Pattern Makers

Misha Semenov

In 1988, while in Berkeley for a conference, architect Andrés Duany received an invitation from Christopher Alexander to come over to his home for a chat. Duany, who had recently finalized the layout and design code for Seaside, Florida, the New Urbanist community that launched his Miami-based practice, DPZ CoDesign (formerly Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co.), accepted the invitation with curiosity. Why was Alexander, a man known to hold grudges against many of his contemporaries, so eager to meet him? As the two men sat down in Alexander’s living room, the answer became clear. “The problem with my code,” Duany recalls Alexander saying, “is that it requires a leader. I’m fascinated by your codes because you’ve figured out who would implement them. We all know what the appliance is; what we must now do is design the plugs that connect it to the existing power grids.”

Since Alexander’s passing in March at age 85, much has been written about his attempts to find the ideal “appliance” through careful documentation of precedents and the design of individual buildings and neighborhoods. But by the end of the 1980s, Alexander was deeply interested in encoding his ideas into larger-scale mechanisms that no longer required his direct supervision or leadership. A full critical assessment of Alexander’s legacy requires us to examine how he, and now his successors, converted his ideas into “plugs” that could tie into larger “power grids” such as the construction industry and the design professions.

Alexander’s approach to building design and planning inspired a whole generation of designers to see good urbanism, not to mention ineffables like beauty and “wholeness,” as something that could be codified as a generative rule set, akin, perhaps, to a genetic code. His 1977 book A Pattern Language laid out patterns of spatial archetypes identified by his team at the Center for Environmental Structure with compelling images and a consistent logical structure. These range from urban-scale organizational strategies such as Density Rings (no. 29) and Arcades (no. 119) to smaller-scale architectural patterns such as Pools of Light (no. 252) or Child Caves (no. 203). Unlike, say, Le Corbusier’s Five Points, the patterns are not a set of easily identifiable visual tropes. Nor do they dictate a particular style, despite Alexander’s own predilection for rustic, folksy architecture, which has in some ways inaccurately boxed him in as a traditionalist.

While many in academia balked at Alexander’s methodology, a number of architects began embracing it. Tom Kubala, who founded in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, the firm The Kubala Washatko Architects (TKWA) in 1980 around Alexander’s concepts, begins every project by writing patterns specific to a place and a client’s needs. He says that the process helps TKWA capture the more phenomenological aspects of user experience that aren’t represented in a standard set of client’s requirements. It turns out that clients quite like this approach, Kubala reports. Though other architects find the work interesting, they are often “indifferent” to the underlying ideas on wholeness and quantifiable beauty, which they find to be “at odds with their training and cultural gravity,” he says.

The architects were one problem. Alexander grew increasingly frustrated with the slow impact his work was having on the field of construction at large. In a 1996 lecture, he expressed this exasperation: “I really thought that I would be able to influence the world very fast. Especially when I got to the pattern language. I thought, boy, I’ve really done it.… The patterns are self-evident and true. They will spread. And, as a result, the world of buildings will get better.” However, he admitted, “it hasn’t yet worked out like that. In practical terms, so far, I've done almost nothing.…We’ve still got this gigantic amount of construction out there which is defining the world that all of us live in that is still going on in exactly the same fashion.”

Scaling up the beautiful world tenderly laid out in A Pattern Language to the realities of construction proved to be more challenging than Alexander could have ever expected. As Duany recalls, Alexander “required absolute power over a project as a precondition,” limiting his direct influence to only a few jobs at a time. Compounding the problem, Alexander’s high-minded explication of his design principles as “timeless” did not square easily with the kind of hard, quantifiable metrics desired by investors. In Duany’s view, the entire pattern concept, if it is ever to be widely accepted in the construction industry, has to be repackaged “not as self-evident virtue, but as a way to, for example, increase real estate values, or help the occupants survive in a crisis.” New Urbanists thought along these lines and began tapping into the existing enforcement structures of Homeowners’ Association rules and municipal zoning codes. By playing up the economic and social advantages of patterns of neotraditional urbanism and harnessing the cultural appeal of a nostalgic aesthetic, Duany and his colleagues have demonstrated one approach to plugging into the building delivery system.

Alexander’s subsequent writings, though brilliant and insightful in further defining ideal appliances, did not necessarily offer more concrete, practical recipes for plugs. In his Nature of Order series, Alexander elaborated on the design processes that could lead to a high-level genetic code for generating what he called “living structure,” and attempted to lay out empirical tests for determining the degree of life contained in a designed object. With his final book, 2012’s The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth: A Struggle Between Two World-Systems, he launched a poignant critique of the entire construction industry, proposing that the existing power grid be replaced with a “World-System” of reoriented values and priorities. Alienated from the architectural academy and mainstream, Alexander came to see computer programming as a possible vehicle for the kind of transformation he envisioned. In an address to programmers, he predicted that “the equivalent of the genes that act in organisms will have to be—or at least can be— software packages, acting in society,” adding that “it is conceivable to imagine a future in which this problem of generating the living structure in the world is something that you—computer scientists—might explicitly recognize as part of your responsibility.”

For Yonatan Cohen and his colleagues at Mosaic, an Arizona-based, venture-backed technology home-building company, this conviction of Alexander’s has been a rallying cry. A Pattern Language is the key to the company’s operations; everything from reviewing shop drawings to protocols for company policy decisions is governed by a custom pattern developed by the founders and, to the extent possible, automated with custom software. The start-up currently has 5,000 custom, affordable units in the 2023 pipeline. As a plug, the Mosaic model is effective because it vertically integrates design customization, decision automation, and construction management. “Trying to change the way houses look by shifting a window left or right is not a solution at scale,” Cohen says. “You will still get the same problem of production homes: a monoculture with a very systematic density and feeling of no place and no life. So our thought was, with all these patterns that extend beyond the actual construction and design of the house, how do you change the system—the finance, the design, the approval, and the management processes?”

Quilt Group, a San Diego–based real estate developer, also organizes its operations under an Alexandrian umbrella. Founder Marc Bielas admits that “Alexander’s work unequivocally changed the course of my life” and singles out his design for PREVI, a 1969 experimental affordable-housing competition with a site on the outskirts of Lima, Peru. Alexander set up an ingenious system for the scheme: a basic home module that could be changed according to inputs from user preference surveys—a kind of early rules-based program. This resulted in units uniquely customized to each family’s needs, yet still highly scalable and economical. “It was the North Star,” Bielas says, alluding to the founding of his own project. Trained as a computer scientist, Bielas has set Quilt’s sights on modular housing that can be customized through programming, resulting in affordable units imbued with a sense of life and variety.

The one plug that has been the least adequately addressed to date is probably the connection to academia and the educational programs that churn out future building professionals. The Building Beauty program, a postgraduate diploma in architecture run out of a campus in Sorrento, Italy, was set up by several of Alexander’s closest disciples to target the next generation of Alexander-inspired thinkers. Over a yearlong course of study, participants dive deep into Alexander’s writing and take part in design and construction studios that push them to apply his principles at various scales of design. The program also includes a “beautiful software” module specifically designed for computer programmers interested in tackling Alexander’s ideas.

Christopher Alexander did not leave behind a self-propagating genetic code for generating living structures, but he did synthesize the ingredients that, combined with the right computational tools and enforcement mechanisms, can help us move a little closer to the beautiful world depicted in his books. He would have taken heart in the efforts of his “students,” the cutting-edge programmers and developers who have taken up his ideas. In developing hundreds of plugs for them to attach into their respective grids, they have contributed to an ever-expanding pattern language project. ⬤

MISHA SEMENOV is an architect practicing in a small New England town that looks like it could have come out of a page in A Pattern Language, but for the old ivory piano key factory, which exceeds the Four-Story Limit (pattern no. 21).

Patterns courtesy Christopher Alexander and the Center for Environmental Structure

This article appeared in our May 2022 Issue, #29. Click here to purchase a copy. Click here to receive the current and future issues.