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An interview with "Pattern Language" author Christopher Alexander

I know that I have officially signed off for Christmas, but I can’t resist the temptation to post this now, think of it as my Christmas gift. About 3 weeks ago, I travelled to a snow-covered West Sussex to meet one of my heroes. Christopher Alexander, architect, thinker, designer, author of the seminal ‘A Pattern Language’ and of the more recent extraordinary ‘The Nature of Order’ series of books, has long been someone whose work I have admired greatly. It is sometimes said that it is generally best not to meet your heroes as they usually disappoint, but that wasn’t the case here. I met Chris and his wife Maggie in their beautiful old home (I’m starting to sound like a writer for Hello! magazine), and after lunch and a general chat about the Transition approach (about which Chris knew very little in advance of our conversation), we did the following interview. I am deeply grateful to them both for a fascinating and illuminating afternoon.

The first question is, how did A Pattern Language come about? Where did the idea come from?

Oh that I can tell you very simply. In 1961 I went to India – lived in a village. I was a fellow at Harvard and I just wanted to go to India, I always wanted to go there. I had Indian friends from all over the shop but I’d never been there. So the Society Fellows were kind enough to send me out there. I was living in this village – just mud huts, there was only one brick building which was vaguely temple-ish….at a scale and finish of a porch in a cow barn. I actually did something quite similar to what I was describing to you, in one of my books – it contains that analysis – and they’re all about issues pertaining to a simple Indian village. I made a set of diagrams – it was very early on in my career, it was one of the first projects I ever did.

Then it was time for me to go back to the States, so I went back to Harvard where I still had about another year to run of my Fellowship. And then one day I get a letter from a fairly high official in the state of Gujurat. He had somehow seen or heard of these diagrams I had made and so they wrote to me and said, look, would you be willing to come and plan a village because a dam was being built in the vicinity and so all those people were going to be dispossessed. My first reaction was, how fabulous, I must try to do this. Then I sat and brooded about this thing for a couple of weeks before answering the letter.

This was the first sizeable commission of any sort that I’d ever had. I wrote them a letter and said, “I’m very, very sorry but I can’t take this project on. I’d love to do it, I have the time and the energy but I’m not sure it would work because although I made and an analysis of all kinds of cultural issues, having to do with that kind of village, number one I don’t know for sure……it’s classic for someone who thinks he’s a semi-anthropologist to come in and completely mis-understand or screw it up”. I said I really couldn’t take the risk of doing that when I think there were a thousand people involved. I said I’d love to do it but I just can’t do a good enough job, so I don’t want to do it. And that was it. There was no come back to it – I was serious and I meant what I said.

I was pretty annoyed with myself because I really wanted to do something like that – but I knew I was making the right choice. And then….that Spring I sat and thought in my apartment in Cambridge, Mass., about this problem and how aggravating it was, and what could I do about it. I actually read quite a lot of anthropology, particularly anthropology governing human settlements, villages and houses. I became familiar with the literature of fifteen or twenty different cultures, just to see how it worked. What I was asking myself when I read these various ethnographies, was what was going on? How come people knew how to build beautiful and practical buildings without any architects? Sounds like a ridiculous question, but it was really troubling to me.

Then I finally realised that every one of these cultures had essentially a system of rules – though ‘rules’ is too strong a word because they were not binding. They weren’t being forced down somebody’s throat, but they were rules that everyone understood and which had to be used to get a good result. So I started experimenting with this and the work of decomposing the issues that surrounded that village – not the one I was asked to build, but the one where I was living, I had to find some practical way that I could put this to use, and make it into something practical that Indian village people could use.

But of course, my knowledge of Gujarati and Hindi was minimal – I couldn’t actually communicate with them on that level. I had some friends that would translate for me and there were a number of people in the village that could understand English as well as I could understand Gujarati. But anyway, we got along great and I built a school with them while I was there just in order to keep my hands busy. But when I was done with that, then I realised it was effectively the seed bed for trying to write A Pattern Language. The first project we actually did was A Pattern Language for something called ‘multi-service centres’ in the U.S. Do you know what they are?

Are they like what they call a Hub now where you have different businesses based there…?

No they weren’t businesses but social services, but it was a hub anyway. We did a whole thing and wrote a book called A Pattern Language for Generating Multi Service Centres. I knew that that would be something that could have worked in India if I hadn’t lost the opportunity. They had to move those villagers, and they weren’t going to wait for a couple of years for me to figure this out. But anyway, that’s how I came to the concept of Pattern Languages.

Looking back, what do you see as having been its strengths and its weaknesses as well, over the 30 or 40 years since it was published?

Well the strengths are fairly obvious because they do encapsulate the things that are important to the people that live there and work there, whether we’re talking about a village, urban community or whatever. So it’s the input of the people and their affectionate cooperation. That was one of the obvious strong points and was relatively easy to do because I liked asking people questions and talking to them. Probably the most serious negative was that there was a certain mystery to how these various patterns would be combined, and although I’d tried to give an account of that in the Pattern Language book, the main one I mean, it was very rudimentary.

It does describe some things that are true and helpful and correct, I think, but it never got to the point of elegance, let’s say, of a Japanese tea house where it’s a definite language. The people who built those things, not all alike necessarily, but they all have roughly the same patterns across Japan. Of course these tea houses are not being built now – occasionally they are but the traditional ones were being built a couple of hundred years ago, and more.That language was different – it was a sequential series of actions that you had to take which is much more like the morphological unfolding of an organism.

As you probably know, when an organism is being built – obviously it’s happening over the course of time. At each moment or at each stage in the history of the unfolding, certain morphological structures appear, or are given certain characteristics. It’s a one way process, so it’s not like an architect playing around on a piece of tracing paper trying to see if it can work.It’s one of those things where you do something and then it’s there; you do something else and then it’s there,There’s no going back. These generative processes are the essence of it. It has a lot to do with biology. I’ve never yet given a fully coherent account of how these generative sequences work, but I have written about them and I feel now that that would have been a better approach.But I didn’t know that at the time.

It’s not so simple because the canons of Pattern Language, like the book A Pattern Language, are sort of multipurpose. You’re trying to achieve many, many different things with this one book of patterns. These traditional ones aren’t like that at all, the biological ones aren’t like that. With the biological ones there’s no fooling around – this is how this one works. You want an embryo for a locust, there’s only one way to do it! So that was, I would say, my biggest failure. Incredibly, so many years later, I have not solved that problem to my satisfaction. Part of my trouble is I have so much work so….

What’s been your opinion of subsequent peoples’ attempts at doing Pattern Languages – I’ve seen a couple of different ones, have you seen many?

Some. They’re not that good. The reason I say that is that the people who’ve attempted to work with Pattern Languages, think about them, but are not conscious of the role of morphological elegance in the unfolding. In a biological case, they always are elegant and the unfolding morphology is a sort of magic. But it’s very simple.It’s not as if it’s magic because it’s complicated, it’s just….like that.

I guess when we were talking before about how a Pattern Language goes from the large down to the small, maybe when we were talking about it as going outwards maybe it is more like an unfolding process?

I think it is yes. The business of going from the large to the small was more for convenience….you could make sense of the book most easily like that but it isn’t necessarily the way to actually do it.

In the Luminous Ground – I’ve got the first two books in the Nature of Order series, but I haven’t got very far with them because they’re very big! They’re wonderful – if I’m ever on Desert Island Discs, they’re my desert island read. That would be the only time in my life I’d ever get to sit and read them! You wrote in Luminous Ground:

“Space itself is somehow being-like, has the potential for beings to appear in it – not in a mechanistic sense of assembly from components, but in the far more startling sense of something within space and matter. That something within space and matter could be awoken by the presence of proper configurations.”

So how does one, in the light of that, go beyond a patterned language just being a collection of things, like Lego, that you would start to assemble…

Well they’re not actually things.

Elements…

They’re not elements either. They are actually field-like structures that appear in space. They are not sharp to define. They’re not like sets. As an organism grows, it’s a very fluid entity which is fluid at every moment including its later stages when it’s maturing into a functioning atom. I think that is the nature of space – when it has that fluidity it has unbelievable capacity to form morphological structures, much more than anything remotely resembling tinker toys and the like, so it’s just not similar.

The problem in our society in the last forty years is that some people have thought it is like a tinker toy, and it’s just nonsense! So that’s one of the most absorbing questions in all of biology and architecture, is how that works. I’m hoping to have a few more years left to be more precise about it.

Maggie: Wouldn’t you say that’s one of the draw backs of Pattern Language, that people could treat it like tinker toys?

Absolutely, yes. I forgot to mention that.

Pattern Language looks at built environments and space – what does the concept of wholeness or ‘The Quality That Has No Name’ look like in terms of a community or a bottom up process like transition. How would you know that a process like Transition has the quality that has no name?

My hope is, (I’m guessing, just from what I’ve heard and picked up) that the people who are building communities on the basis of Transition thinking would not be inept enough to make those kind of mistakes. I would think they would make things that are somewhat more rough and ready.I don’t mean anything disrespectful by that — I think rough and ready is good, just like this house. You probably saw reference to the fifteen morphological generators (in The Nature of Order) and those things are by nature fluid, even though they are quite precise actually. The book that I have coming out called Sustainability and Morphogenesis – we’ll probably change the title before we get to it – but anyway it’s a book that’s almost complete.

Those 15 properties are the kind of essential generators which, when they knock up against each other, because they’re all over lapping and it’s a very tight squeeze. What I mean by that is that every one of the 15 properties is very powerful as a configuration generator and, in order to manage to have the result come out, you have to do an incredible amount of pushing and shoving and squeezing and pulling. I’m not talking literally, but I am talking literally in terms of this morphological process. Heaven is a cloud, you know!

If you see there’s a fence over there beyond those rose bushes – it’s just a bunch of sticks stuck in the ground with some wire. Obviously it did not come from the drawing board of an architect. It’s the product of some very simple things – cutting some poles, sticking them in the ground at approximately equal centres. By the time you put it up, it’s never going to be perfect, it’s just impossible. After a couple of years of rainfall and frost and snow and sun, it’s already developed a whole set of complexities. Architecture as per the RIBA knows nothing about that – they don’t know anything about it, they don’t know how to create it, they don’t want to create it. That’s my opinion on that!

One of the things that struck me…..I’ve been involved in doing lots of natural building projects, straw bale building, cob building, round timber that kind of stuff – it’s very hard to make anything ugly out of cob. What’s your sense of that movement, the natural building movement and if we’re looking at relocalisation and the move back to predominantly local materials … I mean, this house, for example, is the result of people being able to build with what they can get to this site on the back of a horse and cart. Is your sense that returning to more local materials, more vernacular forms of building, inherently we end up with more beautiful buildings?

Vernacular buildings have always been a huge influence to me, that’s obvious from what I’ve built, but that’s not because I’m trying to copy the vernacular. All people who have built vernacular buildings in any culture all do the same things, and I do what they do. I’m copying nothing except the process.

Were people taught that process? Did they absorb it by osmosis?

Common sense really. People have an amazing amount of common sense. And now, the RIBA is trying to prove that’s impossible … and by the way, I hope to defeat the RIBA.

Good luck!

Oh I will do it. It’ll be posthumous but I will do it!

In The Nature of Order books you argue that some built environments are inherently more beautiful and life affirming than others. But couldn’t you argue that each generation bemoans the architecture that follows it and that actually the Gherkin that you and I might think is repugnant – kids growing up today see it as part of their world and they celebrate it?

This is a huge issue, not one that I can embark on right now. But believe me, it’s not like that. There are real tests – and the morphology is essential to making buildings work and people have forgotten, have no idea what that morphology is. I’m speaking about the morphological process, not the particular morphology of a flint barn or something. I’m talking about the way people think and act with their hands that produces things. From what you’ve built you know all about that – a lot about that, and I’m afraid you won’t build a Gherkin like that…

You couldn’t build a gherkin out of cob! In The Nature of Order you talk about the word ‘sustainable’ and you say: “in a deeper and more comprehensive sense this is a deeper and more technological sustainability than that has become fashionable in recent years.” What does sustainability mean to you?

I’m trying to think – when did I give that lecture?

Maggie: 2004.

2004, so that’s only 6 years ago. I was asked to give one of the Schumacher lectures. At that time it was very clear that the word ‘sustainable’ meant a certain kind of technological track.But at that time, it meant doing technological gimmicks which were believed to be important. And some of them we’re still suffering from.It’s beginning to disappear. I think people are now somewhat more sensible, so that they’re more likely to make friends with materials that are potentially more organic, more malleable, cheaper, better! I actually don’t use sustainable as a term. I think I understand what people would like it to mean. I suppose in that sense, many of my buildings are sustainable, but not because I went through a technological check list, and they’re not green listed. I think it’s probably not a terribly good word, actually, because again, it separates things from one another, so that it artificially creates divisions. I think it’s a silly idea but it’s understandable that people use it.

Maggie: Would you say that if you follow a morphological process would you end up with something that is sustainable?

Not automatically, there are considerations to do with stability and heat and moisture and so on. You can’t remove all those things obviously. I think that the architectural establishment has just done incredible damage, much during the course of the twentieth century.The way architects talk and gesture and draw is ludicrous in my opinion, and it sets up conditions that make it virtually impossible to make a good building or a beautiful one.

I always think it’s also the fact that very few of them do draw anymore…

That’s true.

I increasingly think Transition isn’t an environmental approach but more a cultural one – about how you build a culture better equipped to build resilience….and to see these times as an opportunity. How do you see your work informs and deepens a process like that?

Well, the answer to that question is sitting on my desk but it’s not published yet, and it’s a long story, it’s not a simple thing to answer. I hope we’ll send it to the printer in the spring. This is called Battle.

The last question is just what do you think about the idea of using the Pattern approach to look at how Transition works, what your thoughts are on what we discussed before…?

I think this is very interesting. I would caution you – I’m not trying to knock my own work – but I would caution you. Don’t automatically say I’m going to do a Pattern Language because it’s such a great idea or whatever. I would want to know a little bit more about Transition and what it means. As I hear it in my head, Transition could be like the word ‘sustainability’. I would hate Transition to get coupled with that whole insufficient idea of sustainability.

I think if it’s understood as a transition to an enlightened form of living, that’s something else and then I’m completely behind it and all for it. But I do think that has to be made incredibly clear, though not if you don’t agree with it – but I think you probably do. It’s a source of confusion I think for people who haven’t thought very carefully about it. I think it would be very sad if it did get coupled with that mechanistic sustainability thing, or a mechanistic Transition either.

I suppose the tension now is always around – if you’re working with very diverse communities and you’re doing a process, which is ultimately not purely a transition about local food and energy but a big cultural shift in reconnecting with each other and coming home to each other, building those relationships. There’s always a tension between what’s made implicit and what’s explicit. Because if you start the process and you say up front, ‘This process is about the collective enlightenment of this community’ there’s a handful of people up at the front that say, ‘yeah, fantastic!’. But actually a lot of people….we have to be very careful with the language I think. There’s always a tension within Transition and the wider movement about how much is made explicit and how much is implicit.

I understand exactly what you’re talking about. I would say that what needs to be said can be said in common sense language and words like ‘enlightenment’ do not need to be used. There’s no point and it’s just pretentious. It’s not really pretentious if that’s what you think about, but to drag it in by the heels is not going to help because people will freak out or turn away. I try to keep my own language pretty down to earth if I can, unless my wife drags me into……

Maggie: Actually I was just thinking about simpler language in reaction to your question – if Transition was successful, what the community would feel – it would feel like home. Simple. Everyone can feel that feeling. You know it when you see it; it just feels like home. You walk down the street and somebody’s planted nut trees and they’re excited to tell you about all the nut trees they’ve planted and about how much protein….just like you rattled off. And how it can replace wheat or what it was you said. They’re excited because they’re making their home – that’s what it looks like!

We just had a conference in Scotland, Transition Scotland, and it was called ‘Diverse Routes to Belonging’ and it was all about….particularly that question of being indigenous to place. And one of the exercises was about tracing where your grandparents came from and where your own parents came from, and where your life has taken you. The question was ‘where is home?’ It was interesting because I was saying, ‘well, I guess where I live now.’ But in terms of home home I can’t think of anywhere because I’ve moved around so many times. And the guy on my table lived in Glasgow, grown up in Perth in Scotland and his mother lived on the Isle of Skye – he’d never been to the Isle of Skye but he’d grown up with her telling stories about the Isle of Skye though he’d never been. His mother was in her 80s and he took his mother to Skye on a visit, the last visit she’d be able to take there, and he said he just had this aching feeling of home, though he’d never been there. I think so many people, we’ve lost the connection to that, but it’s about creating home wherever we are…

Maggie: I never felt it until I came here. Now I feel like I have roots into the ground and I ache when I leave but I was 52 before it happened.

I hope to die here. You never know where you’re going to die so you can’t ordain it but that’s what I hope for.

Thank you very much.

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