IN THE LATE 1970S, a book with the odd title A Pattern Language became a bible to me and to many of my friends. Ostensibly about architecture, it was really a handbook on how to live.
In the evenings, I’d sit under a lamp and turn its thin, almost translucent pages, looking at lists of design elements like “Cascading Roofs,” “Alcove,” and “Sunny Spot.” These “patterns” could be cobbled together to make a house.
Decades before most Westerners had heard of feng shui, it described how the built world shapes human interaction. It recommended windows on two sides of every room, for instance, because this “creates less glare around people and objects. . . . It allows us to read in detail the minute expressions that flash across people’s faces . . . to understand each other.”
More than a recipe book for designing bungalows with cozy window seats and wide front porches, it was an elegy to the social joy and vanishing higgledy-piggledy beauty we touch in Greek island villages, some urban neighborhoods, and timeless indigenous architecture. The book, still in print, became the best-selling architectural treatise of all time.
Its lead author, architect Christopher Alexander—a critic of much Bauhaus-style modern architecture—may now be the West’s most influential “counternarrative” architectural theorist. He is the inspiration behind the pedestrian-friendly New Urbanism and Sarah Susanka’s bestselling Not So Big House books. The organizational logic of his “Pattern Language” inspired a revolution in software design.
This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.Subscribe Now
Already a subscriber? Log in.