- Homes should be comfortable
- Buildings should match their environments
- Floorplans should not deaden or impede the intended function of a building
Nothing new there. And Mr. Alexander has some insight in applying these generalities into specifics of design. A careful reading, however, shows his works to be more of a manifesto than a simple manual of design. The centerpiece is his dogma of European/third-world urbanism, and it spreads not through revolutions or propaganda, but through the building code.
It would seem we are almost alone in this perspective. Most who have read these books have have swallowed them whole, which is to say, uncritically. The books are not without some good ideas; but an honest reader will see them in view of Mr. Alexander’s philisophic dementia.
The ideology of Timeless Way and Pattern Language is tasteless, dogmatic, illogical and occasionally spiteful; but it is nothing if not principled. Sometimes it strikes like lightening from a clear sky, such as at one point where it suddenly attempts to draw a triangle linking Christianity, the nuclear family, and sexual ineptitude; and it leaves you confused and disoriented. Other times you hear it cracking and rumbling in the background.
“On no account allow set-backs between streets or paths or public open land and the buildings which front on them. The set-backs do nothing valuable and almost always destroy the value of the open areas between the buildings. Build right up to the paths; change the laws in all communities where obsolete by-laws make this impossible. And let the building fronts take on slightly uneven angles as they accomodate to the shape of the street.”
Reading cultish statements like these, our minds reach out and grapple with Mr. Alexander’s.
- So, why is it wrong to have a front yard, Mr. Alexander?
- “Why, because the set-backs cause dead, useless spaces to exist, and these destroy the value of the land.”
- Dead and useless? According to what standard?
- “According to the standard of my own tastes and observations, young fellow.”
- How does it destroy the value of the land? How am I going to sell my house if the buyers want grass for their children to play on instead of making them play in the street?
- “Well, the kids can walk a block or two away to the ‘common areas.’ There will be grass there.”
- What if the parents want to be able to watch their children from the front porch or through the front windows?
- “The parents don’t need to watch their children; the whole community, being joined together in voluntary extended families, will assist in the oversight of each other’s children.”
- How is that going to happen?
- “Magic. Now go away.”
As with every book, you eat the meat and spit out the bones. But the more I chew the more I’m finding the meat/bone ratio to be getting a little ridiculous.
“In general, we have found that modern construction has gone more and more towards materials for inside walls that are hard and smooth. This is partly an effort to make buildings clean and impervious to wear. But it is also because the kinds of materials used today are machine made—each piece perfect and exactly the same.
“Buildings made of these flawless, hard and smooth surfaces leave us totally unrelated to them. We tend to stray away from them not only because they are psychologically strange, but because in fact they are uncomfortable to lean against; they have no give; they don’t respond to us.”
I have never felt that the walls in my house are “psychologically strange,” even if they are made of 4×8 panels of drywall. Mr. Alexander apparently assumes that everyone shares his animist leanings. I say it is a matter of taste and upbringing; Mr. Alexander makes no such allowances. When you read further, you understand just how much he expects us to throw away our tastes and backgrounds, and to warp them to match his:
“One of the most beautiful examples of this pattern is the one used in Indian village houses. The walls are plastered, by hand, with a mixture of cow dung and mud, which dries to a beautiful soft finish and shows the five fingers of the plasterer’s hand all over the walls.”
All I can say to that is: Mr. Alexander, you yourself are psychologically strange, and I tend to stray from you.
“Tenet insanibile multos scribendi cacoethes.”
(Many are possessed by the incurable itch to write.)