pattern language, politics

Obama Pattern Language Primer –12

The 12th in this series of posts built around Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language continues my attempt to interest the Obama Administration in creating new human settlements that are actually able to realize the basics of change we can believe in.

I am using the online condensation of A Pattern Language and appending my own ideas about what is needed. These ideas are summarized in a post I wrote in March, 2008, anticipating just what has been happening. Please begin by reading Our Crisis Is Not Economic.

Then open:


Then, at your leisure, peruse posts in this the series at the link below:


The deeper transformations sought by Alexander open up now as we move to issues what homes would actually look like.

Within the framework of the common land, the clusters, and the work communities encourage transformation of the smallest independent social institutions: the families, workgroups, and gathering places. the family, in all its forms.

  • The Family
  • House for a Small Family
  • House for a Couple
  • House for One Person
  • Your Own Home
  • The Family (May be part of House Cluster, Row Houses, Housing Hill, Housing Inbetween, Life Cycle)

    Alexander says: “The nuclear family is not by itself a viable social form.”

    So important is this issue that I will quote his condensed remarks in full before offering my comment.

    Set up processes which encourage groups of 8 to 12 people to come together and establish communal households. Morphologically, the important things are:

    1) Private realms for the groups and individuals that make up the extended family: couples’ realms, private rooms, sub-households for small families.

    2) Common space for shared functions: cooking, working, gardening, child care.

    3) At the important crossroads of the site, a place where the entire group can meet and sit together.

    So moralistic is our society that this discussion is almost impossible. What I want to say is that it is immaterial in the idea that I am seeking traction for. I have lived in larger-than-nuclear settings and in tightly-bound nuclear settings and both are a spectrum from horrendous to sublime. Let’s leave it that.

    The huge sin of design, of course, is to make the nuclear model the gold standard of our detached home, automotive metrosprawl culture. And the prevalence of this model, whatever its provenance or durability, is at odds with reality. Our society is a melange of differing relational units and neither Alexander nor I can anticipate the shape or composition of a family or communal living of the future.

    The clear need in a human settlement is the capacity to freely create and change living arrangements. This is why I believe the basic unit of design for any community is one’s own room. I see this as meeting the need of individuals for space. One’s own room could be small if it was merely an office sort of thing. If one lived alone it could encompass one’s whole private existence. In family settings a child’s own room could be quite small, mainly a place to sleep. but such spaces could be tied to a common play area. In essence the elements of a dwelling in my notion would be easily placed, easily moved, easily tied in to other elements. They would be the lego blocks of human settlement. They would be strong. They would have built in the ledges and storage areas that would otherwise require all manner of micro-work on-site in a custom built home.

    Food and cooking is an interesting issue. We are moving toward a world in which the cost of buying food out of the home is about equal to the cost of buying and preparing food from scratch in a kitchen. In the customized mix of my lego-blogks I could see dwellings with nothing but a cooling unit and a small heating unit for food and dwellings with a Julia Child-worthy cooking area. If the economic parity is maintained, it might well make for communal dining because neighborhoods would be far more integrated in my proposed settlements than they are in today’s sprawl.

    We need to remember that Alexander has not eliminated the car from the mix. I have. We can have no move to change we can believe in until the deleterious dictatorship of the automobile is ended. Happily it can be ended from place to place by simply building such communities or adapting existing areas.

    House for a Small Family (May be part of The Family, House Cluster)

    Alexander says: “In a house for a small family, it is the relationship between children and adults which is most critical.”

    He adds: “Give the house three distinct parts: a realm for parents, a realm for the children, and a common area. Conceive these three realms as roughly similar in size, with the commons the largest.”

    This is reasonable. Three lego blocks. But none of the benefits to children compares with having a settlement where you can walk out the front and be on a promenade and not get run down by a car. And have a whole world within walking distance.

    I can hear people asking about security in this idyllic setting. The dwellings would be inherently secure as their manufacturers would be under obligation to make them so, both from a safety and incursion point of view. The area within the perimeter of a human settlement would have inherent security in that it would have a secure border — not as in a gated community, but access would be a checkpoint of sorts. Since much that is insecure is the result of conflicts in the privacy of a home, I think the probability is that security would extend to the ability of anyone under attack to communicate with help that would very close at hand. We are talking up to 10K persons living within an area a mile across in any direction. I think the safety of communities could become a matter of common interest and common awareness. To the extent that safety is present, security needs diminish.

    House for a Couple (May be part of The Family, House Cluster)

    Alexander: “In a small household shared by two, the most important problem which arises is the possibility that each may have to little opportunity for solitude or privacy.”

    He elaborates: “Conceive a house for a couple as being made up of two kinds of places — a shared couple’s realm and individual private worlds. Imagine the shared realm as half-public and half-intimate; and the private worlds as entirely individual and private.”

    I think two spaces does it with one being used by one but containing the sleeping area and the other being understood as a living area and a place where guests might be welcomed. But with my lego blocks you could have two small areas and a larger area or any combination you liked.

    How, you might ask, are these going to be brought into the settlement and moved and changed once there. Quite simple. There would be a designated time for general recalibration in the settlement or in parts of it. Let us assume that there are three sizes of “property” which could contain respectively five, four and three less lego block rectangles similar in shape to bricks, only a bit taller and a bit squarer. These blocks would either be full or half size. The options would be 3-2, 2-2, 1-2 with the removal of a small block creating room for a private outdoor space where one might have a garden or sitting area. They could be moved in and out by vehicles on a specified weekly basis. People who moved from settlement to settlement could move their rooms or sell or pass them on to new residents. Any of these blocks could be slid into place with ease. They would have retractable rollers built in. For ventilation they would all be built with a 18′ crawlspace area under the floor and fitted with vents on the edges to enable circulation of cool and warm air.

    House for One Person (May be part of The Family, House for a Small Family, House for a Couple)

    Alexander contends: “Once a household for one person is part of some larger group, the most critical problem which arises is the need for simplicity.”

    He proposes: “Conceive a house for one person as a place of the utmost simplicity: essentially a one-room cottage or studio, with large and small alcoves around it. When it is most intense, the entire house may be no more than 300 to 400 square feet.”

    This opens up a simple possibility in my proposed settlement. A half a lego block fits the Alexander proposal. Everyone can design and order up their own room. Any one of the proposed configurations could contain rooms of the sort Alexander suggests.

    Your Own Home (May be part of The Family)

    Alexander: “People cannot be genuinely comfortable and healthy in a house which is not theirs. All forms of rental- whether from private landlords or public housing agencies- work against the natural processes which allow people to form stable, self-healing communities.”

    My solution to this is to completely end the notion of property tied to a particular plot of ground and move toward the replacement of the car as one’s significant space to “one’s own room”. One can always change one’s room but it does present itself as an ownership option.

    NOTE: I am making an effort to find some visual basis for suggesting the structure of settlements I am trying to convey. So far I have found only the following:



    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


    2 thoughts on “Obama Pattern Language Primer –12

    1. stephencrose says:

      Thanks. So far this has gotten no really serious response. But the ideas in it are probably not politically viable, at least for a time.

      I studied a bit with C. A. Doxiadis (ekistiks) in the 60s and edited a magazine on cities at the time. Have since worked in UN agencies but more in communications than human settlements.

      My convictions about cars, however, are four decades old and I even wrote an anti car novel in the 80s. I believe F.L. Wrights biggest mistake was to draw mockups of his idealistically conceived suburbs which included highway interchanges.

      I hope you make other comments as you go through the posts. Maybe you can figure a way to get these ideas stated reasonably. Cheers, S

    2. Wow. Nice concept for an area of study and a website. Thanks – I’ll read it all later but wanted to say thanks, and let you know I have used A Pattern Language in teaching Masters of Sustainable Design Studio candidates at Philadelphia University, which has an accredited architecture school as well as several other design disciplines. Our studio in within the separate sustainable sciences center in the midst of the funky, vibrant Manayunk neighborhood in the city of Philadelphia.

      As a liberal-progressive activist with a heavy emphasis on holistic, ecological thinking I am also pretty deeply into understanding and use of language, framing, etc. in fostering behavioral change. I trained in the structured public conversation process developed by the Kettering Institute and have worked in a variety of small group settings with it: Amer Bar Assoc, Catholic Church, Univ of Pennsylvania, etc. The best application was the 2007 Earth Charter Community Summit here in Philly which unfortunately fell through about 4 days before that annual October global celebration of the Earth Charter. So it goes… 😉

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