Christopher Alexander's Timeless Way of Building may have been first published in 1979, but it could still be considered one of the most important treatises in the discourse on ecology and sustainability in architecture. The volume should be mandatory reading for all first-year students of architecture; but sadly, judging by the dearth of ecological and sustainable architecture that has been produced since that time, it would seem that Alexander's words of wisdom have been largely ignored by the architectural community for the last twenty-four years.|
The Timeless Way of Building is the first volume of a three-volume set; in it, he sets out a radically different perceptual framework for conceiving of, and creating architecture. In the second volume of the series, A Pattern Language, he discusses his own exploration of architecture within this perceptual framework and the two hundred fifty-three patterns that he has intuited. In the third, final volume of the series, The Oregon Experiment, he explains how this "language" of two hundred fifty-three patterns was used in practice to design a building complex at the University of Oregon.
One of the reasons that this codex has laid mostly dormant until now may be because of its holistic language. The tome is very accessible in the sense that each and every concept in the book both explained in detailed paragraphs, and also summarized in short sentences. But the concepts are framed in almost spiritual terminology, alien to many practitioners, teachers, and students of architecture. Naturally, this is also its strength: The Timeless Way attempts to redefine the language which we use to discuss architecture, as a necessary step towards the redefinition of the way that we create architecture.
To Alexander, the goal of good architecture is to achieve a Kabalist-Taoist "quality without a name": buildings, towns, and gardens that make us feel most alive, the most true to ourselves, the most unselfconscious, the most whole, the most complete, the most free. The person capable of achieving this quality is not a professional architect, but an everyman or everywoman, full of innocence and devoid of ego. And "the way" to achieve this quality is through the rediscovery and implementation of pattern languages, the genetic codes of buildings, simple "rules of thumb", the relationships between contexts, problems, and solutions.
Alexander proposes that we first conduct an analysis in this way: first, recognize and abstract a physical feature of a building that instinctually, not intellectually, "just feels right" -- for example, a vestibule that is texturally distinct from both the inside and the outside of a building. Second, define the problem that this feature solves -- in this case, the need for a transitionary space between the public sphere and the private sphere. Third, define the contexts in which this feature is appropriate -- in our example, entrances and exits of buildings. And fourth, name and draw the pattern, so it can be explained to, and shared with, others.|
Patterns are all interconnected to smaller patterns that they encompass, and to larger patterns that they themselves are encompassed by. Just as a language is a set of symbols and a set of rules for using those symbols, a pattern language is a set of patterns and a set of sequential rules, for using those patterns. Just as an infinite number of one-dimensional sentences create themselves out of the English language, an infinite number of three-dimensional pattern sentences, or buildings, create themselves out of pattern languages. When a set of patterns differentiate space in a way that treats a building as a whole, it is a successful pattern language.
Christopher Alexander foresaw a time when, after having reinternalized these human pattern languages, we would no longer need, or even see, the patterns, but instead see reality directly, as other animals do; a time when we would live so close to our hearts, that language would no longer be necessary, and we would create from a void, naturally; a time when human architecture would be just like the rest of the natural world, an endless play of repetition and variety; a time when human architecture would not divide the spheres of human existence, but reunite them. The hearts of the previous generation of architects were closed to his vision; perhaps the next generation of architects will heed his call.