A Pattern Language

I was introduced to A Pattern Language during college. It is my go-to book when I need some planning or layout inspiration. The book, published in 1977, is amazingly relevant to the 21st century. The book is formatted into 253 patterns, each of which is captured in just a few pages with effective images and outstandingly simple diagrams. The patterns begin at a regional scale and work through to the concept of a front porch.  A common thread among the patterns is community, which is a profoundly relevant topic as we navigate design in the 21st century.

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In the following excerpt, a section of the introductory content called The Poetry of Language compares building design to poetry, which speaks to me about how we can and ought to design environments that are greater than the sum of their parts.

“This [pattern] language, like English, can be a medium for prose, or a medium for poetry. The difference between prose and poetry is not that different languages are used, but that the same language is used, differently. In an ordinary English sentence, each word has one meaning, and the sentence too, has one simple meaning. In a poem, the meaning is far more dense. Each word carries several meanings; and the sentence as a whole carries an enormous density of interlocking meanings, which together illuminate the whole.

“The same is true for pattern languages…it is also possible to out patterns together I such a way that many patterns overlap in the same physical space; the building is very dense; it has many meanings captured in a small space; and through this density, it becomes profound [emphasis added]” (Alexander et al., 1977, p. xli).


Lets quickly look at a couple specific patterns…

Good Materials, pattern 207, contains a summary discussion of the fundamental conflict in the nature of materials for building in industrial society.  This quote could be taken out of many documents we reference in modern codes and guidelines.

“Furthermore, this class of goods and materials must be ecologically sound; biodegradable, low in energy consumption, and not based on depletable sources” (Alexander et al., 1977, p. 956).


Promenades, pattern 31, are described as an element the heart of communities linking areas of activities (nodes) within short walking distances of each other.  Primary activity nodes should be at the ends maintaining strong activity along the link of the promenade.  The sketch and image shown are typical of the helpful examples given in A Pattern Language. 

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Each of the 253 patterns are provided, not as a prescriptive solution, but as an aspirational inspiration.  The final pattern - Things from Your Life – reminds each of us to bring ourselves and our passions to our designs.  A Pattern Language is, in a sense, a recipe book for creating poetry in design.  And a perfect jumping off point in those moments when you need one!