What I’ve Been Reading: Christopher Alexander

This post is a bit delayed. Over the course of two years, ending last year, I read Alexander’s three-volume set:

  1. The Timeless Way of Building
  2. A Pattern Language
  3. The Oregon Experiment

Volume 2 is somewhat famous in computer science as presenting an alternative way of thinking about design patterms, and there are people who wish for a way to apply similar thinking to software patterns.

I decided to read the book to see what the fuss was about, and I have some interest in architecture myself anyway.  I decided to read all three volumes to get the complete picture.  It was a lot of work – interesting as they are, these are voluminous and dense books.

Volume 1 makes the case for the need for a design language in architecture, with which to discuss the design of all types of buildings and human environments.  Volume 2 builds the vocabulary of the language by proposing hundreds of design patterns, which are sort of the words and phrases of this language, and volume 3 discusses an attempt to put this all into practice.

I can’t really say anything meaningful about how this all applies to computer science.  In a way I’m still digesting the philosophy presented in this work and it may be that I’ll never “get” how it might best be applied to my own profession, but I totally get how it applies to architecture because it’s presented largely in opposition to the architectural mistakes of the previous century.  It’s all about making work and living spaces that are functional, versatile, and above all, comfortable and not dehumanizing.  Putting the people who use a space ahead of flashy design or cheap construction.

I do recommend reading volumes 1 and 2; just realize doing so is a big project that requires contemplation.  Volume 2 could actually be toilet reading for a year – most of the patterns are about 3 pages.

Now I’d like to share some quotes, summaries and excerpts from volume 2 that resonated with me. Some of these are practical and some are more philosophical.

On the subject of learning environments for children: “In a society which emphasizes teaching, children and students – and adults – become passive and unable to think or act for themselves.  Creative, active individuals can only grow up in a society which emphasizes learning instead of teaching.” (Page 100)  This feeds my feelings about public education and the difference  between force-fed learning and natural, curiosity-driven learning.

On room placement in a house: “[In the Northern hemisphere] place the most important rooms along the south edge of the building, and spread the building out along the east-west axis.” (Page 617) This, combined with another pattern that requires sunlight access from two walls of each room, increases the amount of sunlight in the most lived-in rooms, which is good for improving the mood of the home.

Rule 129 (page 618): “Common Areas at the Heart” (with pathways tangent).  This rule says that the common areas of a home or workplace, such as the living room or break room, should be near a central point of convergence of the walkways, but should not actually overlap a walkway – it should be possible for people to walk by and see what’s going on without becoming involved or interrupting anyone.

Rule 130 (page 622) describes the importance of having an entrance room – a room that you pass through when entering and leaving the house, where you put on or take off outdoor clothes and do your greetings and farewells.  I think this is really important because I’m often frustrated by home designs that don’t have this – I need space to sit down to take off my boots or tie up my shoes, and there should always be room to place an empty coat rack, shoe rack and umbrella stand so your guests don’t have to root around in your overstuffed hall closet.

“The movement between rooms is as important as the rooms themselves; and its arrangement has as much effect on social interaction in the rooms, as the interior of the rooms.” (Page 628); “As far as possible, avoid the use of corridors and passages. Instead, use public rooms and common rooms as rooms for movement and for gathering. To do this, place the common rooms to form a chain, or loop, so that it becomes possible to walk from room to room – and so that private rooms open directly off these public rooms.  In every case, give this indoor circulation from room to room a feeling of great generosity, passing in a wide and ample loop around the house, with views of fires and great windows.” (Page 631).  I agree with this – corridors are sometimes necessary but they’re also often a waste of space.

Page 639: “Place the main stair in a key position, central and visible.  Treat the whole staircase as a room (or if it is outside, as a courtyard).  Arrange it so that the stair and the room are one, with the stair coming down around one or two walls of the room.  Flare out the bottom of the stair with open windows or balustrades and with wide steps so that the people coming down the stair become part of the action in the room while they are on the stair, and so that people below will naturally use the stair for seats.”  Ever watched a movie where people in a posh house are having a conversation while some of them are sitting or standing on a nice staircase, and secretly wished for such a nice room?  Yeah, they don’t make staircases like that anymore – in most modern houses I’ve seen, the main stairs are only as wide as they need to be and are only intended for climbing, and tend to be part of hallways rather than rooms.  The stairways we want are in a room, are not blocked off halfway up by part of the second floor, and have a flared bottom that invites sitting and also is convenient for heading to and from the stairs in a variety of directions.

Page 646: “Create alternating areas of light and dark throughout the building, in such a way that people naturally walk toward the light, whenever they are going to important places: seats, entrances, stairs, passages, places of special beauty, and make other areas darker, to increase the contrast.”  Hell yeah.  I can’t say I often see cases where lighting is done horribly wrong, but this makes so much sense that it should be kept firmly in mind when designing your lighting.

Page 657: “Sleeping to the East: This is one of the patterns people most often disagree with.  However, we believe they are mistaken.”  It goes on to make the case that being awakened by sunlight and having the sleeping place dark in the evening is probably good for our health, and it makes a lot of sense to me.  I can’t put it into practice because of the timing requirements of the lifestyle I’m currently in, but I would like to give it a try some day, like when I’m retired or self-employed.

Pattern 140, “Private Terrace on the Street”, on page 667 presents a surprisingly simple bit of landscaping that can increase your privacy in your yard and your front room: Raise the the base ground level of your yard a foot or two above street level, and then add a low fence to that.  The net effect is that your eye level will be above the fence and above street level so you can see what’s going on, but the fence will be at or above eye level for pedestrians and drivers, so they won’t have as good a view of you.

Page 734: “The experience of settled work is a prerequisite for peace of mind in old age.  Yet our society undermines this experience by making a rift between working life and retirement, and between workplace and home.”  Yes.  To me, a joyful retirement means getting to work on what I want, when I want – not just sitting around or traveling to kill time.  A home for a happy old person is one that has space to be creative, not a box where you wait to die.

Page 834: “Everybody loves window seats, bay windows, and big windows with low sills and comfortable chairs drawn up to them.”  Very important.  In almost all the homes I’ve seen that have big bay windows off the living room, they’re ignored and unused, and the windows are kept closed.  They tend to be set up such that opening the big windows reduces your privacy too much, and most people organize their living rooms around the TV so there’s no room left for a comfy reading chair by the window.

Rule 196: Corner Doors (page 904): “The success of a room depends to a great extent on the position of the doors.  If the doors create a pattern of movement which destroys the places in the room, the room will never allow people to be comfortable. […] Except in very large rooms, a door only rarely makes sense in the middle of a wall.  It does in an entrance room, for instance, because this room gets its character essentially from the door.  But in most rooms, especially small ones, put the doors as near the corners of the room as possible.  If the room has two doors, and people move through it, keep both doors at one end of the room.”  I think this makes a lot of sense – you can’t really get settled in a room if other people are always walking through your space, regardless of what you’re doing.

Another problem that I’ve noticed with current Western house design, which touches on several of these patterns, is that  the main entrance is often unused.  This is especially true on the prairies – people use the kitchen door, garage door or back door for entering and exiting and almost never use the main front entrance because it doesn’t serve their practical needs.  Any home design where a major feature is unused is a major failure because it fails to consider the needs of its occupants.