Christopher Alexander Portrait - Pattern Language History




Note:  This fascinating history describes the evolution of architect Christopher Alexander’s thinking about his revolutionary pattern language for designing healthy, vibrant communities. It is provided here more for its historical value than for its theoretical application to our wise democracy pattern language. Our pattern language has much less of the physically hierarchical nature that characterized the original one created by Alexander and his team. – Tom Atlee

Jenny Quillen: “In the 70s the US government – in the National Institute of Mental Health – said they would like to have a study done on the relationships between the environment, happiness and health.

At the University of Berkeley in California a group run by [Christopher] Alexander said that they were interested in the topic. So the government gave them the grant to do this study. What’s interesting I think for us to remember now is that when Alexander and his team took on the project they had no idea at all how to go about it.

Patterns as a research tool and then patterns as a design tool were not the starting point of study; they were actually the end result. So the development of patterns as a methodology was created by and for this grant.


A second thing I think people today tend to forget is that patterns are FOUND. They’re not created.  So it’s like a diamond: if you try to artificially make a diamond it doesn’t really work. You can do SOMETHING, but a real diamond is something you find and it’s the result of time and pressure from the earth. Then you get a real diamond and you polish it and it’s beautiful. And it’s the same thing with patterns.

So a really good pattern is the result of lots of people in lots of circumstances over lots of time. So what you are doing as a pattern writer is you are digging like a miner, you find a diamond in the rough and you clean it up. But you’re not creating it from scratch. And this I think people tend to forget.


So [Alexander’s book] A PATTERN LANGUAGE is 1977 and then it’s a very very long time before we get to [his next book] THE NATURE OF ORDER. So the natural question is, What was going on during all that time?  And essentially what happened with Christopher Alexander is that he saw what people were doing with A PATTERN LANGUAGE, and he was disappointed. “This is mediocre! This is not interesting!”

And what he found is that people could understand A pattern and so they would do something here and something there and something over there. But the result wasn’t profound or really beautiful… It was – what we call in English – kind of hokey, a little funky. So his question was “What did I miss? I thought A PATTERN LANGUAGE was the answer and it’s not, because people aren’t making beautiful things with it.”

So what happened during that kind of 30 years is that Alexander quite courageously goes back to point zero – a blank piece of paper – and says “Okay. What’s the answer now?”

There is a connection between A PATTERN LANGUAGE and THE NATURE OF ORDER, although many people don’t see it.  They buy THE NATURE OF ORDER and they think it’s going to be “A PATTERN LANGUAGE – PLUS!” … and it’s not.  It’s very different.


The bridge is this: If you look at a traditional pattern language that is really good – if you look carefully at it – it has some meta qualities. So the patterns will not be here, here, here, and here [i.e., dispersed randomly all over the place]. They’ll be in a hierarchy; they’ll be in what he calls “levels of scale”. So a pattern at [a given] level tells you about the pattern that’s beneath it: there’s a connection. They’re distinct so they’re separate patterns, but there’s a connection. And then there’s a connection between [that same] pattern and the one above it.

And each pattern is what he calls “a center”, so each pattern – you said your favorite was “the playground”, right? – so “the playground” is a center in the city and the city is a center in a region… So each pattern is a center in a related hierarchy.

So what he does in THE NATURE OF ORDER is start to look at these meta qualities of a good pattern language and he starts looking at the glue: How are patterns really connected? And that was something that people were were missing in their first reading. And it’s also what’s difficult about THE NATURE OF ORDER. It’s not an obvious topic. But that’s what THE NATURE OF ORDER is really about.”