I just finished A Pattern Language, by that favorite architect and urban planner of programmers everywhere, Christopher Alexander. (Actually, while Alexander gets the lion’s share of the credit in subsequent references, the front cover lists “Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein, with Max Jacobson, Ingrid Fiksdahl-King, Shlomo Angel” as authors.) My main reaction was “this book was published almost thirty years ago; why haven’t we learned anything from it since then?” Not that I’m really surprised by that: lots of the same lessons were in The Death and Life of Great American Cities almost two decades earlier, in particular the importance of vibrant sidewalks, and how mixing stores with housing is key to that.

Alexander’s book, however, differs from Jacobs’ in being 1100 pages of concrete recommendations. (Only a third of it is urban planning: the rest is on smaller-scale matters.) Some of it I’m dubious about (e.g. City Country Fingers – in general, I’m not as convinced of the wonders of countryside as he is), some seems nice but idealistic (Self-Governing Workshops and Offices), but some of it is wonderful, often in surprising ways. Green Streets is an example: one of the book’s strengths is that it acknowledges the current importance of automobiles, while presenting methods for minimizing their impacts, and this pattern suggests that, if you have a pathway that cars have to occasionally pass through, you should create it by inserting paving stones into grass (with gaps between, so grass grows everywhere), instead of by paving the pathway completely. That way, it makes it clear that the cars are only there by sufferance: the conceptual change is huge, and as a practical effect cars also drive a lot slower and more carfully in such areas. I don’t know for sure if it would work or not, but it sure sounds like it’s worth trying.

When the patterns get smaller in scale, I start looking around our house (and the townhouse complex), seeing which patterns we follow, which we don’t, and how well they work. I love the house outlines that he creates motivated by Light on Two Sides of Every Room (with the help of other patterns, such as Wings of Light and Cascade of Roofs); a pity we’re missing that so completely. (But then where would our bookshelves go?) At first, I thought that the balconies in our complex are completely unused (except by one cat) because of Six-Foot Balcony, but now that I’ve actually measured our balcony’s depth, that’s not the answer: it’s not quite six feet deep, but it’s very close. Probably a better answer is that the balconies aren’t taking into effect the public-private dynamic: they’re off of the master bedrooms, and I suspect that balconies are more effective when they’re off of public areas. Also, most of the balconies don’t get much light. (In general, we do a lousy job of South Facing Outdoors.)

Given that we can’t change many things about our house, how can we bring out more of these patterns? Our piano is placed where it is as an attempt to hint at an Entrance Room, and to improve the Intimacy Gradient (which I read about in The Timeless Way of Building); I think it’s been reasonably successful at that. We don’t have a lot of windows, but perhaps we could make a better use of the ones we have: could we create a Window Place or two? Is there anywhere we could hint at Alcoves? Could we reclaim the master bedroom as semi-public space somehow (leaving the Marriage Bed at one end, of course), and as a result use the balcony better? Something to think about…

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