Book Reviews Continued.

I also finished Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building since last time I really did any writing here. The book did not disappoint. I had some fears that it would be a dry architectural text from which later writers had rescued the concept of patterns. This could hardly be farther from the truth. Alexander presents his thesis more like a zen master than a stale scholar. The first thing that impressed me about the book is it’s exceptionally clean organization. The layout is like an expanded outline. Each chapter is summarized by a sentence or two, and all of these summaries are collected in the beginning for a very quick overview of what follows. Within each chapter, the major ideas are set apart and italicized. Each major statement is followed by a more detailed explanation, typically a few paragraphs. Alexander claims that those short on time can read only the italicized points in about an hour, thus gaining the core concepts of the book without great effort.

The timeless way is an extremely naturalistic philosophy. Alexander claims that throughout history people all over the world have created buildings that are perfectly adapted to their environment; he says that these buildings have “the quality without a name.” Furthermore, he claims that modern buildings, built from pre-fabricated, equally sized parts, never have this quality. Indeed, that our knowledge of how to create buildings with QWAN has been so depreciated by the modern world, very few people are capable of it any more.

This knowledge, Alexander states, can be understood as pattern languages, to which much of the book is dedicated. Patterns are ideas that help shape a building to fit it’s environment. Some examples are “light one two sides of every room” and “common areas at the heart.” Often, they seem obvious once you hear them, but all too often are left out of our buildings. Pattern languages are collections of these ideas that are shared by a certain group of people at a certain time. Yet each person has his own personal patterns and understanding of them, which is one reason why no two buildings are identical (the other big one is that each site is different.)

Furthermore, for a pattern language to be used properly, the design must evolve. One starts with the most general patterns and applies successively more detailed ones until the final design emerges. Indeed, in Alexander’s view, this process of evolution should continue all the way through the actual construction (there are patterns for that, too.) Precise measurements are unnecessary, and blueprints are an abomination that will kill any QWAN so far existent.

However, in the end pattern languages are imperfect. Alexander considers them a kind of training tool for creating buildings that are alive. Once the principles at the heart of the language are intuitively understood, the limitations of the language can be thrown off, and only then will the quality without a name truly emerge.

I freely admit that Alexander’s philosophy won’t be for everyone. Nonetheless, I myself found the book fascinating, and cannot fail to recommend it to anyone with the least interest in architecture or pattern languages (which have been applied to a lot besides architecture.) The book is a bit pricey though, so you may want to check with your library first.

Posted Saturday, October 19th, 2002 under Review.

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