The timeless way of building

The Internet Archive has made the book “The timeless way of building” by Christopher Alexander freely available. Such acts of generosity have increased my respect for this organization recently. I think that they are headed in the right direction and that they may be building something timeless as well. Since I have heard a lot of positives about the book, I decided to review it here and share bits that I found interesting. This will be a personal view, so if you like to see the big picture, please feel free to read the book by yourself. It is not exactly a light read, full of tiny details and sometimes repetitive ideas. It teaches us to see the beauty in the small, which makes it interesting for every designer, but also to see the parts from which larger systems (like buildings and towns) are built, which makes it interesting for every programmer who aspires to become a software architect. The author speaks with love about the details that surround us and that love literally shows through the pages. We can see photos of buildings exhibiting interesting patterns and of people, who become part of the environments themselves. At one place he even gives us concrete instructions how to create. When reading the following notes, please remember that the book was written in 1979.

Learn how to discover patterns that are deep and capable of generating life.

Recognize how your creations make you feel.

A town can grow from thousands of creative acts.

We need to seek quality without name. Such quality is what makes something “whole”. Whole determines how free something is of contradictions. We need to avoid creating a self-destroying system or one in internal conflict which is always restless. It has to be whole into itself, but isolated from the world around it.

A building or town will only be alive to the extent to which it is governed in a timeless way.

Pay attention to attributes of buildings of the past. Things are built by people who have put themselves at the center of creation.

Buildings should survive the ages.

Make your room alive. Design your surroundings. Make everything flourish. Create your own Universe – the garden, the fish, the trees…

Which sequence of activities would lead to that result?

Buildings are made of parts. Once we understand the patterns, we have a way of looking at the building.

We need to pay attention to our processes, but free ourselves from all the methods during creation.

We are crippled by our fears that stay in the way of creating, so we need the discipline to overcome them.

Learning the relationship between ourselves and the surroundings where we create can help.

Words should fail to capture good quality.

Things which are living may be lifeless; nonliving things may be alive.

Create balanced, self-maintaining things that aren't easily disturbed. Your creation should be able to stay next to things outside its time.

We need to first understand the larger pieces in the world to understand how we fit.

Are you smiling, being perfectly in home with yourself? If not, then you are not free. When something is truly living, we can recognize the happiness in it, not just its freedom and relaxedness. When your inner forces are resolved, it makes you feel home. Smiling unconsciously reveals these forces and tensions. Are the objects we create like us when we are mentally free?

We need to be free of stereotypes and opinions about ourselves and avoid holding tightly to images of how we should live.

Do you forget yourself completely while working?

Which towns, buildings etc. made you most alive? Which attributes did they have that others didn't?

Our lives, our surroundings—each one creates the other.

Is this inviting to people? What do they want to see?

Seek to make quality alive. We can come alive only to the extent to which the buildings and towns we live in are alive.

Every place is given its character by certain patterns of events that keep happening there. What matters in a building/town is not its outward shape, its physical geometry alone, but the events that happen there. The events bring life to the building. The overall character of our lives is given by those events which keep on recurring over and over again. The same is valid for buildings and towns. Your city already tells about how you live. The events depend on the culture of the neighborhood. A pattern of events cannot be separated from the place where it occurs.

To understand the patterns, see them as living elements of space themselves. It is the space itself that lives and breathes.

A town is made out of houses, gardens, streets, shopping centers, workplaces, factories… A building is made from walls, windows, doors, rooms, stairs, terraces, flowerpots…

Unless you see some common sense in the relationships, they explain nothing.

The small things are those that make the impression.

Our situations make us.

The action and the space are indivisible.

Although repeated, elements differ every time they occur. The stuff that repeats itself often gives the structure to the building or room.

Relationships between the elements can also repeat themselves like the elements. The elements themselves are patterns of relationships.

Where two arteries intersect, there's a traffic light.

One thing serves to define the characteristics of another that it touches (affordance).

Each neighborhood is defined by the patterns that keep repeating there.

Each place is made of some atoms (capture them in a photo).

You release only qualities you have in yourself.

Multiplicity of living patterns—the more something glows, the more it has self-sustaining fire.

Patterns form an interdependent system.

A building becomes alive when every pattern in it is alive.

Ocean waves, blades of grass, tree leaves—many things seem to repeat endlessly.

Buildings are often modular, nature isn't (no two units in it are alike). Nature is whole; a building that is whole must have the character of nature as well. The details of a building cannot be made alive when they are made from modular parts.

The shape of the wave is generated by the dynamics of the water.

Although houses can be similar, they have different relationships with the people who live in them, with the land, the sun, the streets, the community.

Buildings which are alive are fluid and relaxed in their geometry. Natural buildings have a certain degree of adaptation of their parts within the whole.

To preserve a building, we need to build it from materials that last forever. But to reach quality without name, a building must at least in part be made of those materials that age and crumble. The quality without name cannot be made, but only generated by a process.

Nature is always transitory.

Let go of will and let process take over during creation. Anything which lives can only be achieved as the end product of process, whose force takes over and replaces the willful act of creation. Shape things by a process, not will. To make a living flower, you grow it from the seed.

Great complexity can only be generated indirectly.

Each small part helps to create a bigger part.

Each room is a little different according to the view.

The function determines the form.

The pattern must solve a concrete problem, not create additional ones.

The meaning of the sentence comes from the network of connections among the words.

An incremental aggregation of many individual acts give a town its structure. Many buildings are created by thousands of individuals.

All creative acts rely on a pattern language. But each person has its own version of it.

Great creative power lies in the capacity to observe correctly and deeply.

You cannot build great buildings until you enrich your language. Give life to your surroundings.

Nothing which is not simple and direct can survive the slow transmission from person to person.

There is a direct connection between the users and the act of building.

Each detail has meaning. It is slowly thought out and deeply felt.

The professionals guard their knowledge jealously to make themselves indispensible. It is what keeps them from sharing their pattern languages. There is a human instinct for protection and territoriality.

Seminar rooms should be square, not long; otherwise we start talking loudly to distant silhouettes.

Even great architects make mistakes.

Do not get out of touch with the problems you are trying to solve.

People often use building blocks which the industry readily provides, not necessarily blocks that contain anything essential about life.

When pattern languages die, chaos in our towns and buildings arises. In panic, people try to replace the lost order of the organic process by artificial forms of order based on control.

Old buildings may be more human than new ones.

To influence the structure of your town, you must help to change the underlying languages.

The central task of architecture is the creation of a single, shared, evolving pattern language, which everyone contributes to and everyone can use. Discover deep patterns capable of generating life. Share and discuss them publicly if they get forgotten. In order to share, we need to be able to criticize first. And to criticize, we have to know its functional purpose.

A system of forces occurs repeatedly in a context. Everything lives in a context and things cannot simply be taken out of it.

Patterns can exist at all scales and deal with almost any kind of forces.

Define the problem and the forces which this pattern could bring into balance.

Every pattern we define must be formulated in the form of a rule, which establishes a relationship between a context, a system of forces which arises in that context and a configuration which allows these forces to resolve themselves into that context. (context→system of forces→configuration)

To discover things that are alive, we need to start with an observation.

Which entrances do make you feel good for going through them?

Pay attention to the “in-betweens” (the breathing space).

It is very hard to be precise when describing ideas.

Creating powerful and deep abstractions is an art.

Entrance transition pattern – where the light, color, view, sound, surface and mentality change. Flexible working space pattern.

If you can't draw it, it isn't a pattern. Give the pattern such a name that you can say “make one” and be sure that the other person will understand you.

Does this solve the field of forces in all classes?

Intensify your empirical observations. In the second round, fine-tune them. Let people easily check your findings. Be open to debate.

What is it that makes some of the things you like most special?

It's not the building that makes the inn great, but the things that happen there and the interesting stories that travelers share with each other. The atmosphere and the feeling of equality among people makes them more open to conversation.

Express a problem as a conflict among forces. Seek a configuration that solves the problem without side effects. A pattern works fully only when it deals with all the forces present in the situation.

Design is about invoking positive feelings. A 10000 bed hospital fills everyone with fear (of disease). It takes hard work to concentrate attention on feelings.

Quality makes the difference between what lives and what doesn't.

People often choose to put their opinions forward, in place of reality.

Designs based on wishful thinking fail.

On their surface, patterns seem to be formed by opinion, but this is a wrong impression.

Ignored forces don't go away, but continue to silently lurk underground until dealing with them becomes a big problem.

Each pattern depends both on the smaller patterns it contains and on the larger patterns within which it is contained.

How many useful combinations of your patterns can you create?

We cannot visualize what we know nothing about.

Pay attention for overlapping patterns.

Complex towns are built by a sufficiently complex pattern language.

Constantly recreate the patterns in your mind (since they aren't learned).

Evolution and change are certain and they will test the patterns.

In a town where the common language has vanished, the acts of construction and design are in few hands and are large and clumsy. But when each person can shape a building for themselves, a town can develop quickly.

There's no sharp distinction between the process of construction and the process of repair as no thing is whole in itself.

Treat the building as a whole at each construction step.

Use each pattern to differentiate the result of the previous patterns. Work with one pattern at a time, but keep the whole (pattern configuration) in mind. Make sure the new pattern fits those who preceded it. With every new pattern, the entire design has to shift and resettle in your mind.

Truly believe in creating beautiful things to create something unique.

If the pattern makes sense, you don't need to control the design.

The building will only become alive if you let go of your fears.

Don't worry about unrelated things and about those you'll have to deal with later.

If you begin to compromise the patterns, there will be no life left in them.

Reduce resistance to change the design. Don't get caught into your processes.

The use of shared pattern language resolves quality problems in group work. The common process of creation creates a union within a group.

Close your eyes. Imagine. Where do you see it?

Irregularities have a rhythm.

End products are often result of the succession of tiny, daily transformations.

The neighborhood as a group is responsible for the patterns in its common land.

Every pattern will appear at the level where it is needed.

A town which is whole must be unpredictable.

Greater order is forced from the order of the surroundings (when people seek to do better).

Character is marked by greater differentiation.

There should be no gaps between parts (continuity of the surroundings).

We can only make a building alive when we are egoless.

You can't invent something fully in your mind. Instead, start with nothing in it. Let go of your images entirely.

A men who is not afraid to die is free to live, because he is open to what happens next and is not always killing it by trying to control it.

A tree is bent within the forces in the garden.

One place can have “good” patterns in it and yet be dead, another place may be without patterns and yet still be alive. You can only make a building alive if you are free enough to reject the very patterns that are helping you.

Fear makes you abandon your knowledge. Don't lose confidence in your own judgement. Your first, most primitive impulses are usually right and will lead you to the right thing.

To act as nature does is the most ordinary thing in the world.

Slicing strawberries thin creates more surfaces whose touching then improves taste.

I hope that you can recognize why the book is important and what kind of thinking these ideas later led to. You can also read “A pattern language” if you want to learn more about the actual patterns the author speaks about. Or you may choose to create a short summary and provide a link where interested readers can find more about it. It's up to you. Now good luck building something timeless.

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