I usually tell people that my favorite nonfiction book is Noam Chomsky’s Understanding Power, but this is a lie. My actual favorite nonfiction book is far odder, but it is more difficult to explain, so I usually don’t mention it in conversation. It is called A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, and it provides a blueprint for how to build perfect places.
A Pattern Language is over 1,110 pages long and was published in 1977. It is credited to six authors, Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein, Max Jacobson, Ingrid Fiksdahl-King, and, Shlomo Angel. But Alexander was the most prominent driving force behind the thing, and has written a number of other volumes expanding on his unique architectural philosophy, including the four-volume Nature of Order series and a fun shorter book called The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth, which describes his attempt to apply his philosophy to the real world by building a school in Japan in the 1980s. (The school he built is gorgeous and strange.)
Alexander is a staunch critic of contemporary architecture, which he thinks has lost sight of human values. In The Timeless Way of Building, the prequel to A Pattern Language, he says that there is an eternal art of place-making, and that places can either succeed or fail. They succeed when they feel alive, when they possess what he calls “the quality with-out a name.” The quality, he says, is difficult to describe precisely, but it can be felt, and people know what you’re talking about when you point it out. A Target parking lot lacks the quality. A hammock in a garden has it. Some places are simply better than others to be in. They live. Alexander talks of “order” more than “beauty,” but the thrust of it is that aesthetic bliss is “objective” in a certain way, in that we either experience it or we do not. It is intrinsically pleasurable to be in some places and less so to be in others, and the proof is that people travel thousands of miles to visit Sorrento or Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, but they do not travel to visit random strip malls in the suburbs just for the pleasure of looking at them.
Alexander does not think we should be content to have so many places that do not delight us. Why shouldn’t an ordinary place be beautiful? Why, even though we know we have the ability to create structures of breathtaking beauty, do we have so many EconoLodges and CVSes? The answer has a lot to do with the processes by which things are built these days. Alexander says it is now “virtually impossible for anybody in our time, to make a building live.” This is in part because people do not build their own buildings; they do not shape their spaces:
“Towns and buildings will not be able to become alive, unless they are made by all the people in society, and unless these people share a common pattern language.”
Patterns describe repeating properties in the places we build. Alexander says that there are patterns that work, and those that don’t, and what we can do is take all of the patterns that we know work, and these should form the language of built space. The patterns in A Pattern Language are often pretty simple, and they are not all strictly architectural, but more like “things that make people feel good.” At the micro level, they are things like: having bedrooms in the east so sunlight enters in the morning, hidden gardens, street cafes, common land, adventure playgrounds, animals everywhere, pools and streams, balconies, gateways, bike paths, carnival celebrations, outdoor rooms, fruit trees, trellised walks, alcoves, green streets, arcades, window seats. Some are eccentric but appealing, like “child caves” for kids to explore and separate cottages designed for old people and teenagers. Some are quietly radical, like “worker self-management,” which is somewhat funny to see on a list of ingredients for building well-functioning places, but is also correct. At the more macro level are things like “country towns,” “mosaic of subcultures,” “identifiable neighborhoods,” and “webs of public transportation.” I agree that all of these, taken together, would create idyllic communities indeed, but Alexander stresses that he’s only offering one possible pattern language and each society must develop uniquely. The important insight, though, is that we should be conscientious in looking around us and seeing what “works,” what creates life and what does not, what induces feelings of bliss and what is boring and forgettable.
Alexander suggests that the more “living patterns” in a place, the more it “glows” to the point where it becomes “part of nature,” and says that regular people, not developers and building companies, are capable of “repairing the world” and giving it these transcendent characteristics. It is a bit mystical, really, and I am not sure I buy the whole thing, but it has certainly caused me to look around me and mentally note when I feel I have found “timeless” patterns that I wish were more common.
I am back in my Florida hometown at the moment,* because of the pandemic, and I recently went wandering around, reacquainting myself with some of the lovelier bits, taking photos, and thinking about patterns and the “quality without a name.” I took hundreds of photos of places I thought possessed the “quality” and some of places I thought did not. When I was growing up here, I do not think I would have said I lived in a beautiful place. I knew that our beach was highly-regarded among enthusiasts (professional beach blogger “Dr. Beach” had given it a top ranking), but I did not go to the beach, for I was pale and turned pink within minutes, plus I did not like to get sand in my toes. Plus the Sarasota I knew was mostly suburban. You had to drive to get anywhere, and most of the places I went were built in the 1990s, by people for whom aesthetic considerations were secondary. I associated the place with sprawl, with highways, with malls. Now I live in the French Quarter of New Orleans, which I think of as far more beautiful.
But since I left Sarasota for college, my parents have moved. They are now closer to downtown. The Sarasota I have come back to does not feel quite like the one I grew up in. It is more lush. It is older. Less artificial. (The streets around the neighborhood where I grew up were named after Robin Hood characters in what was clearly an effort by a residential developer to cultivate some elevated associations with Englishness.) Wandering around downtown, I saw gorgeous things all over the place. And I wondered why the whole world couldn’t be like that.
The main thing I’ve noticed is that the natural world is so much more beautiful than anything human beings are capable of producing ourselves, and our own spaces are enriched to the extent that we integrate them with wild plant life. Every leafy place I photographed was gorgeous, and every non-leafy place was less so. Residential streets that were beneath a canopy of oak trees were beautiful, and ones that were treeless were not. The design of the houses mattered little compared to whether the places felt like part of nature or felt separate from it. This is such a simple and obvious observation that one would think it didn’t need to be said, but the crazy thing is just how many places we build that involve demolishing or extracting all visible wildlife. 90 percent of the places I went were not beautiful at all, and did not “feel alive,” because they quite literally weren’t alive.(See the two photographs below, which show what most of Sarasota looks like:
I took pictures of all the sights that were pleasing, and I ended up with so many that you might think I lived in a stunningly beautiful paradise. But photographs are misleading, because you don’t see anything outside the photograph, and most things will always be outside of the photograph. These are highly selective slivers; I took great care to get these shots and excluded everything dull and dead.
I am mystified, though, by why we can’t make everywhere feel “alive” like this. And certainly, we seem to be doing it less and less. The places I photographed that most possessed “the quality” were all parts of Old Florida, the bit that has been here for a century and has changed the least. Nothing built in the last 20 years was worth taking pictures of. It is just gigantic condo blocks, mall parking lots, acre after acre of treeless housing culs-de-sac, the “little boxes that look all the same.”
In trying to understand what makes a place work, I do think we have to “get political,” and that Alexander’s “worker self-management” principle is an important piece of it. Places often seem to have life to the degree that their occupants have been involved in making them. Or rather, the best places seem to have been made by people who cared about them, rather than prefabricated by people who were just doing their jobs. Weird sculpture aside (I actually want you to focus on the boring stores rather than the sculpture, though it was too interesting not to get in the picture), the places in the above pictures do not seem to have been designed with the intention that anyone spend time looking at them and enjoying them on an aesthetic level. Certainly they were not made to be loved. By contrast, the lighthouse below—which is not an actual lighthouse, by the way, just a house somebody has built to look like one—was built by a person who had, at the very least, a bit of whimsy and originality.
Or look at this gate:
That’s an abandoned elementary school that I attended 25 years ago. I went back to poke around and reminisce, but I can’t remember anything about my time there except that they taught me to sing the song “On Top Of Spaghetti.” It was a tiny school, in a building the size of a house, located in a 1920s-era neighbor-hood. My parents tell me the education I got there was pretty terrible, which makes sense given how much I can recall of the curriculum, but as a place it is ideal. I don’t know if the trellis was that overgrown when the school was in operation (it probably did not have nearly so many spiders as the number I had to evade when I went back), but what a perfect entrance to a school that is. A Pattern Language talks of the importance of entrances. You shouldn’t see a place all at once; it should be revealed to you, and you should pass through some-thing that makes it feel like you are entering a different zone. When Alexander was building his school in Japan, he built a big archway at the entrance and set it at an angle so that you did not see the school until you passed through the archway.
One of the critical points emphasized in the book is the importance of subjective feelings. Architects today often look at their renderings in a “view from nowhere” or “God view,” rather than through the eyes of the people who walk through and in-habit spaces. (They even fill their physical building models with little fake people known as “scalies”; it should seem insane to view people from the outside rather than taking a “scalie-eyed” view of the world, but such is the profession.) What is it like to be a child coming to school? What should a school feel like? What does a place called “home” feel like?
Small touches give a place its feel. Personally, I think the lawn flamingos in this house are just as important as anything else about the house:
They make people feel good. They turn a mere building into a place clearly lived in by humans, humans who have tastes. (Perhaps questionable tastes, but tastes nonetheless.) The shame of it is that so much built space doesn’t seem to have been produced with questions like these in mind. How will it make people feel? Will they come from all over to look at it? Will they never want to leave?
Alexander talks a lot about the “quality without a name” being “objective,” which will surely make people upset because the word “objective” implies taking one’s personal opinions for universal truths. But the word is actually misleading, because this way of thinking actually prioritizes the subjective. By “objective” it simply means that people’s subjective opinions are themselves an objective fact, meaning that we either enjoy a place or we do not. If the subjective opinions of a building’s users are that it sucks, the architect has objectively failed. A pleasant song is one people like to listen to, and a beautiful building is one people want to visit just to look at. Architectural democracy is about building places that are for people to be in (not “scalies”), and making sure that the lives they live in these places are good.
You might not have constructed a personal pattern language of all the good things, or know yet how to build utopian cities and towns. That’s okay. We’re still working it out. But there are bits and pieces left of Old Florida that offer some hints. The basics are simple: keep things human scale. Make it walkable. Lots of color. And plenty of trees.
* This was true when I wrote this article for the print edition, but no longer.