I first discovered A Pattern Language in 1988, through an article in Metropolitan Home magazine about the building of Sala House, near San Francisco. The house was designed by the British architect Christopher Alexander for his clients, Andre and Anna Sala, using the principles in Alexander’s book A Pattern Language.
The article, “The Spirit of Home”, featured interior and exterior images of Sala House, along with text from A Pattern Language, detailing each ‘pattern’ Alexander had used in Sala House. Patterns, according to Alexander, provide a model for how our built environment can best support human life and creativity.
After reading the article, I checked out A Pattern Language at the library and sat down with the intention of reading it from front to back. It’s a thick book. I made a cup of tea, and assembled some snacks. I ended up renewing the book multiple times, before eventually buying my own copy, which has been kept within easy reach ever since. I have recommended it more times than I can count, and have long believed the book deserves a wider audience.
Sleeping in Public (more about this title later) is my new podcast about A Pattern Language and its continuing influence. The book was published by Oxford University Press in 1977 and was written by Christopher Alexander with his colleagues Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein from the Center for Environmental Structure of Berkeley, California. It explores architectural theory through a series of related patterns, or principles.
Once I got into A Pattern Language, I discovered that it’s not really a read-cover-to-cover kind of book at all. The book contains 253 patterns covering design of the built environment from the macro to the micro; from the somewhat high-level view of the first pattern, Independent Regions, to the intensely personal final chapter, Things from Your Life.
Each short chapter contains one pattern. At the beginning of each chapter is a short list of the patterns that inform the one you’re reading. At the end of each chapter another short list of patterns directs you towards the patterns informed by the pattern you’ve just read.
While it’s possible to read A Pattern Language from the first pattern to the last, it’s more fun to follow a trail of patterns that inform one another, from one to the next. In many ways, A Pattern Language is like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, only instead of finding treasure, or defeating an ice monster, you’re finding a path through the patterns to intuitively create a supportive built environment for yourself, and your family.
Reading A Pattern Language for the first time in 1988 affected me profoundly, and it continues to influence me. There is an honesty about the patterns. Each one contains a fundamental truth about the way our built environment should work. I see the book as posing a set of questions about what we, as human beings living on this planet, need from our physical environment, and what our environment requires of us, with the answers handily provided.
Sleeping in Public (94) is my favourite pattern of the 253. It states: “It is a mark of success in a park, public lobby or porch, when people can come there and fall asleep.”
It’s a radical notion, that the world should contain spaces within the public realm that are specifically designed for people to sleep. Comfortable outdoor rooms or nooks, sheltered, away from traffic or footfall, with space to stretch out comfortably. A space where people feel safe and welcome enough to fall asleep. Where people feel safe enough to allow others to sleep.
In our world at present, to fall asleep in public is considered an act of either foolhardiness or vagrancy. The anti-pattern to Sleeping in Public is the rise of so-called hostile architecture. Metal spikes placed in doorways that make it impossible for anyone to shelter there. Public benches that discourage loitering by being just that little bit too high or narrow to be comfortable. High-pitched noise that only the young can hear inhibiting young people from inhabiting public space. “Public” space, apparently, being for the benefit of only the correct sorts of public.
Pattern 94 argues that the problems associated with people sleeping in public are not purely social. That they are shaped by our environment, and may be remedied by small, simple adjustments to that environment. The pattern proposes that sleeping in public currently feels unnatural, at least to the correct sorts of the public, because it is so rare.
Pattern 94 presents what I consider to be one of the higher callings in A Pattern Language. It’s my favourite because it’s about a problem within the design of our built environment, the solution for which places our humanity at the forefront. It calls for us to trust each other. And to care for each other. And to respect each other. It offers a small change to the built environment to create a world that’s hopeful, optimistic, and calls us to our better nature.
Through the years I’ve referred to A Pattern Language to understand elements of a world designed by architects and planners, built for humans. It’s mostly been an academic exercise, as I’m not an urban planner, landscape architect or a builder. I had once hoped to build a house in the “timeless” way suggested through Alexander’s writings on the subject. Unfortunately, the love of my life views the prospect of a self-build as akin to self-appendectomy. I’ve made peace with the fact that a strategic remodel of our tiny Welsh house is as close as I’m likely to get to the Timeless Way of Building.
Since a self-build experience is not available to me, I began to wonder if the home we have shared these past 20 years, built in the middle of the last century, could be made somehow better by applying the principles in A Pattern Language to our space. And since I’m a storyteller, it occurred to me that I could share my journey through A Pattern Language with other people who care about such things.
Obviously, it is not possible for me to directly impact a Web of Shopping (19) by planting Fruit Trees (170) at my house. But the beauty of A Pattern Language lies in the interconnections between its patterns. It is just as easy to begin with the early patterns and follow the breadcrumbs towards the family home, as it is to begin with the patterns near the end of the book and expand outwards, toward the public realm. Or to start somewhere in the middle. Remember, it’s not a book you have to read from cover-to-cover.
I guess what I’m saying is that, beginning in 2021, the Sleeping in Public podcast will begin to explore the patterns, and track my progress through their application in my own home. I’ll follow the pattern connections through the book until, eventually, at some distant point, I’ll have explored all 253 patterns in A Pattern Language.
That’s the plan, anyway. Should be fun. I hope you’ll be with me. Might take some time. We should definitely make a cup of tea, and assemble some snacks.