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Customer Review

TOP 1000 REVIEWERon September 24, 2002
I've read all three books in this series, and I thought this was by far the best and most accessible. The first, "A Timeless Way of Building", introduced the author's philosophy and was, I thought, a bit bogged down with New Age jargon. I prefer to think in terms of comfort and relationships, though ultimately I agree with just about everything the author-as-designer states and obviously went on to read his other work. I thought the third book, photographs of a project completed by the author, should have been the most informative, but ultimately didn't do justice to the author's ideas. But maybe it was just the poor quality of the pictures. IMHO this is the masterpiece of the trilogy. Its concern is the practical application of the author's ideas, and one could only wish to live or work in a space designed with this philosophy. His thinking is pragmatic AND beautiful, bringing balance and harmony to space.

Having made the case for his system of architectural and social design in his earlier work, the author here goes on to formalize a system of 253 patterns, ranging in scale from towns down to benches. Patterns 1 through 94 define a town or community; numbers 95 through 204 define (groups of) buildings; and numbers 205-253 define a "buildable building". The individual patterns are themselves evocative and inviting, and cover a myriad of human social and environmental relationships: number 1 is Independent Region, pattern 2 is Distribution of Towns, 10 is Magic of the City, 57 is Children in the City, number 62 is High Places, number 63 Dancing in the Street, 94 is Sleeping in Public, 203 Child Caves, 223 Deep Reveals, 235 Soft Inside Walls, 253 Things from Your Life.

One example of developing the pattern language for a specific project using a subset of the author's Pattern Language is that of the front porch, composed of 10 elements: private terrace on street, sunny place, six-foot balcony, outdoor room, paths & goals, ceiling height variety, columns at the corners, front-door bench, raised flowers and different chairs. Alexander gives many such examples and eloquently details the process of exploring patterns and moving between them in a search for the proper set. And that is one thing that makes this book special and fun. He does not say a 'successful' set of elements but a 'proper' set of elements. At first that might seem like a lot of hot hubris, but on reading you find that there is a reason that a balcony should be 6-feet square .... THAT is the minimum space required for people to have a comfortable discussion around a small table. It is a charming and useful way to look at one's surroundings, and each of the 253 patterns is given the treatment as the author goes on to detail each element's specifications, definition and purpose.

These expanded definitions are often quite charming; for instance, under pattern 57, Children in the City, he specifies a very safe bike path that meanders past workplaces and shops with windows so that kids can see the diversity and alive-ness of the place in which they live. Lovely idea.

While others have noted that Alexander's ideas inspired changes in software engineering, I would also like to note that the author's ideas were, in turn, most likely informed by others, such as neuroscientist Karl Lashley and, in particular, linguist Noam Chomsky. Chomsky developed the idea of a generative grammar, composed of constituent symbols, a set of rules and a set of terminal elements, which together describe all possible sentences in a language. This was considered revolutionary at the time and is quite similar to Alexander's characterization of his patterns, described as a context combined with a system of forces or rules generating an infinite number of solutions in the form of sets of specific design elements. That configuration, in turn, becomes the context for another pattern. The theory's dynamism and scalability render it very powerful indeed.

I think another interesting approach to this philosophy would be to reverse engineer our own environment. To say, Obviously there is a Pattern Language at work in the larger world in which we live, and it is decidedly in opposition to what Mr. Alexander and others, including myself, believe is preferred. What are the rules of that language? What is the context within which those elements operate? The author codifies a desirable Pattern Language. I'd like to see his principles used to turn an eye toward decodifying our own milieu. This is the kind of book that leads one to think and imagine, and isn't that a wonderful thing?

What I didn't like about this book were that neither ideas nor photographs were credited, which is frustrating for someone who wants to follow up on these ideas, and not fair to those whose work contributed to the author's. The author apologized for this in his first book, but then repeated the discourtesy here; the second time is less forgivable. Also, there is no index, which is especially painful for a librarian :-) I would have liked to have seen a more diverse selection of examples, and some attempt to address the implementation of a pattern language after more conventional designs are already in place. That said, I agree with the many others who have stated that this book changed the way they looked at their surroundings, and I'm profoundly grateful to the author for his work, which stands up well after a quarter century.

Even when mediocrity (or worse) is the order of the day, there are those voices in the wilderness who speak to a better understanding and envision a better world. In codifying an aesthetic relationship among elements of a viable, living environment and describing a system of scalable self-sustaining systems, the author joins visionaries like R. Buckminster Fuller, who bring a philosophy to architecture that is as much about living as it is about building. I would encourage anyone who is interested in architecture, design, a philosophy of organic wholeness, or creating a more humane environment, to read this informative and provocative book.
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