Meditation: On Patterns

Meditation: On Patterns

Shannon Holman
Aug 27, 2006
By 'patterns,' I don't mean checks, plaids, and herringbones, though those are nice too--I mean pattern language, a way of describing good design practices invented by the architect and theorist Christopher Alexander and taken up by all sorts of other disciplines. Alexander's book A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction and the later opus The Nature of Order attempt to lay out a system of thinking about how small and large spaces can be built in ways that are full of life, harmony, and plain good sense. Each pattern describes a problem and presents guidlines for its resolution while leaving flexible the details of implementation.

Here, for instance, is a pattern for enabling a smooth transition from public to private space:

127 Intimacy Gradient
Unless the spaces in a building are arranged in a sequence which corresponds to their degrees of privateness, the visits made by strangers, friends, guests, clients, family, will always be a little awkward.
Lay out the spaces of a building so that they create a sequence which begins with the entrance and the most public parts of the building, then leads into the slightly more private areas, and finally to the most private domains.

I find it relaxing to explore Alexander's patterns, and useful too: even when I don't have control over every detail of my space, I can investigate what makes certain elements work and try to apply the characterisitics of successful spaces to less successful ones. This morning, for instance, I started with a vague feeling of dissatisfaction with my desk, read a couple of patterns, went into the kitchen and sliced an apple, came back to my desk, and realized that the kitchen Hoosier was designed at the right height for slicing, while my desk was designed for a shorter person. A couple of encyclopedia volumes under the laptop brings the computer to a more usable height--not an ideal solution, perhaps, but an improvement.

Photo credit: Center for Environmental Structure via NPR


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