pattern language

Obama Pattern Language Primer — 13

I am acutely aware, as I continue this series of looks at Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, that it is presumptuous to imply that the ideas I am developing could constitute a primer for our President. And yet, that is exactly what I intend them to be.

A primer is something that primes. It is also an introduction, not a finished product. I intend, and devoutly hope, that our President will read Our Crisis Is Not Economic and agree that we need to move not merely beyond the tyranny of oil but beyond the entire design that was spawned by an automotive economy.

Then I hope he will open and bookmark this handy online summary of Alexander’s classic work, realizing that, like Robert Pirsig’s Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Alexander’s work is the special product of a rare being. Its resulting honesty — and even it’s offense to the status quo — is to be respected and even honored.


Then, I hope the President will at least ask someone on his staff to wade through all the posts in this series. I have been at pains to collate Alexander’s timely ideas about human settlements with my own vision of what is desperately needed as at least one element in the work that will be done over the next few years. That is:

1. To create the principles we can agree need to inform all future human settlements and

2. To actually design and develop models of human community that are car-free, eco-sufficient and integral, that place near at hand all of the elements needed to live a rounded life within walking distance, not within thirty or sixty miles.


In this post, we note that Alexander is basically pertinent to a car-free, new community and that his ideas become more relevant the more we concede the need to simply replace metrosprawl with viable new settlements.

The workgroups, including all kinds of workshops and offices and even children’s learning groups.

  • Self-Governing Workshops and Offices
  • Small Services without Red Tape
  • Office Connections
  • Master and Apprentices
  • Teenage Society
  • Shopfront Schools
  • Children’s Home
  • Self-Governing Workshops and Offices [May be part of Scattered Work, Industrial Ribbon, Work Community]

    Alexander says: “No one enjoys his work if he is a cog in a machine.”

    But he does not directly relate this to the automotive root of our design and its articulation in the world. We are in a great warp of history in which Alexander’s ideas are actually consider-able. From now on we are in the realm of the seismic changes that could occur if the initial premises of these notes are accepted — car-free, eco-sufficient, integral.

    Instead of Alexander’s conclusion which you can read at the relevant link above I want to argue that we can maintain some version of the work reality we now have, but by doing two things. First, creating settlements where it will be natural for those who work there to live there. That is impilicit in all that I am posting. Furthermore I am assuming that those whose livelihood is connected to some other locality will have the capacity to do much if not all of the needed work via the Internet. I believe that it is a choice whether one works at home or has an office to go to. In my proposed settlements, internet cafe’s would evolve to the point of being able to rent secure office space to persons needing them.

    Note that I am not eliminating cars from the mix. I am merely eliminating them from within the area where people live.. Anyone could have a vehicle outside the perimeter and this would enable transportation to work beyond one’s own settlement. But the need for this would be radically reduced.

    Small Services without Red Tape [May be part of Work Community, University as a marketplace, Local Town Hall, Health Center, Teenage Society]

    Says Alexander: “Departments and public services don’t work if they are too large. When they are large, their human qualities vanish; they become bureaucratic; red tape takes over.”

    I can quote his solution exactly as he wrote it and subscribe to it. And anyone who can envision the sort of settlement I am proposing will see that it is precisely what I mean by having nodes all through the settlement that are offering the services and commercial options that people want and need.


    In any institution whose departments provide public service:

    1. Make each service or department autonomous as far as possible.
    2. Allow no one service more that 12 staff members total.
    3. House each one in an identifiable piece of the building.
    4. Give each one direct access to a public thoroughfare.

    I would not require anything but I would give each institution a place. All would be accessable to a public thoroughfare which in this case would be a promenade, a pedestrian way.

    Office Connections [May be part of Work Community, Self-Governing Workshops and Offices, Small Services without Red Tape]

    Alexander: “If two parts of an office are too far apart, people will not move between them as often as they need to; and if they are more than one floor apart, there will be almost no communication between the two.”

    This implies that there might be organizations with hundreds of persons. If that is the case I should mention that I do not envision floors in the settlement I propose. While I would make it possible to stack my lego blocks two to a level, this would work out to a two story max for a larger office. In my view the structure I am proposing would offer maximum flexibility to planners of work space, even to the point of having various parts of the office across from each other so that one would walk outside to reach them.

    Master and Apprentices [May be part of Network of Learning, Self-Governing Workshops and Offices}

    Alexander says: “The fundamental learning situation is one in which a person learns by helping someone who really knows what he is doing.” Adding: “Organise work around a tradition of masters and apprentices.”

    This is an ideal and a good one. So too, I believe, is a notion of schooling as apprenticeship, fanning out from home schooling, with the passage of decent, standard examinations the basis for certification in one or another line of work. Essentially I am assuming that the downside of the collapse of the current means of doing things will create the rising up of better alternatives for the future.

    Teenage Society [May be part of Life Cycle, Network of Learning, Master and Apprentices]

    Alexander: :Teenage is the time of passage between childhood and adulthood. In traditional societies, this passage is accompanied by rites which suit the psychological demands of the transition. But in modern society the “high school” fails entirely to provide the passage.”

    Alexander’s solution: “Replace the “high school” with an institution which is actually a model of adult society, in which the students take on most of the responsibility for learning and social life, with clearly defined roles and forms of discipline. Provide adult guidance, both for the learning, and the social structure of the society; but keep them as far as feasible, in the hands of the students.”

    Again I see a mentoring environment in my human settlements so that a teen could be drawn to playing guitar and work with a good player and get credit for same. And so forth and so on. There could be satellite mentoring nodes.

    I definitely do not see huge high schools in a commmunity of 5-10,000. I would break up any educational operation into nodes that would serve no more than 50.

    Shopfront Schools [May be part of Children’s Home, Network of Learning]

    Alexander’s premise: “Around the age of 6 or 7, children develop a great need to learn by doing, to make their mark on a community outside the home. If the setting is right, these needs lead children directly to basic skills and habits of learning.”

    Here it is almost as though Alexander had envisioned the matrix needed to make the following possible — a car free, safe community, condensed enough to make walking anywhere a reasonable expectation. [Yes, the ways would also be disability-friendly.]

    “Instead of building large public schools for children 7 to 12, set up tiny independent schools, one school at a time. Keep the school small, so that its overheads are low and a teacher-student ration of 1:10 can be maintained. Locate it in the public part of the community, with a shopfront and tree or four rooms.”

    Children’s Home [May be part of Children in the City, Connected Play, Network of Learning]

    Says Alexander: “The task of looking after little children is a much deeper and more fundamental social issue than the phrases “baby-sitting” and “child care” suggest.”

    And again his solution is pertinent to the sort of settlement I am advocating:

    “In every neighbourhood, build a children’s home- a second home for children- a large rambling house or workplace- a place where children can stay for an hour or two, or for a week. At least one of the people who run it must live on the premises; it must be clear, from the way that it is run, that it is a second family for the children- not just a place where baby-sitting is available.”

    You will ask how this will all be supported. It should be obvious at this point that we will be transferring the money that we used to spend on extraneous and needless things and things of inflated value with huge profit margins to the creation of a people-infrastructure, an entire new class of occupations requiring skills needed to master every phase of an enhanced living experience in a viable human settlement.

    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


    One thought on “Obama Pattern Language Primer — 13

    1. Pingback: Work The Cube » Blog Archive » How to solve a Rubik’s Cube (Part One)

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