The Timeless Way of Building
Christopher Alexander

For the past year or so, this was my bus book. That’s a surprisingly long time, and it probably shouldn’t have taken me that long to read. Late last year, about 50 pages from the end, I paused in my reading; and then took several months to pick it up again. This seems unfair to the book: it deserved a much more coherent read than that. Though, the ideas are different enough to also benefit from a considered read. I’ll pick this up again sometime, and I promise to read much faster that time. Anyway.

One sentence summary: this book will forever change the way you look at and think about buildings, towns and architecture.

Alexander firmly believes that modern planning and building practices are bankrupt and can only result in inhospitable, unwelcoming cities and homes. A belief that seems to be firmly born out by most urban planning since the Second World War: just look at the damage Harry Seidler has wrought on Sydney for an example close to home. This book is a polemic, a grand rant against the current state of his own industry and art. A work in the tradition of many a genius’ (and quite a few looney’s) Let’s Blow Up the Universe screed. So, genius or looney? I’ve probably already given away my opinion on that matter…

Ultimately, it would not do this book any justice to attempt to briefly summarise what it has to say.

But what the hell, I’ll give it a shot anyway. Alexander’s central thesis is that there is a shared quality amongst those towns and buildings where people feel most at home; a quality independent of culture, climate and history. He also believes that this quality can be easily achieved, by any person who chooses to build. It is a matter of recognising the forces within the people who will use the building or site and then balancing those forces with the forces intrinsic to the specific location and society. He even outlines a prescription for achieving this balance: a collection of patterns to duplicate in design, planning and construction, with instructions on how to combine these. A language of patterns to construct our built environment.

Unlike many other polemics, this is highly detailed and descriptive: it describes the quality to achieve and then gives instructions on how to achieve it.

If you live in a large city in Australia, it’ll be pretty obvious while reading this book that this is not how building is done. First, Australian building practices place the car as king of all. Any building or neighbourhood must be designed for the maximum convenience of the car: people are a distant second. Second, Australian building practices harken back to some long forgotten European past: everyone wants a little brick English cottage, though nothing could be more generally inappropriate for our climate. The Queenslander is not the standard archetype for Australian residential building unfortunately.

The current popular obsession with being ‘green’ is driving people to a certain superficial realisation about the car. But that is only a symptom of a far deeper problem. Loudly proclaiming that cars are evil and must be disposed of is never really going to achieve anything. And that sort of unbalanced (in the forces sense) thinking will inevitably lead to other problems. As much as I’m a fan of the specific remedies proposed in Jan Gehl’s research paper into Sydney’s CBD, I do feel some uneasiness.

The pattern approach that Alexander talks about is intended to completely avoid unbalanced forces. He regularly uses cars in his discussion of patterns. They are real, they are valuable and they’re not going to just disappear. A central point of these patterns is that they’re not something Alexander has devised as a new architectural ‘-ism’ to imprint his vision on the world. These patterns are things that arise naturally, given the way all humans want to live. Growing organically out of a combination of the people and their surrounds. There is a sequel to The Timeless Way of Building, A Pattern Language, that acts as a catalogue of the most important patterns that Alexander and his colleagues have observed in successful towns and buildings.

In the US there is a growing style of design called ‘New Urbanism’ that attempts to encourage the buildings and towns that Alexander commends so highly. It is interesting to note that in Europe that name is largely unused, people preferring to use ‘The Way Towns are Designed’ instead. It is also interesting to note that in Australia, we have neither.

Finally, why did I, a software engineer, read this book? To the surprise of many architects, Christopher Alexander is very well known in the field of computer science. In the 1960’s his work was discovered and his concept of patterns was co-opted. No serious software engineer can possibly not be familiar with the world of design patterns: named rules for particular structures of code to solve certain problems. It’s my opinion that while initially off to a good start the modern Design Patterns movement has completely missed the point of Alexander’s original teaching.

His intent was not to catalogue an exhaustive set of patterns that may be thrown at a problem until a solution emerges. His intent was to define an interlocking language from which you can select appropriate terms to grow a solution. In his case a building or town, in my case a software system. Modern design patterns seems to ignore the essential organic growth aspect of a pattern language, and instead seems to focus on cataloguing. An unbalanced approach.