Finding patterns in odd places


I’m always surprised to find myself in American homes where there’s nothing to read anywhere in the bathroom. Living in the Netherlands, I think I maybe started to get a sense of why confusing your toilet and your library might seem eccentric; I currently assume that this is because baths and toilets often don’t occupy the same room (at least downstairs) throughout much of Europe, although I’m open to any other useful explanations.

Growing up, the Reader’s Digest (and later, the Utne Reader) were always in our bathroom. My better self now argues that it’s a great place to put poetry short enough to be scanned and inwardly reflected upon, and I have an acquaintance who claims that he always had a world atlas in his bathroom while growing up. But I have to say that I discovered my all-time favorite bathroom book exactly where you’d expect to find it: in someone’s bathroom.

P. was a nice guy I lived with while in my twenties. He was a city planner by education and an inveterate role-playing gamer who brought Dungeons and Dragons (or, as you may know it, the UR-Yu-Gi-Oh) into my life. And–of course–the book.. He kept this modest little book with the slightly tattered cream cover and its perplexing title “A Pattern Language” always in easy reach. I remember thinking that it was some kind of Gideon Bible for city planners the first time I picked it up (although I suppose that I sound stupid imagining city planners as a kind of cult). The little meme-fest tunneled into my psyche nearly from day one, and it’s been lodged there ever since (although it now stays on the shelf nearby in my office/studio rather than in our bathroom).

I really don’t want to spoil the pleasure of discovering the book if you don’t know it, so I’ll say this: Imagine that there is a Max/MSP/Jitter reference manual that contains objects for architecture. You connect them together, and you get buildings or towns or cities. Oh yeah–the book is divided into bite-size chunks of prose instead of a definition-heavy reference work, complete with evocative little example pictures. You can find an example pattern here .

Every time you sit down with the friendly little book (nice size for reading, typography that’s elegant and easy on the eye, nice binding. Oh sorry, this is book fetish material, innit?) and go through it or just open it at random, you leave thinking about the space you inhabit in a slightly different way. It is, of course, equally great for bus commutes, lunch breaks, bedtime reading, or something to peruse while your newborn slumbers on your tummy on the couch.

P. turned out to be on the leading edge of the curve, in terms of the meme. I had one of the oldest editions of the book of anyone I know (except for him), and was as surprised as anybody to discover, by accident, years later that my programmer friends knew about the pattern language.

On a little reflection, it seems sort of obvious why this might be true. A little googling located both some basic mention of his work along with that the Pattern Language connects with programming better than I am likely to manage. I’m sure you can find other things.

I was surprised (and a little pleased, although P. deserves the credit for being the cultural visionary here) to find him again in a new place. But I was a little puzzled, too; what was a lot less clear to me is the way in which people who cheerfully embraced some of his basic ideas felt about what seemed to me a kind of underlying assumption: that the source of order or beauty (in buildings, in his case) is definable and based on the “objective” truth of our perceptions. A building isn’t good or bad based on some set of shared cultural values, but because beauty itself had a kind of quantifiable and definable answer. He’s an unabashed absolutist, albeit as patient and polite an absolutist as I’ve ever encountered.

And I’m not sure that I think of programmers as absolutists. So, whenever I found a programmer who professed enthusiasm for Alexander’s work, I would politely try to ask about this-with varying results. This would often result in my being called a nerd for whingeing about the philosophical underpinnings of Alesander’s work rather than cheerfully embracing its populist approach to tools and its insights on pattern (which are, and remain, a source of intense interest for me). I was and am always proud to be called a nerd by a programmer.

If you’re at all interested in this kind of thing, the following polite and exceptionally articulate critical overview of Alexander’s entire work (including the new stuff) from Wendy Kohn will probably either depress you because it’s so beautifully written, or give better voice to some of your voiceless niggles (mine, anyway).

Although there have been occasional publications following the original volumes of Alexander’s work, things went quiet for years. The original version of the story I heard was that Alexander was working on a theory of ornamentation that would follow on from the pattern language and extend it to a kind of microstructure, followed by the news that he was doing something about “The Big Picture.” So we all waited, picking up the occasional volume after the initial trilogy The Timeless Way of Building, The Oregon Experiment, and A Pattern Language. For a list of the other books, which you’ll probably have some trouble locating in some cases, check here (and get out your checkbook).

Well, years later, it finally showed up. A series of four volumes collectively titled The Nature of Order. The March 2004 issue of Wired gave the recent work from The Nature of Form its de rigeur one-page précis in their PLAY section, and helpfully included his elements of style as sketched out in the first volume of the book, and revisited throughout the remaining three.

Where the pattern language ran on something like 250 different patterns, The Nature of Order has whittled and distilled these down to just 15 rules that lie beneath these pattern and are, if I understand him correctly, sufficient to describe true beauty in any form (more on this later).

Christopher Alexander is on my mind this week because I got an email from the Pattern Language group telling me that the final volume in his magnum opus “The Nature of Order” (the one that, I suppose, more or less corresponds to “A Pattern Language” in the set) will be out by the end of the year. I’m still whacking my way through the second volume (while simultaneously skimming the fourth one on the side. They’re published out of order 1-2-4-3), but I think they’re extraordinary books and ideas to wrassle with, if only as irritants which may provide the source material for the occasional pearl (since I am feeble and think slowly about things like this, it may take me a while to either come around or produce anything that looks like a pearl).

We all try to think about these things in our own way. My own personal and scholarly amusements (and the ones I wanted to mention to you) concern whether or not one might extend the 15 rules for order to the arrangement of aural events in time; I’m trying to avoid using terms like “music” when possible, since my own current exercises involve thinking about organizing sound more generally. In order not to spoil your own fun (and, of course, to safeguard the speaker’s fees and accolades that will doubtless greet my eventual writings on the subject), I think I’ll end by merely listing the 15 elements of style as they appear in Volume One.

So my questions to you come down to this: How might these serve as a place to start describing aural order or fittingness or (cough) beauty? Good luck–I think that thinking about this is worth the effort, despite whatever qualms about quantifiable beauty you may have.

  • Levels of Scale – A balanced range of sizes is pleasing and beautiful.
  • Strong Centers – Good design offers areas of focus or weight.
  • Boundaries – Outlines focus attention on the center.
  • Alternating Repetition – Repeating various elements creates a sense of order and harmony.
  • Positive Space – The background should reinforce rather than detract from the center.
  • Good Shape – Simple forms create an intense, powerful center.
  • Local Symmetries – Organic, small-scale symmetry works better than precise, overall symmetry.
  • Deep Interlock and Ambiguity – Looping, connected elements promote unity and grace.
  • Contrast – Unity is achieved with visible opposites.
  • Gradients – The proportional use of space and pattern creates harmony.
  • Roughness – Texture and imperfections convey uniqueness and life.
  • Echoes – Similarities should repeat throughout a design.
  • The Void – Empty spaces offer calm and contrast.
  • Simplicity and Inner Calm – Use only essentials; avoid extraneous elements.
  • Not-Separateness – Designs should be connected and complementary, not egocentric and isolated.