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Book Review of "A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Co...

Book Review of "A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction" by Christoper Alexander

A tremendously ambitious book, “A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction” by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein attempts to create a language that developers and urban planners can use to shape our environment. The author’s intent is to create a universal language that can be applied to all development projects, in an attempt to encourage the

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A tremendously ambitious book, "A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction" by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein attempts to create a language that developers and urban planners can use to shape our environment. The author’s intent is to create a universal language that can be applied to all development projects, in an attempt to encourage the creation of more functional, magnificent places. Such an undertaking is colossal by its very nature, and while the authors haven’t written something that is flawless, they have succeeded in crafting a book that I believe will be a truly great resource for urban planners, designers, and developers alike.

"A Pattern Language" is volume two of a two-book series. This creates an issue for this reviewer since the authors admit from the very first pages that "A Pattern Language" is best utilized when taken within the context of its companion volume, "The Timeless Way of Building." As the authors state, “We have been forced by practical considerations to publish these two books under separate covers, but in fact, they form an indivisible whole.” In other words, I have been able to review the language without seeing exactly how the authors intended for it to be used. I would recommend that anyone interested in reading "A Pattern Language" also consider reading the companion volume to get the full experience that the authors had intended.

The book consists of 253 separate sections. Each section describes one specific pattern. “Each pattern describes a problem which occurs over-and-over-again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem, in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice.” Each pattern is presented in the same fashion:

  1. A picture is shown to give the reader a visual example of the pattern;

  2. An introductory paragraph presents the framework for the pattern;

  3. A bolded headline defines the problem with the pattern that the author hopes to solve;

  4. Evidence is presented to show the reader that the problem does, in fact, exist;

  5. A bolded solution is presented to the problem in the “form of an instruction – so that you know exactly what you need to do, to build the pattern;”

  6. A diagram is displayed that visually depicts the solution;

  7. A concluding paragraph describes other patterns that this particular pattern is related to.

A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction

Item seven may be the most important item in that list because it gets to the crux of the authors' message – no pattern can be evaluated separately, but instead must be viewed within the context of all related patterns. “It says that when you build a thing, you cannot merely build that thing in isolation, but must also repair the world around it, so that the larger world at that one place becomes more coherent, and more whole; and the thing that you make takes its place in the web of nature, as you make it.” For instance, if we look at pattern 53 within the book, Main Gateways, we must also look at patterns 14 (identifiable neighborhoods), 37 (house clusters), 41 (work community), 95 (building complex), 98 (circulation realms), 110 (main entrance), 112 (entrance transition), and 98 (circulation realms). All of these patterns are intricately linked together and are critical to the success of one another.

The authors fully admit that the language was created to be adaptable to any situation. As a result, “each pattern may be looked upon as a hypothesis like one of the hypotheses of science.” In this way, the parameters of each pattern are intended to be tested under real-world conditions and adjusted accordingly. The flexibility of "A Pattern Language" is its biggest strength – it allows for professionals to use the language as they see fit, instead of trying to force a strict ideology onto them.

Overall, "A Pattern Language" proved to be a very refreshing read. It is a unique addition to the array of materials already at the fingertips of urban planners and other design professionals, providing a truly fresh way of looking at the built environment. 

What do you think about the idea of breaking down the built environment into a series of related patterns? As a professional, do you think that is practical to view the environment in this way? Share your thoughts in the comments area below.

The Global Grid gave away a free copy of this book to one lucky person. Be sure to never miss one of our reviews. Follow #TheGlobalGridReads for our reviews and join our Goodreads group for opportunities to win free books in the future.

Credits: Creative Commons images courtesy of Spencer Selover and Zhang Kaiyv. Updated December 6, 2017.

By purchasing "A Pattern Language" using the links on this page, you'll be supporting The Global Grid. A small portion of the sales come back to us to support our work and book reviews like this.

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Sean Glowacz holds a Masters of Urban Planning and Public Policy degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Sean spent two years at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning as a Research Assistant. His work focused on various tasks relate...

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