A Pattern Language (or building anarchist utopia)

A Pattern LanguageThis is an extraordinary book, not least because I’d seen it referenced as an architectural handbook and a good source for thinking about public space. It is all that.

But really, it is quite a mad reimagining of our world as it could and should be, but at the same time serves as a blueprint of how to build it. After that final scene in V for Vendetta when the world is reduced to rubble and everyone is like oh shit, what next? You want to think through what happens after the revolution if you’d prefer not to find all the bondage leather you can carry and go off into the desert to kill other people other for fuel and for fun and for vaseline and always drive really fast?

Get this book. But why did no one say?

Maybe because the authors use the introduction to emphasize the ways that this new society can be built piecemeal, can grow organically within the old (but really, can it?). Still, I struggled to hold that in mind as I continued to read given they seem wildly prescriptive at times, pulling out studies and equations and optimal numbers as guides. Ultimately, I grant them, their larger ethos consists of building for the ways that people actually use space with a view to making them (and the earth) happiest. They write:

We believe that the patterns presented in this section can be implemented best by piecemeal processes, where each project built or each planning decision made is sanctioned by the community according as it does or does not help to form certain large scale patterns. We do not believe that these large patterns, which give so much structure to a town or of a neighborhood, can be created by centralized authority, or by laws, or by master plans. We believe instead that they can emerge gradually and organically, almost of their own accord, if every act of building, large or small, takes on the responsibility for gradually shaping its small corner of the world to make these larger patterns appear there (3).

As I say, this doesn’t stop them from thinking really big:

Wherever possible work toward the evolution of independent regions in the world; each with a population between 2 and 10 million; each with its own natural and geographic boundaries; each with its own economy; each one autonomous and self-governing; each with a seat in a world government, without the intervening power of larger states or countries. (14)

I didn’t realise that this is actually a part 2 (and there is a part 3, The Oregon Experiment). The earlier book, A Timeless Way of Building goes more into this fascinating idea of patterns and language and how we write them across the city. So I’ll wait to delve into that, this is way too long as it is. But essentially this book breaks up the components of cities, towns, neighbourhoods and homes into numbered pieces for assembly, ranging from 1. Independent regions to 37. House cluster to 135. Tapestry of Light and Dark to 204. Secret place (YES! Every home needs a secret place) to 253. Things from your life. It’s an impressive number and thoughtfulness of patterns. So what follows are a few that struck me in particular, but there is so much richness here in thinking about different kinds of spaces, and it pulls on a variety of literature, you’ll always be finding different things.

I don’t usually like quotes from native people’s taken out of context, but this one is beautiful, and a way of thinking we have moved far too much away from:

I conceive that land belongs for us to a vast family of which many are dead, few are living, and countless members are still unborn.
–a Nigerian tribesman (37)

The one place they completely lost me in the book — the whole 1166 pages of it — was their ‘mosaic of subcultures’. The principle here:

The homogenous and undifferentiated character of modern cities kills all variety of life styles and arrests the growth of individual character. (43)

I might agree with that, but how strange to go from that to neighborhoods divided up into subcultures and separated one from the other by belts of industry or other land uses? They write that this is so no one more powerful or wealthier subculture might be tempted to interfere with their neighbors, but this seems a deathknell to diversity and fortuitous mixings and glorious circumstance.

Funny that this emerges with their understanding of how people view property values and how they value homogeneity — things that I think this separation plays into even though such ideologies have been constructed for all of the wrong reasons and have immense negative effects. I am back to wondering why people just can’t seem to even attempt to grapple with class and race in the city. Probably something to do with class and race. Still. They grapple with a lot in this book, primarily physical space and how we live in it, and so I will allow it some exemptions given its already massive nature as utopian blueprint. But i would prefer an equality of class, race, gender, sexuality and etc to be explicit in that.

Hell, if they’re going to call for an evolution of independent regions a la Kropotkin, they can throw a little intersectionality in there.

But I do like acknowledging that ‘People need an identifiable spatial unit to belong to’ (81). That neighborhoods need to be small in number, small in area, and guess what, large streets driven through their middle destroys them.

I like the section on ‘The Magic of the City’, the ways that they are ‘rich, various, fascinating.’ (59) I like that they don’t really try to define it, just let it stand as it is. Because obviously, they just have some magic.

So do railways, and I love that the Swiss have a massive network that ties in the smallest villages to the largest towns after the ‘democratic railway movement’ of the 19th Century demanded and won that they do so. This has avoided some of the centralisation seen in France and England, maintaining the viability of smaller areas. Go Switzerland.

There is a whole section on how terrible high-rises are, and how they negatively impact the mental and social well-being of the people living within them. Children start playing outside later and less-often unattended and free, people feel isolated, it’s a larger barrier to get out into the world. There can be few casual interactions, you are removed from everything and no longer can feel part of the street and the life on it. A lot of this makes sense, though it also reminded me of the Doomwatch episode where the female scientist tests the new council highrises and has a nervous breakdown. You get the feeling it’s more because she’s female.

But I loved this poem from Glasgow

The Jelly Piece Song
By Adam McNaughton

I’m a skyscraper wean, I live on the nineteenth flair,
on’ I’m no’ gaun oot tae play ony mair
For since we moved tae oor new hoose I’m wastin’ away,
‘Cos I’m gettin’ was less meal ev’ry day

Oh, ye canny fling pieces oot a twenty-story flat
Seven hundred hungry weans will testify tae that
If it’s butter, cheese or jeely, if the breid is plain or pan,
The odds against it reachin’ us is ninty-nine tae wan.


We’re wrote away tae Oxfam tae try an’ get some aid,
We’ve a’ joined thegither an’ formed a “piece” brigade,
We’re gonny march tae London tae demand oor Civil Rights,
Like “Nae mair hooses ower piece flingin’ heights.” (117-118)

Moving on to 45.¬† ‘Necklace of community projects’, how cool is that? They write:

The local town hall will not be an honest part of the community which lives around it, unless it is itself surrounded by all kinds of small community activities and projects, generated by the people for themselves. (243)

These are political projects of opposition in part, but free and low-cost space for any number of things to begin, projects to come together, things to be created. Exactly the kind of spaces that real estate capital tends to destroy.

Pattern 47 is Health center — and they look at Peckham Health Center as a model. I’ve been meaning to look into that place for ages, and its early focus on staying healthy and thinking about it holistically rather than simply seeing health as the absence of disease.

Green streets? Yes please, many small residential roads do not need asphalt and would be perfectly lovely with paving stones or concrete treads for tires, allowing natural drainage, reducing heat trapped and use of non-renewable resources and making it feel good to be and play in. I’m in.

Lots of small public squares — wonderful. Here they make the point that the operative word is small, that it is small plazas that are most used unless there is a very large flow of people past a place. The authors have put so much time and thoughtfulness into this book, they suggest 60 feet in diameter (at least in width, long and skinny seems to work as well), bigger than that and places don’t feel used, vibrant.

The idea of outdoor rooms, both public and private — we should have them. It is true as they say that

There are very few spots along the streets of modern towns and neighborhoods where people can hang out comfortably, for hours at a time. (349)

I’d go further than that and say that such a thing would be frowned up and disapproved of in the US and UK these days, that kind of social fabric is something belonging to the past. There is to be no more enjoyment of time. Unless¬† maybe you’re on the Mediterranean, or Aegean.

We need to end speculation and profit on housing of course. Of course. ‘Rental areas are always the first to turn to slums.’ But as importantly,

People will only be able to feel comfortable in their houses, if they can change their houses to suit themselves, add on whatever they need, rearrange the garden as they like it… (394).

This is a book that describes thick living walls that can be carved out, shaped by incoming families. Niches made and filled. Gardens created. Rooms added on. Their rule of thumb for this pattern?

Do everything possible to make the traditional form of rental impossible, indeed, illegal. Give every household its own home, with space enough for a garden. Keep the emphasis in the definition of ownership on control, not on financial ownership (395).

They want to reinstitute the inn, a warm centre where strangers can stay, congregate, meet, entertain each other. Yes, I say.

Open space and gardens are used if they are sunny (with deserts being somewhat of an exception). So put them on the south side. How hard is that?

Connect your buildings, create some density, don’t create dead space between buildings! They write ‘Isolated buildings are symptoms of a disconnected sick society’ (532), and I think they may be right. make sure they’re insulated for sound of course, but that saves on energy and space and all kinds of things. I also like the idea of lines of long thin houses facing the world on the long sides, rather than the narrow ends as they do now. That makes sense to me in terms of sunlight and view, but apparently mathematically it creates the greatest feeling of spaciousness and allows the maximum flexibility in arrangement of space. Who knew?

They go all the way down into seemingly minor details of what makes us happy and comfortable, but still so important. A wall at our backs when outside, arcades that bridge the spaces inside and outside. Building edges should be crenellated to create interest and space for people passing by, and as much care should be given to the space surrounding the buildings as to the buildings themselves– they form a whole. They notice that people tend to hug the edges of squares — if those don’t work, the square will never work. That homes should have an entrance room to make it feel as though you have truly arrived somewhere. They write:

The most impressionistic and intuitive way to describe the need for the entrance room is to say that the time of arriving, or leaving, seems to swell with respect to the minutes which precede and follow it, and that in order to be congruent with the importance of the moment, the space too must follow suit and swell with respect to the immediate inside and the immediate outside of the building. (623)


They think of what children most need from space as they grow, ending with possible private entrances and private roofs. They junk the Victorian ideals of tiny bedrooms rooms in favour of children having bed niches surrounding shared space for living rather than sleeping, small dressing rooms for that which we want to keep most private. Distance and space alone for parents. Rooms that are never perfectly square or uniform. Building materials that are easily used by people without much experience, cheap, and ecologically greener. They even have some plans and rules of thumb for building.

I read through this — skimmed often, as this is more meant to be a working book, one you flip through as you plan your own space and its building — and was immensely impressed. So much of this lies outside commonly accepted wisdom on ‘good’ development, yet intuitively so much of this feels right. I want to sit and just imagine what society might transform into if more were built this way.

It makes me want to build.

(Alexander, Christopher, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein. (1977) A Pattern Language: Towns. Buildings. Construction. NY: Oxford University Press.)

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