pattern language, politics

Obama Pattern Language Primer — 7

These notes on Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language are like coming home to concepts we should have honored all along, but which have become buried in the sort of building and design that put people second and utility or profit or some form of idolatry first. Idolatry, for example, of the automobile. So self-evident is the car that people do not think that once it was all horses and that horses vanished from the roads in a virtual trice. Be fully aware that at bottom our crisis is not economic.

I hope these posts will have the legs to serve for some time as a way of spreading the word about Alexander and his work and, equally, as a way of prodding the Obama movement to consider wider issues than just propping up what we have. I say with confidence that none of the great Obama aims will be achieved without beginning to plan beyond the stratified, reified nation we have created with our high rise happy cities and out viciously inhuman and banal metrosprawl.

These prodding posts are all gathered in order as they are created:


They are all based on a wonderful online compendium of Alexander’s Pattern Language in a dazzling and well-organized hypertext here:


And here is the cluster of patterns we’ll consider today:

Around these centers, provide for the growth of housing in the form of clusters, based on face-to-face human groups.

  • Household Mix
  • Degrees of Publicness
  • House Cluster
  • Row Houses
  • Housing Hill
  • Old People Everywhere
  • Household Mix

    This text is offline as I write, but I am certain the gist is that we want a mix of housing types in terms of occupants and the actual dwellings.

    I am advocating a move beyond both houses and apartments to a lego-pueblo-ish arrangement where pre-built and transportable “containers” represent parts of a dwelling can be easily linked in an endless modular pattern depending on the settlement.

    Degrees of Publicness (May be part of Identifiable Neighbourhood, Activity Nodes, Density Rings)

    Alexander observes: “People are different, and the way they want to place their houses in a neighbourhood is one of the most basic kinds of difference.”

    While this is true, an apartment sort of arrangement, where there is a move away from the detached house which must become a sort of showpiece or conformist operation, creates a greater latitude for the inclusion of a variety of people.

    Alexander’s solution: “Make a clear distinction between three kinds of homes- those on quiet backwaters those on busy streets, and those that are more or less in between. Make sure that those on quiet backwaters are on twisting paths …”

    My solution is to place dwellings in rows facing one another, but with a good deal of latitude for creating variety and the use of small squares or public sitting and gathering areas and shopping and service nodes breaking residential areas at intervals as close as 500 feet. I see the perimeters of the settlements I envision being primarily housing — four levels with an exterior rim and, facing it, an inner circle. There could also be spokes heading toward the center core of a settlement which could have housing on both sides of a pedestrian promenade.

    House Cluster (May be part of Identifiable Neighbourhood, Density Rings, Household Mix, Degrees of Publicness)

    Alexander’s premise: “People will not feel comfortable in their houses unless a group of houses forms a cluster, with the public land between them jointly owned by all the householders.”

    Alexander’s book is based on intensive study of what makes people feel well being. He advocates clusters of 8-10 dwellings facing one another around a public area owned by all the residents.

    This makes great sense and it may be well to mention some aspects of the matrix-settlement proposal that I am seeking to develop, using Pattern Language principles.

    The OWNER of the settlement and its elements would be a holding company composed of residents and other stake-holders. It could either be dominated by the government directly or by a private network. In essence the space that was not residential would be commonly used if not commonly owned. Instead of owning your own home, you would own the personal space that you live in, your own room(s). These would be transportable and could be moved from settlement to settlement. An individual or family would pay the holding group for all the services offered in the settlement including recycling and access to recreation and cultural events, security, etc.

    Row Houses (May be part of House Cluster, Density Rings, Degrees of Publicness)

    Alexander: “At densities of 15 to 30 houses per acre, row houses are essential. But typical row houses are dark inside, and stamped from an identical mould.”

    The solution is to place these clusters with openings on front an back to let light in. The modular-legolike proposal also allows for customization that can ensure other openings including skylights.

    Housing Hill (May be part of Density Rings, Four-Story Limit)

    It is almost as if Alexander was anticipating the development I am proposing. He says: “To build more than 30 dwellings per net acre, or to build housing three or four stories high, build a hill of houses. Build them to form stepped terraces, sloping toward the south, served by a great central open stair which also faces south and leads toward a common garden.”

    Old People Everywhere (May be part of Identifiable Neighbourhood , Life Cycle , Household Mix)

    “Old people need old people, but they also need the young, and young people need contact with the old.” So says Alexander.Adding: “Create dwellings for some 50 old people in every neighbourhood. Place these dwellings in three rings.

    “1) A central core with cooking and nursing provided.

    “2) Cottages near the core.

    “3) Cottages further out from the core, mixed among the other houses of the neighbourhood, but never more that 200 yards from the core.”

    He concludes that the “50 houses together form a single coherent swarm, with its own clear center, but interlocked at its periphery with other ordinary houses of the neighbourhood.”

    More on Pattern Language:

    See the brief at and then read in sequence:

    Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart Four,, Part FivePart SixPart SevenPart EightPart NinePart TenPart ElevenPart TwelvePart ThirteenPart Fourteen


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