Best Book You’ve Never Heard of On…Architecture

A Pattern Language: Towns * Buildings * Construction (by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein) is a fascinating book that changed the way I view the world around me.  But have you ever heard of it?

A Pattern Language is comprised of 253 timeless “patterns.”  These individual design elements describe the large-scale community in patterns such as “mosaic of subcultures,” “web of public transporation,” and “shopping street.”  Patterns such as “cooking layout,” “built-in seats,” and “windows which open wide” describe the smaller scale of the home.

Together these 253 patterns form a language which can then be used to describe an infinite variety of designs for urban planning. The design elements have been defined and are at your disposal–all 253 of them–and they can be combined in infinite ways to describe any sort of design you can dream up, from the large scale (regional corridor) to the very small (window seat).

I’m an amateur architecture buff–I’ve adored books like Last Harvest, Home from Nowhere, and The Death and Life of Great American Cities–but the way of viewing the world set forth in A Pattern Language was entirely new to me.

Though this is a book about architecture, written by architects, it’s aimed squarely at the lay person, because Alexander believes they are best suited to the task of design: “People should design for themselves their own houses, streets, and communities.  This idea may be radical…but it comes simply from the observation that most of the wonderful places of the world were not made by architects but by the people.” The idea is to recognize the patterns you love and that suit your needs and combine them together to create a space you’d love to live in.

Alexander has a knack for identifying the elements that make our cities, neighborhoods, and houses comfortable and welcoming–and for advising how to combine these elements in pleasing ways.  A handful of the patterns seemed unrealistic to me, but I found myself nodding and murmuring “yes!” to the vast majority.  “Light on two sides of every room.” “Sunny Place.” “Windows Overlooking Life.” Yes, yes, and yes!

Here are two prime examples of patterns that struck me as intuitively true:

“The fact is that very few things have so much effect on the feeling inside a room as the sun shining into it.” (Pattern 128: Indoor Sunlight)

“If children do not have space to release a tremendous amount of energy when they need to, they will drive themselves and everybody else in the family up the wall.”  (Pattern 137: Children’s Realm)

Although A Pattern Language was written over 30 years ago, this classic is still one of the best-selling books on architecture, and I highly recommend you find yourself a copy.  (Hint: your local library likely has one.)

Have you ever read A Pattern Language? 

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  1. Erica says:

    We have that one on our shelf — my husband has read it and it is on my list. We keep talking about the house we will build some day and want to work through our ideas together, and I understand that this book is a great place to start. This series of posts is a fun one!

  2. Wow, that book sounds fascinating! I didn’t think I was particularly interested in architecture until I read Devil in the White City with my book club and all the other women wanted to talk about the murder and I wanted to talk about the architecture project. Thanks for the recommendation!

  3. Sounds interesting! I hadn’t heard of it, although I rarely read architecture books. I have a degree in urban planning & The Death & Life of Great American Cities is required base reading for that.

    Another architecture book that’s good is the Not So Big House. I think it’s by Susan Sanka.

  4. Craig says:

    I came to your blog from Jon Acuff’s site. He has created a tremendous forum for sharing our blogs and impacting more people with them.

    I hope my blog can be an encouragement to you also.

    I write it for encouragement and motivation daily.

    Thanks for sharing. Looking forward to watching the connections grow!

    • KT says:

      Yup, this book pretty much single-handedly redefined the early ’00s in programming, leading to software “patterns” that clarified many developers, designers, programmers, and engineers ways of thinking. I spent an entire semester in college studying these patterns as they relate to the way computer programs are written. I never thought of applying them to our homes and lives! Can’t wait to check out your post.

  5. Amanda Millay says:

    This book looks great. “People should design for themselves” reminds me of the Hobbit’s Shire, and it’s beautiful, organic, crazy design vs. modern and soulless strip shopping centers and work-shop developments. It’s great to hear there’s a book about patterns for capturing some of that organic essence.

  6. 'Becca says:

    I adore that book!! Browsing through it often brings me to a sudden realization about how moving just one piece of furniture or slightly changing the way we use one corner of a room could really improve our lives.

    I also like the Not-So-Big series Audrey mentioned; the author’s name is Sarah Susanka.

  7. Marvin McConoughey says:

    We designed and built our own house after “A Pattern Language,” came out. Although it is a fascinating and wide-ranging book that considers many issues, it did not prove to be of great value in the designing and construction of our house. In an effort to recollect why, I recently re-read the book.

    The part most likely to have been of use in our specific building environment was the content on houses. I found that trying to trace my way through the presented sequence of design steps to come up with a unified plan simply did not work. That is not to say that they would not work for you or another person.

    Some of the more alluring patterns were not applicable to our needs. Others would simply have cost too much. Not much is said in the book about costs and cost effectiveness. In the real world, economics weighs heavily.

    There were a number of good ideas which are more commonly used in design, and which we used quite independently of their having been presented in the book.

    Mr. Alexander was employed at the University of Oregon, and at one time was selected by the university to design a new student dorm. When put to actual use by one who can be considered an expert, the resulting design proved unacceptable. I surmise, not having read a detailed expose, that costs were an important factor. My limited information came during my attendance at the Oregon State Board of HIgher Education, where the problem was summarized rather than explained in detail.

    I still recommend the book as reading for designers. It is full of insights, possibilities, and considerable wisdom. These may outweigh its shortcomings, for me at least, as a practical design tool.

    Others may have had far better outcomes. I hope to read several rebuttals to this input by house designers who have explicitly followed the steps set forth in the book, and will post pictures and a narrative of their completed houses.

  8. Christine says:

    I received this book for Christmas and it’s just the coolest book ever. People think I’m crazy when I suggest it because it’s not a “normal” book, but once they start reading, they understand too!

    • Anne says:

      I get what you mean: it’s not at all “normal.” I think that makes it a great gift–I’m so glad you like the one you were given. 🙂

  9. Jennifer says:

    Recently found this site, have been browsing. Saw “Best Book You’ve Never Heard About…On Architecture,” and thought, “Oh, I wonder if she’s read Christopher Alexander?” And then I scrolled down a couple of lines to find that yes, she has heard of him. I recommend “A Pattern Language” to people interested in architecture, to those who are thinking of buying or remodeling a house, to those interested in computer science (as it is often cited as the inspiration for modular programming, earning the reverence of computer scientists while Alexander was still being scoffed at by Architecture). When we were doing a fairly big remodeling job, several months in I mentioned this book and my contractor smiled and said, “That’s my favorite book about how to think about houses ever! No wonder we get along so well!”

  10. Wendy says:

    Came over from your “four years ago today” link, because I was HOPING the book in question would be Pattern Language! We went through a maybe-we’ll-build-a-house stage several years ago, and while we didn’t, for many reasons, I fell in love with this book (and the Susanka series as well). It is the most expensive book I’ve bought that wasn’t for a class, but worth every penny. The school I currently work at was built in 1970 and is absolutely horrible; reading this book helped me articulate many of the reasons why it is such an uncomfortable building. I kind of love how awful the pictures are in the book too. Luckily, the words are clarion clear.

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