Christopher Alexander and “A Pattern Language”

by jonl

Great post about Christopher Alexander’s work and influence via The Permaculture Research Institute of Australia, originally published at the Metropolis website, which followed up with posts on “The Sustainable Technology of Christopher Alexander” and “The Living Technology of Chrisopher Alexander.” The authors emphasize Alexander’s emphasis on patterns, context and a whole-systems vision. He was writing as an architect, but his influence has been more widespread.

an earlier generation of computer programmers, organization theorists, design theorists and many others, were struggling then to figure out how to generate and manage the large new design structures of that era — computer software being one prominent example. Alexander gave them some very helpful conceptual tools to do that…. In essence, the tools were patterns: not things, but relations of things, which could be identified and re-combined and re-used, in a language-like way.

The article goes on to say that Anderson’s work has “…amounted to a kind of technological critique, revolving around the observation that we’re doing something wrong in the way we make things. We’re substituting an oversimplified model of structure-making — one more closely related to our peculiar hierarchically limited way of conceiving abstract relationships — in place of the kinds of transformations that actually occur regularly in the universe, and in biological systems especially.”

Ours is a much more limited, fragmentary form of this larger kind of transformation. The result of this problem is nothing less than a slow unfolding technological disaster. We know it as the sustainability crisis.

That’s where this discussion touches on what’s happening today — economically, ecologically, and culturally. Growing numbers of people do recognize that we have to get our houses in order. But whose house, to what extent, and in what way? That’s the big question of the day.

What Alexander argues is that we have to make some very fundamental reforms — not only in our specific technologies, but in our very way of thinking about technology. We have been isolating things, as mechanical sub-entities, and manipulating them. That works quite well, but only up to a point. As any systems theorist or ecologist will tell you, the context, not the thing, is the key.

So it seems that we have ignored an incredibly important aspect of natural systems — namely, the fact that every structure is embedded in a larger structural context, and ultimately, in the entire structure of the cosmos itself. What Alexander offered was not just the recognition of this truth, but the basis of a new technology that could incorporate it.

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