to have
more garden space behind a privacy wall. Try to build a house like that
in a typical sprawlburb.
But you're right. In general, whatever wisdom is contained in A Pattern
Language is almost universally ignored. I can think of only one major
development I've personally seen which owes a lot to the ideas in
that book. About 40 miles down the coast is a famous planned community
called Seaside. There's not a lawn to be seen, all the million dollar
cottages front directly on the street, there's a good mix of residential
and small business usage, the streets are closed to all but residents'
vehicles and so forth. It has been wildly successful in a commercial
sense and in terms of livability.
As those who haven't read the book may not know, the driving force behind
the book is what some call vernacular architecture-- houses designed by
those who live in them, rather than by an architect. The main idea is
that houses people like to live in survive the centuries, and bad design
gets neglected and disappears. The same might be said of city design.
Good city design gets preserved, bad city design gets renovated. So I
don't think the Berkeley origins of some of the authors had much impact on
the patterns they isolated in old but highly livable cities.
Anyway, I think everyone thinking about building a new home would benefit
enormously from reading the book. And every builder ought to have to pass
a test on the book. Pipedream, I guess.
I read the book several years ago, after many more years of hearing or
seeing references to it (must have heard about it shortly after it
came out--probably 'cause I read that "hippie" rag Whole Earth Review.
Those folks loved it!). A minor revelation for me...I highly
About three years ago our neighborhood association bought several
copies to lend to residents as part of a planning process. They also
got copies of the two other books in the trilogy, the titles of which
I cannot recall. One was (IIRC) about the application of the patterns
to a specific building project, and the other focused more on the city
and regional design implications, but I could be wrong. Not always
the most readable book(s), but well worth the effort IMO.
Damn, you had to bring that up didn't you. I owned both "The Fountainhead"
and "Atlas Shrugged". Had them books for years and hauled them around every
time I moved. Finally, I sold them on Ebay and never got a chance to read
them past chapter one. Then I read somewhere that most engineers have at
one time in their lives owned those 2 books but ended up not reading them
through - I felt vindicated. I am going on a tangent. I also owned "The
Pattern Language" never read that through either, but I liked the pictures.
I had read both of Sarah's books prior to finding that at the
library and found it to be similar but not as good/insightful.
I also remember disagreeing with some of his architectural
thoughts but can't recall what they were specifically. Your
experience may be different.
Life is full of little surprises. * Comprehensive Website Development
--Pandora * http://www.diversify.com
On Fri, 08 Oct 2004 19:31:21 -0700, Larry Jaques wrote:
OK, I Googled around and found mention of Sarah Susanka: If this is the
person, I also found an article in Residential Architecture. An excerpt:
Others claim Susanka was not the first to argue for better-designed houses
or to explain the importance of intimate, human-scaled spaces within the
home. And she would agree: "I've always described myself as a child
brought up on Christopher Alexander's A Pattern Language. It's a
fundamental text--something we can grow from. It's a great beginning. But
it would give wings to the profession if we weren't afraid to be
Good work can certainly be derivative. That's the whole point of A
Pattern Language, I think.
I'll have to see if I can get copies of the Susanka book. They look very
I met a nearly-graduated architecture student recently. I asked her if
she'd learned about passive solar and other alternative architecture
approaches. She said no. I asked if she'd been introduced to "A
Pattern Language". No again.
Architects are taught to build ticky-tacky. IMNSHO - architecture has
failed society. Too pretentious and not practical. Afraid to lead
and to quick to copy. Claiming to be artists and originators but
inclined to follow blindly the latest fad. An architect that is
actually good is an oddball within the profession.
I'm somewhat surprised, but agree, good work can and is derivative.
Standing on the shoulders of former scholar.
Be sure to start with her first, "The Not So Big House".
Life is full of little surprises. * Comprehensive Website Development
--Pandora * http://www.diversify.com
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