Episode 85 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with “consulting designer” Dorian Taylor. Dorian is a student of the work of architect and design theorist Christopher Alexander, who died in March. In this conversation, we discussed Alexander’s influence on architecture and software design.
If you’re unfamiliar with Alexander, Dorian published a post summarizing his work that serves as a good entry point. He also recommends watching Alexander’s keynote at the 1996 OOPSLA conference, which was aimed at software developers.
My high-level take: Alexander’s goal was to design Good environments, with a capital “G.” (Not his term; he spoke of “wholeness” and “living structures.”) Rather than work towards this goal by prescribing top-down solutions, as many architects would do, he instead attempted to produce design systems that would allow order and wholeness to emerge from the bottom up.
Alexander communicated these systems and principles via a series of books that are his key contribution to design. A Pattern Language is his best known. In it, he names and communicates 253 particular “patterns” for the design of towns, buildings, and construction. (This is the book’s subtitle.) These patterns offer solutions to specific design conundrums. Dorian gave an example:
One of the patterns in A Pattern Language is a thing called Site Repair. And he says, you go onto the building site and you don’t go to the nicest spot on the building site and say, “this is where I’m going to build my house.” you go to the worst spot. Because you can’t make the best spot better by tearing it down and putting a house on it. You can go to the worst spot and you make the worst spot better by bulldozing it and putting a house on it.
Patterns have a particular structure that allows the designer to keep context and intended use in mind. They also reference other patterns, so readers follow a non-linear thread when using the book. (Although it’s printed on paper, A Pattern Language is very much a hypertext.)
A Pattern Language has been influential in other fields beyond architecture. Software developers, in particular, adopted patterns and made them their own. However, they used the idea for their own ends, which differed from the architect’s original intent.
Alexander himself moved on. Later in his career, he produced The Nature of Order, a massive work that takes his philosophy and approaches further and deeper. I own this book but haven’t read it. (As we discuss in the podcast, it’s likely a year-long project.)
Dorian has, along with much of the rest of Alexander’s oeuvre, and he’s learned and been influenced by the architect’s thinking. So it was a real treat to discuss Alexander’s ideas with Dorian. I hope you get as much value from this conversation as I did.