oturn home > Probe: index page > Comment on the pattern language design approach

Comment on the pattern language design approach

Dec 5, 2000

My point of reference is Christopher Alexander's the new patternlanguage.com website, 'formed as an outgrowth of thirty years of work at THE CENTER FOR ENVIRONMENTAL STRUCTURE..' (see more) although the points made below could apply to the earlier work as well.

I just take the section 'Detailed Purpose' of the corporate business plan feature by feature. If the following sounds as if I was trying to trash the pattern language approach, you are mistaken. I find Alexander's theory good and useful, especially in its high level of integration from the widest patterns (infrastructure) down to building details and ornament.

I just think it would be fruitful to address the discrepancy between the theory and the reality of design of the built environment. What are the strategies that can negotiate, overturn or bypass the exisiting power relationships (laws, rules and regulations, social and cultutral constraints)? What are second-best strategies? If these aspects are omitted, the suspicion must be that pattern language is for those few that are wealthy enough to toy with new ways of buiding on their own real estate.

'1. The system is ecologically responsible and will manage design and construction in such a way that every building, and every built component, is to be entirely responsive to the land where it is built, and complements and enhances that land.' 'responsive to the land where it is built' is a view of underlying nature not the social and economic use that defines most places, at least in urban and suburban environments. The appropriate design of this land however is contested by different interest groups - motorists, dog owners, commercial developers, ramblers, skateboarders, nudists, children, homeless people, to mention a few.

'2. The system is highly responsive to needs of individual and groups. Every building, and every part of every building made in this new system is particular to the needs and aspirations and dreams of individuals, families, and small businesses, thus creating a world in which every part is recognizably unique.' To equate users with 'individuals, families, and small businesses' seems strange. Again, other needs and aspirations are at play. Big business needs (or thinks it needs) large corporate headquarters that transform their neighbourhood (watch Hamburgs new huge KPMG building sealing off the open spaces near the Michel church - which, guess, were used as car parks before). The culture industry needs big ugly places to host their dreadful musicals. We know what amount of space cars occupy. Bar revolutionary changes 'the system' will at best improve the interstices of a world defined on entirely different terms.

'3. The new delivery system will be founded on a coordinated process of planning and design, in which all kinds of users are able to - and encouraged to - participate in the design, planning, and layout of the buildings which are to serve them Thus, for the first time in post industrial society, people will regain a voice in the construction of the world.' Will they? I truly wish this would happen, but, at least in Germany, the administrative difficulties alone prevent user-driven building. Rules for planning permissions, requirements for funding, strict regulations relegating lay people's participation in construction basically to decorative tasks, mandatory provision of parking spaces, conservation guidelines for neighbourhoods ("Milieuschutz") - all these favour the current processes. User-driven planning can be achieved to a very limited extent and even that requires a lot of trickery, as we experienced in a (successful) co-operative building project which we sadly left before completion.

'4. The new system is based on a process in which design and construction are unified and interwoven continuously.'. See above comment.

'5. The new system of delivery will depend on an organized network of builders , engineers and architects. The procedures to be followed by these participants will be different from the role played in present day construction and building delivery. One of the methods to be used will develop a more significant role for construction workers, architects, engineers, in their cooperation with users and clients.' It is certainly right to build those structures to the extent this is possible. My guess is that 'the other way' may be allowed to rule in the outskirts in rural areas that fall out of economically viable production. This could be significant since alternative approaches can be practiced and concepts proven empirically. This knowledge may then migrate towards the centres.

'6. The system of delivery will place enormous focus on cost, cost consciousness and cost control. Loosely the method of operation may be characterized by saying that the delivery system will aim that for every thousand dollars, the system is able to extract the maximum good from the way that $1000 is spent.' Well I am not an expert on cost and cost control but this sounds a bit like a throwaway statement. What's to be done to achieve this?

'7. The system will be very highly decentralized, and will rely on the autonomous activities of local architects, engineers and builders and crafts people, in every given township and rural region.' Fine. However I guess infrastructure planning as integral part of this needs, if not centralisation, a high degree of integration through agreed rules and protocols?

'8. The focus of the delivery system will be on the harmony and beauty of the environment. Although such things cannot ever be guaranteed, the system will be set up in such a way that it places maximum emphasis on the contribution which each act of construction makes to the emergence of a living and harmonious human environment, in which rooms, buildings, gardens, and streets are genuinely beautiful in the ordinary sense that they give practical and spiritual pleasure to their inhabitants.' As John Lindsay says in his Green Transport Information Planning Route Guide, 'your utopia is my distopia'. Take golf courses, for example. Just like Tim Baker I get more spiritual pleasure from derelict buildings on deserted land than from well maintained gardens. Most visitors will perceive Hamburg's reconstructed 'historic' Deichstrasse or Peterstrasse beautiful, I find them atrocious. So the notion of 'a living and harmonious human environment' seems to presuppose some utopian state of mind, where the ruling cultural and aesthetic patterns have been gracefully dissolved.

Last update: 07 June 2008 | Impressum—Imprint