This timeless book from Christopher Alexander was released back in the seventies, and it’s just as much a book on philosophy as on architecture. Still, the main purpose of the book is as an introduction to A Pattern Language.
Alexander’s architectural writings at the same time develop a philosophy of nature and life. He proposes a more profound connection between nature and the human mind than is presently allowed either in science, or in architecture. Alexander sees the universe as a coherent whole, encompassing feelings as well as inanimate matter. This strongly Taoist viewpoint was first developed in his book The Timeless Way of Building (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979).
To some readers, this is a book on architecture written in a philosophical style; to many others, it is a book on philosophy with architectural examples. A large number of people have embraced the philosophy of the Timeless Way of Building, finding in it universal truths on how man interacts with the world. Towards the end of his life, the philosopher and teacher J. Krishnamurti enjoyed having sections from the Timeless Way read to him each evening. – Nikos A. Salingaros
For this reason another name on the book could just as well have been The Timeless Way of Living.
Surely it is one of the most important books of all times, as it shows the way to a new kind of world, mimicking nature through pattern languages. What is important about these languages is that they care for the whole web of life, from the largest to the smallest scale. One example about how a pattern maintains life on the smallest scale is pattern 87, which I’ve described in my article The Ancient Taberna in a Future World.
Such an approach is urgently needed to be implemented into all aspects of our communities. That Alexander uses examples from architecture is simply because he’s an architect by profession. Even I don’t fully understand the idea of fractals, yet it seems to me that a sustainable system should consist of fractals at every scale, emphasizing the smallest scales, and the force that builds and maintains this coherent system of fractals is pattern languages. If the language used fails to maintain order and stability within the smallest scales, then we get unsustainable systems, like I’ve tried to describe it in my article Anti-Pattern Capitalism.
Another failed language is the language of modernism, completely neglecting the importance of human patterns and fractals. We may describe all stable complex systems as having "fractal properties".
The meaning of patterns is that the information presented to us can be compressed. A random array of letters has no meaning for us, but if they convey a pattern of linguistic representation, we can grasp their information. Because of the symmetries and scaling that occurs in fractals, the human brain doesn’t have to encode all the distinct scales of such complex structures. Mathematical fractals repeat the same shape of different scales. This idea finds an extremely successful application in fractal compression programs for computer graphics. These work ideally to compress natural scenery, animals, human faces, etc., because those obey fractal scaling to a large extent. – Twelve Lectures on Architecture, by Nikos A. Salingaros, page 40
The “dance of life”:
Unfortunately the world has rejected the "dance of life"; it is so faint for us now that most people should find it scary even to think about it. Norwegians are told that we have cold hearts because of our climate, but this is not true. Our hearts have become cold because we have lost the rhythm of life; in fact we are now living disconnected from life itself!
Christopher Alexander gave the Pattern Language to the world, and if people had read it, it would have liberated every individual from the tyrannical dictates of an architectural and urban machine (in the sense of an oppressive system). The patterns in that book are a true liberation, establishing people’s own deep feelings about the built environment as sound and valid. The reason this is so important is that architecture schools, the media, and most architects have been implementing the very opposite for close to a century. And they have been justifying their inhuman product by a massive advertising campaign, exactly like soft drinks and junk food replacing genuinely nutritious food, because some people make a lot of money promoting them, and those same persons would make a lot less money selling and distributing wholesome foodstuff. We now have a significant percentage of the world’s economy driven by the soft drinks and junk food industry, just as we have another major percentage of it driven by the construction of glass and steel skyscrapers and dehumanizing concrete buildings. The architectural/urban situation is "soft" oppression, where a vast power system geared to promoting an unhealthy and dehumanizing built environment is driven by subconscious suggestion. In only a few instances is brute power used, as in monofunctional zoning, and bulldozing owner-built houses so that someone can make a profit by building concrete high-rise blocks. — Nikos A. Salingaros
Some additional explanation of the pattern concept:
Identifying any type of pattern follows the same criteria in architecture as in hardware or software.
1. A repeating solution to the same or similar set of problems, discovered by independent researchers and users at different times.
2. More or less universal solution across distinct topical applications, rather than being heavily dependent upon local and specific conditions.
3. That makes a pattern a simple general statement that addresses only one of many aspects of a complex system. Part of the pattern methodology is to isolate factors of complex situations so as to solve each one in an independent manner if possible.
4. A pattern may be discovered or "mined" by "excavating" successful practices developed by trial-and-error already in use, but which are not consciously treated as a pattern by those who use it. A successful pattern is already in use somewhere, perhaps not everywhere, but it does not represent a utopian or untried situation. Nor does it represent someone’s opinion of what "should" occur.
5. A pattern must have a higher level of abstraction that makes it useful on a more general level, otherwise we are overwhelmed with solutions that are too specific, and thus useless for any other situation. A pattern will have an essential area of vagueness that guarantees its universality. – Nikos A. Salingaros
A core point of the Timeless Way is that the expertise is in the language, and should be expressed by the people using the Pattern Language to create their own way of life, something that can never be achieved by "experts".
The configuration is being worked out on the ground itself. It is the result of a recursive process so that we can go back and re-adjust or revise previous steps. New Urbanists use the word “charrette” to mean an off-site participatory discussion, but I mean here the totally different charrette carried out on the site, where the results of the design process are marked on the site. In an off-site charrette everyone will have different opinions, and the only way a result is reached is through the guidance by the more practical architect leading the charrette. But if a group of people is making decisions on site, they will invariably reach consensus. – Twelve Lectures on Architecture, by Nikos A. Salingaros, page 131
We see here a reason for why most professional planners and architects prefer to neglect the fundamental truths about the Timeless Way. They feel their professions, authority and ego are threatened by the fact that they are not the best fit to make good decisions about design and the planning process. Only a group of future residents working on the ground itself can create a true living neighborhood through consensus. There is no other way we can achieve real neighborhoods full of spirit, community and resilience!
Another reason for denial is that the Pattern Language, explained by the Timeless Way, repels all virus attacks from architects and others infected my modernistic ideology — like the anti-virus program for your computer.
If you apply Patterns in design, they act as viral antibodies to protect from architectural viruses. The ability to mesh a form language into the Pattern Language is a crucial test for the validity of that form language. A made-up, style-based design method is not rich enough to define a form language. For this reason, architects who use viral methods of design take care never to legitimize Alexandrine patterns, since those undo their design method. The common excuse given is that Alexandrine patterns "inhibit creativity", but the correct statement is that the patterns identify viral methods of design which are disguised as "creative". This is the principal reason why the Pattern Language is not routinely taught in design schools today. – Twelve Lectures on Architecture, by Nikos A. Salingaros, page 142
To maintain the wholeness of a place you need to know and respect the form language of that area, evolving the Timeless Way out of culture and climate. What modernists have done is to destroy the form languages of our world, soon to be all extinct!
The form language tells you that tectonic components are of a certain size, using certain materials, and a particular type of developed ornamentation (all of your choice). Every geographical and cultural region will have a totally distinct form language, yet every evolved traditional form language meshes with the Pattern Language, because both languages share a rich and complex linguistic structure. In many cases, architects have adopted a very poor form language made up of stylistic rules that have a minimal internal linguistic structure. For this reason it will never match the Pattern Language. Drawing the wrong conclusion from this blatant mismatch, ideologically-driven architects have unfortunately thrown out the Pattern Language instead of realizing that their own form language is fundamentally flawed. – Twelve Lectures on Architecture, by Nikos A. Salingaros, page 135
Though, what is important to note is that A Pattern Language cannot be used as a design manual, because patterns are constraints to take care of human needs and interactions, but for the creation of beauty we need other tools.
When "A Pattern Language" was first published in 1977, architects immediately assumed that it was a design manual, and used it to generate some very interesting buildings. Those buildings, despite their positive human qualities, lack an overall coherence, and people did not understand why this was happening. The reason is that the Patterns provide essential and necessary constraints, and not a design method in itself. The actual design algorithm was developed by Alexander, but only many years later. – Twelve Lectures on Architecture, by Nikos A. Salingaros, page 106
J. Krishnamurti loved the Timeless Way for its holistic Taoist approach upon the world, offering healing from the mechanical world view introduced by Descartes, reuniting the unhappy divide between subject and object, or feeling and rationality. When these two merges we can make our world whole!
The core of Krishnamurti’s teaching is contained in the statement he made in 1929 when he said: "Truth is a pathless land". Man cannot come to it through any organization, through any creed, through any dogma, priest or ritual, nor through any philosophical knowledge or psychological technique. He has to find it through the mirror of relationship, through the understanding of the contents of his own mind, through observation, and not through intellectual analysis or introspective dissection. Man has built in himself images as a sense of security – religious, political, personal. These manifest as symbols, ideas, beliefs. The burden of these dominates man’s thinking, relationships and his daily life. These are the causes of our problems for they divide man from man in every relationship. – Wikipedia
What J. Krishnamurti speaks about here is what has later been named as "memes". Unfortunately the most dominant memes today also divide man from nature in every relationship. The Timeless Way of Building offers a new set of sustainable memes, reuniting man with nature and man with man.
Someone that has expressed exactly what I’d like to say much better, in regard to this book, is David Sheen. It’s a pleasure to read his article, just look at how Sheen summarizes Alexander’s goal for architecture.
To Alexander, the goal of good architecture is to achieve a Kabalist-Taoist "quality without a name": buildings, towns, and gardens that make us feel most alive, the most true to ourselves, the most unselfconscious, the most whole, the most complete, the most free. The person capable of achieving this quality is not a professional architect, but an everyman or everywoman, full of innocence and devoid of ego. And "the way" to achieve this quality is through the rediscovery and implementation of pattern languages, the genetic codes of buildings, simple "rules of thumb", the relationships between contexts, problems, and solutions. — David Sheen
Imagine if this had been the goal for our governments and every one of us, and not just for architecture but for the whole way we live our lives. A "quality without a name", beyond what can be expressed by words! Please read David Sheen’s article here.
I’ll end with a few quotes from The Timeless Way of Building itself, to give you a taste of its unique language and philosophy:
But, by contrast, in the early phases of industrial society which we have experienced recently, the pattern languages die.
Instead of being widely shared, the pattern languages which determine how a town gets made become specialized and private. Roads are built by highway engineers; buildings by architects; parks by planners; hospitals by hospital consultants; schools by educational specialists; gardens by gardeners; tract housing by developers.
The people of the town themselves know hardly any of the languages which these specialists use. And if they want to find out what these languages contain, they can’t, because it is considered professional expertise. The professionals guard their language jealously to make themselves indispensable.
Even within any profession, professional jealousy keeps people from sharing their pattern languages. Architects, like chefs, jealously guard their recipes, so that they can maintain unique style to sell.
The languages start out to being specialized and hidden from the people; and then within the specialties, the languages become more private still, and hidden from another, and fragmented. – Page 231-232.
In early times the city itself was intended as an image of the universe – its form guarantee of the connection between the heavens and the earth, a picture of a whole and coherent way of life. A living pattern language is even more. It shows each person his connection to the world in terms so powerful that he can re-affirm it daily by using it to create new life in all the places round about him.
And in this sense, finally, as we shall see, the living language is a gate. Once we have built the gate, we can pass through it to practice the timeless way. – Page 348-349
A farmer in a traditional culture “knew” how to make a beautiful house for himself. We envy him, and think that only he was able to do this because his culture made it possible. But this power the primitive farmer had lay in his pattern language.
And if the people of the town now have a pattern language which is whole, they have the same power, exactly. Whatever act of building or repair is contemplated – building a bench, a flower bed, a room, a terrace, a small cottage, a whole house, a group of houses, a remaking of a street shop, a café trellis, a complex of public buildings, even the replanning of a neighborhood – they have the power to do it for themselves. – Page 353
A person with a pattern language can design any part of the environment.
He does not need to be an “expert”. The expertise is in the language. He can equally well contribute to the planning of a city, design his own house, or remodel a single room, because in each case he knows the relevant patterns, knows how to combine them, and knows how the particular piece he is working on fits into the larger whole.
And it is essential that the people shape their surroundings for themselves.
Since the patterns are patterns of action, and the action will not happen unless the patterns are felt, and created, and maintained by the people whose action goes into the patterns, there is no way the living town can be built by professionals, for other people to live in. The living town can only be created by a process in which patterns are created and maintained by the people who are part of them. – Page 353-354
This means, then, that the growth and rebirth of a living town is built up from a myriad of smaller acts.
In a town where the common language has vanished, the acts of construction and design are in few hands, and are large and clumsy.
But once each person in the town can shape a building for himself, or a part of the street, or help to shape a public building, or add a garden or a terrace to a corner of a building – then, at this stage, the growth and rebirth of the town is the concrescence of a million acts.
It is a flux of millions upon millions of these tiny acts, each one in the hands of the person who knows it best, best able to adapt it to the local circumstances.
An organism, which seems at first sight like a static thing, is in fact a constant flux of process. And it is the pattern language which, like the genes distributed throughout the cells, makes certain that there is this structure, this invariant permanency, in the flux of things, so that the building or the town stays whole. – Page 354-357
Just as each gene, or group of genes within a chromosome, guide the growth and repair of individual portions of the organism, so in a town each sub language of the common language also guarantees the complete and coherent emerging organization of the whole.
As in the organism, there is no sharp difference between the process of construction and the process of repair. Each process of construction helps repair some larger whole, of which it is merely a part. No thing is whole unto itself.
And the larger pattern language which is shared, lies behind the flux of acts of building and repair, and makes sure there is a structure, an invariant permanency in the flux of things, which makes the town stay whole. – Page 361
Each pattern language in the larger language, can, because it is connected to the entire language, help all the other patterns to emerge.
Each language tugs to the fabric of the larger language, pulls with it other larger patterns, and in this fashion then helps to repair the larger whole.
And the pattern language is the instrument by means of which the flux which is the town perpetuates itself, maintains its structure, and keeps itself continuously alive. – Page 362-364
We see then the enormous power which a common pattern language has.
The process of life is marked by the continuous creation of wholes from parts. In an organism, cells cooperate to form organs and the body as a whole. In a society the individual actions of the people cooperate to form institutions and larger wholes…
And in a town a pattern language is a source of life, above all, because it helps to generate the wholes, from the cooperation of the individual acts. – Page 364
Get rid of the ideas which come into your mind. Get rid of pictures you have seen in magazines, friends’ houses… Insist on the pattern, and nothing else.
The pattern, and the real situation, together, will create the proper form, within your mind, without your trying to do it, if you will allow it to happen.
This is the power of the language, and the reason why the language is creative. – Page 397
We are ready, now, to see just how a sequence of patterns can create a building in our minds.
It happens with surprising ease. The building almost “makes itself”, just as a sentence seems to when we speak.
And it can happen as easily within an ordinary person’s mind, or in a builder’s mind. Everyone, builder or not, can do this for himself, to make a building live… – Page 407
It is only in the mind’s eye, eyes shut, not on paper, that a building can be born out of the vividness of actual experience. – Page 423
When I speak English, the sentences form themselves in my mind as fast as I can say them. And this is true of pattern languages also.
The quality that makes a building as though it has been there for a thousand years, the quality that makes it feel that it has flowed like writing from a pen, comes automatically when I relax my mind, and let the language generate the building freely there.
It is a fearsome thing, like diving into water. And yet it is exhilarating – because you aren’t controlling it. You are only the medium in which the patterns come to life, and of their own accord give birth to something new. – Page 426
It is often said that no group of people can create a work of art, or anything which is whole, since different people pull in different directions, and make the end product a compromise which has no strength.
The use of a shared pattern language solves these problems. As we shall now see, a group of people who use a common pattern language can make a design together just as well as a single person can within his mind. – Page 432
And we see then how a group of people can design a complex building. Once they agree about the language, the actual emergence of the form is simple and fluid. When a group of people try to do something together, they usually fail, because their assumptions are almost completely explicit from the start.
Of course they no longer have the medium of a single mind, as an individual person does. But instead, the group uses the site “out there in front of them”, as the medium in which the design takes its shape – and all, still, without making a drawing.
And, it is for this reason, that the site becomes so much more important for a group.
The site speaks to the people – the building forms itself – and people experience it as something received, not created.
And they are able to visualize the building, right before their eyes, as if it were already there.
The idea that “ordinary” people cannot visualize a building is completely false.
The building grows, and comes alive, before their very eyes.
A few sticks in the ground, or stones, or chalk marks, are enough to bring the image to mind.
And then the building can be built directly from these marks. – Page 449-451
The life, pulse, substance, subtlety of the building can only be retained, if it is built, in the same way that it has been designed – by a sequential and linguistic process, which gives birth to the building slowly, in which the building gets its final form during the actual process of construction: where the details, known in advance as patterns, get their substance from the process of creating them, right there, exactly where the buildings stands.
The simple process by which people generate a living building, simply by walking it out, waving their arms, thinking together, placing stakes in the ground, will always touch them deeply.
It is a moment when, within the medium of a shared language, they create a common image of their lives together, and experience the union which this common process of creation generates in them. – Page 452-454
Again, just as before, the process is sequential. Only now the patterns operate not on a mental image, but on the building itself, as it is being built. Each pattern defines an operation, which helps to differentiate, and to complete, the building as it grows : and when the last patterns are introduced into the growing fabric, the building is complete.
Again, the patterns operate upon the whole : they are not parts, which can be added – but relationships, which get imposed upon the previous ones, in order to make more detail, more structure, and more substance – so the substance of the building emerges gradually, but always as a whole, at each stage of its growth. – Page 459
This is commonplace in nature. When the spider builds its web, the process is standardized; but the parts which are created are all different. Each web is beautiful, unique, perfectly adapted to its situation. Yet it is created by a standard process : and there is just one process. It is very simple. Yet this simple process interacts in an infinite variety of ways with different circumstances to produce different particular webs.
And just so in the building process which I shall now describe. The individual processes are standardized, and very simple. But the actual parts which are produced are infinitely various – they are infinitely different manifestations of the patterns which the processes define. – Page 463
The building, like the countless buildings of traditional society, has the simplicity of a rough pencil drawing. Done in a few minutes, the drawing captures the whole – the essence and the feeling of a horse in motion, a woman bending – because its parts are within the rhythm of the whole.
And just so with the building now. It has a certain roughness. But it is full of feeling, and it forms a whole. – Page 474
This process, like the simple differentiating process, is able to make wholes in which the parts are shaped according to their place.
But this process is still more powerful: because it can make groups of buildings which are larger and more complex.
And it is more powerful, above all, because it leaves no mistakes : because the gaps get filled, the small things that are wrong and gradually corrected, and finally, the whole is so smooth and relaxed, that it will seem as though it had been forever. It has no roughness about it, it simply lies there stretched out in time. – Page 492
At one time people believed that a town had to be planned by a planner who made a plan or a blueprint. It was said that if the order of the town is not created from above, there will just not be an order in the town. And so, even in spite of the most obvious evidence of all the beautiful towns and villages built in traditional societies without master plans, this belief has taken hold, and people have allowed themselves to give up their freedom.
As in biology, though, it is becoming clear now that the structure of a town can be woven much more deeply, more intricately, from the interaction of its individual acts of building within a common language, than it can from a blueprint or a master plan – and that indeed, just like your hand, or like the bush outside my window, it is best generated by the interaction of the rules which govern the construction of the parts. – Page 499
In this sense it is like the natural order of an oak tree. The final shape of any one particular oak tree is unpredictable.
When the oak tree grows, there is no blueprint, no master plan, which tells the twigs and branches where to go.
We know in general that it will have the overall form of an oak, because its growth is guided by the pattern language of an oak tree (its genetic code). But it is unpredictable, in detail, because each small step is shaped by the interaction of this language with external forces and conditions – rain, wind, sunlight, the composition of the earth, position of other trees and bushes, the thickness of the leaves on its own branches.
And a town which is whole, like an oak tree, must be unpredictable also.
The fine details cannot be known ahead of time. We may know, from the pattern language which is shared, what kind of town it will be. But it is impossible to predict its detailed plan : and it is not possible to make it grow according to some plan. It must be unpredictable, so that the individual acts of building can be free to fit themselves to all the local forces which they meet.
The people of a town may know that there is going to be a main pedestrian street, because there is a pattern which tells them so. But, they cannot know just where this main pedestrian street will be, until it is already there. The street will be built up from smaller acts, wherever the opportunity arises. When it is finally made, its form is partly given by the history of happy accidents which let the people build it along with their own more private acts. There is no way of knowing, ahead of time, just where these accidents will fall.
This process, exactly like the emergence of any other form of life, alone produces living order.
It is a process by which the small acts of individuals, almost random, are sieved and harnessed, so that what they create is orderly, even though the product of confusion.
It creates order, not by forcing it, nor by imposing it upon the world (through plans or drawings or components) : but because it is a process which draws order from its surroundings – it allows it to come together.
But of course, by this means far more order can come into being, than could possibly come into being through an invented act.
It is vastly more complex than any other kind of order. It cannot be created by decision. It cannot be designed. It cannot be predicted in a plan. It is the living testament of hundreds and thousands of people, making their own lives and all their inner forces manifest.
And finally, the whole emerges. – Page 510
Imagine that we sort the buildings of the world into two piles. In the one pile, all those traditional buildings, built for thousands of years, in traditional societies all over the world. And, in the other pile, all those buildings built in the last hundred years, built by totalitarian technology, by industry.
Although the buildings and towns in the first pile have vast variety of different forms – brick houses, straw huts, stone vaults, timber framing, thatched roofs, log cabins, piled dry stone walls, stone columns, steep roofs, flat roofs, arched windows, straight windows, brick, wood, stone, white, blue, brown, yellow, narrow streets, wide streets, open compounds, closed courtyards – still compared with the other pile, they have something in common.
It is a particular morphological character. And when buildings are made in the framework of the timeless way, they always have this character. – Page 519
And it is marked, in feeling, by a sharpness and a freedom and a sleepiness which happens everywhere when men and women are free in their hearts.
It is not necessarily complicated. It is not necessarily simple.
It comes simply from the fact that every part is whole in its own right.
This character emerges whenever any part of the world is healed.
Yet this character cannot be generated by a person yearning for the ancient past.
It is simply the character of buildings which reflect the forces in them properly.
And it is because this same morphology, underlying all things, will always arise in the end – that the timeless way of building is a truly timeless one. – Page 522-527
The timeless character of buildings is as much a part of nature as the character of rivers, trees, hills, flames, and stars.
Each class of phenomena in nature has its own characteristic morphology. Stars have their character; oceans have their character; rivers have their character; forests have theirs; trees, flowers, insects, all have theirs. And when buildings are made properly, and true to all the forces in them, then they too will always have their own specific character. This is the character created by the timeless way.
It is the physical embodiment, in towns and buildings, of the quality without a name. – Page 528
Indeed this ageless character has nothing, in the end, to do with languages. The language, and the processes which stem from it, merely release the fundamental order which is native to us. They do not teach us, they only remind us of what we know already, and of what we shall discover time and time again, when we give up our ideas and opinions, and do exactly what emerges from ourselves. – Page 530
To make a building egoless, like this, the builder must let go of all his willful images, and start with a void.
Architects sometimes say that in order to design a building, you must have “an image” to start with, so as to give coherence and order to the whole.
But you can never create a natural thing in this state of mind. If you have an idea – and try to add the patterns to it, the idea controls, distorts, makes artificial, the work which the patterns themselves are trying to do in your mind.
Instead you must start with nothing in your mind.
You are able to do this only when you no longer fear that nothing will happen, and you can therefore afford to let go of your images. – Page 538
Sometimes a willow tree which grows in an awkward corner of a garden, ends up bulging and twisted, as it fits itself to the forces in the garden. But it is no less natural, no less free. If a building which I make turns out bulging and twisted it will be no less free than that willow tree. And it is because of this, because I am not afraid of these deformities, that I can always take the patterns in the order of the language; and because of this that I can always make a building which is natural and free, like the wild willow. – Page 540
And, in the end, the buildings will become alive only when the person who uses the language is himself egoless and free. Only then will he be able to recognize the forces as they really are, instead of being overawed by images.
But at that moment he no longer needs the language. Once a person has freed himself to such an extent, that he can see the forces as they really are, and make a building which is shaped by them alone, and not affected or distorted by his images – he is then free enough to make the building without patterns at all – because the knowledge which the patterns contain, the knowledge of the way the forces really act, is his. – Page 543
When we are as ordinary as that, with nothing left in any of our actions, except what is required – then we can make towns and buildings which are as infinitely various, and peaceful, and as wild and living, as the fields of windblown grass.
Almost everybody feels at peace with nature: listening to the ocean waves against the shore, by a still lake, in a field of grass, on a windblown heath. One day, when we have learned the timeless way again, we shall feel the same about our towns, and we shall feel as much at peace in them, as we do today walking by the ocean, or stretched out in the long grass of a meadow. – Page 549
This article is published at The Permaculture Research Institute of Australia on June 17, 2011.