Analysis of pattern languages

This is a post in my organizing “between and beyond” series. Other posts are here. The purpose of this post is to identify the key assumptions in Christopher Alexander’s pattern language in architecture. It’s assumed that the conclusions are applicable to other pattern languages as well. The analysis is summarized here.

A pattern language is a method of describing good design practices, or patterns of useful organization, within a field of expertise.1

The term pattern language was coined by architect Christopher Alexander in the 1970s. The notion was popularized by his book A Pattern Language.2

Each pattern describes a problem and the core solution to that problem.3 A pattern language has a structure of a network.4 All patterns together form the language.5

The key assumptions in Christopher Alexander’s pattern language in architecture are:

  • Human feeling is mostly the same in every person and from person to person.6
    • Shared human feeling has been forgotten in the mess of opinion and personal differences.7
  • Towns and buildings will not be able to come alive, unless they are made by all the people in society, and unless peple the pattern language is alive itself.8
  • Each pattern is connected to “larger” patterns above it, and to “smaller” patterns below it.9
  • Each pattern exists only to the extent that is supported by other patterns.10
  • Each solution is stated in a very general and abstract way.11
    • Solutions vary in significance and certainty.12
    • Each pattern is a hypothesis.13
  • Every society which is alive and whole will have its own and distinct pattern language.14
    • Every individual in such a society will have a unique language, shared in part, but unique to the mind of the individual.15
    • In a healthy society there are as many pattern languages as there are people, even though the languages are shared and similar.16
  • People need to become conscious of their own pattern languages, and improve them.17
    • The languages which people have today are brutal and fragmented.18
  • Some patterns are archetypal, deeply rooted in the nature of things.19
    • There is an archetypal core of pattern languages, which make people feel alive.20
  • The task of choosing a pattern language is fundamental.21
  • The way to use a pattern language depends on its scale.22
    • Some patterns can only be implemented gradually.
    • Some can be built up in the mind.
    • Some must be built physically.
  • Many overlapping patterns have many meanings and become profound.23

The attempt to create a pattern language for architecture is, in a way, incompatible with the idea that there are as many pattern languages as there are people. How do you ensure that all these pattern languages extend and support each other, when some of these languages are brutal and fragmented? How do you ensure that pattern languages themselves are alive?

What if living structure is a quality that cannot be properly generated, even in principle, by patterns and algorithmic procedures?24 Generation of living structures need reapplied judgments, and forming of meaningful actions, based on an overall understanding of what the structure is all about.25 The quality of human judgment,26 based on human feeling, is an essential thing that algorithms lack. Algorithmic procedures are suitable when actual understanding isn’t needed in the performance of the task.27

Matters which requires understanding and other qualities, such as moral judgments, lie in principle beyond the capabilities of pattern languages. It is the quality of understanding which is more important and valuable, than the mere application of rules.28 A purely algorithmic approach can never directly understand things or achieve profound feeling.29 The achieved result expresses nothing because the algorithm itself feels nothing.30

Patterns make it possible to document ideas, including their context, problem, and solution, such that they can be shared, discussed, and modified. However, Christopher Alexander noticed already in the late 1970s that his pattern language in architecture couldn’t generate profound living structures.31 What’s important is not the pattern language itself, but the thinking behind it. Patterns are, in the language of David Bohm, explicate orders. The difference between living and non-living patterns lies in their implicate orders.

1 Pattern language – Wikipedia (accessed 2016-10-10).
2 Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein, with Max Jacobson, Ingrid Fiksdahl-King, and Shlomo Angel, A Pattern Language (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977).
3 Ibid., p. x.
4 Ibid., p. xviii.
5 Ibid., p. xxxv.
6 Christopher Alexander, The Nature of Order, Book One: The Phenomenon of Life (Berkeley, California: Center for Environmental Structure, 2002), p. 3.
7 Ibid., p.4.
8 Ibid., p. x.
9 Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein with Max Jacobson, Ingrid Fiksdahl-King and Shlomo Angel, A Pattern Language (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. xii.
10 Ibid., p. xiii.
11 Ibid..
12 Ibid., p. xiv.
13 Ibid., p. xv.
14 Ibid., p. xvi.
15 Ibid..
16 Ibid..
17 Ibid..
18 Ibid..
19 Ibid., p. xvii.
20 Ibid..
21 Ibid., p. xxxviii.
22 Ibid., p. xl.
23 Ibid., p. xli.
24 Roger Penrose, Shadows of the Mind (Vintage, 1995), p.150.
25 Ibid., p.396.
26 Ibid., p.397.
27 Ibid., p.398.
28 Ibid., p.399.
29 Ibid..
30 Ibid., p.400.
31 Christopher Alexander said at OOPSLA 1996: “I began to notice, by the late 70s, some weaknesses in our work with patterns and the pattern languages. … the buildings generated were okay, but not profound.” See Christoper Alexander, The Origins of Pattern Theory, the Future of the Theory, and The Generation of a Living World (transcript of a recording at OOPSLA 1996, San Jose, California) (accessed 2016-10-10).

Related posts:
Organizing in between and beyond posts

Published by Jan Höglund

Jan Höglund has over 35 years of experience in different roles as software developer, project manager, line manager, consultant, and researcher. This is his personal blog where he shares his reading, book reviews, and learning.

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