Things to do During COVID (A Mini-Review of “Pattern Language”)

The street cafe provides a unique setting, special to cities: a place people can sit lazily, legitimately, be on view, and watch the world go by […]. Encourage local cafes to spring up in each neighborhood. Make them intimate places, with several rooms, open to a busy path, so people can sit with coffee or a drink, and watch the world go by. Build the front of the cafe so a set of tables stretch out of the cafe, right into the street. 

Christopher Alexander et al., A Pattern Language, p. 437,439


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by Stephen Jennner

If the current “pandemic” has done anything for us ordinary folk, I suppose the chance to get off of the bus and reflect on the way we live and interact has probably been uppermost. It has also given us time to undertake a real “spring clean”, many of us are combing through our clutter, looking for stuff to throw out or retain. Every time we come across something that we had almost forgotten, the memories come flooding back. Such is the legacy of modern materialism. I have been re-reading some of Leicaphilia’s recent blogs and one strand in particular led me to re-read Camera Lucida which I had not really read properly initially, but kept on the shelf, because I liked some of the pictures. I realised also that it is a translation, and very well regarded, but perhaps less readable in English. 

There was also the recent passing of the well known English philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, who I knew by name, but whose work I had never read. The ritual disdain verging on the celebration of his death by the institutionalised lefty media led me to investigate. He couldn’t have been that bad after all, I thought. I read England an Elegy first and enjoyed that, so I sallied forth and bought two more books, How to be a Conservative and Green Philosophy – How to think seriously about the planet, the first of those two was the thinner, so I read that, I am currently ploughing through the second, over 400 pages. They are very readable and surprisingly accessible for being the work of someone who is described as a philosopher. 

But, back to the COVID clearout, since the last of our kids cleared off, the room in which he festered has been where everything material gets discarded, and was becoming impassable. So it was there that the great undermining began. It wasn’t long before I came across a pile of books, discarded but kept, because of a “one day I will read that again” sentiment. My eyes settled on a book that I have read and gushed over for nearly forty years, and I sat down and started leafing through it once again. I don’t know much about the authors, I think they are American, or at least naturalised Americans, the names look English, Japanese and Jewish, but together they have produced a universal language, which has since established a format that is used repeatedly, notwithstanding the specialised blog format, where the host invokes others to chime in by way of comment, and sometimes submit their own pieces. 

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The book is called A Pattern Language and the credited authors are Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein, along with contributions by Max Jacobson, Ingrid Fiksdahl-King and Shlomo Angel”. Think of it as a photo book about issues of social architecture; there are many excellent photographs and illustrations accompanying the text, many by well-known exponents, some unattributed snappers and daubers, and I presume, some by the authors. 

The theme of A Pattern Language is in a nutshell, how to approach, conceptualise and plan for the built environment for a beautiful, practical and sustained past, present and future. It is profoundly conservative in sentiment rather than its political allegiances, regarding human beings as essentially animals that are universally similar, yet differ locally and thus and employ different ways of being, different traditions, different gods.  The layout is very structured, the book indexed by levels of what the authors regard as layers of significance.

There are several main headings which are then further subdivided, beginning with a “summary of the language”, then describing “independent regions”, “towns”, “buildings” and finally “construction”. Those main headings are further subdivided into small one or two-page chapters, which are described in levels of importance by the addition of either no, one or two asterisks appended to the title. Each chapter describes a particular aspect of human habitation along with an illustration or photograph by way of visual explanation. The photographs serve the text well, lending an added meaning that isn’t capable of being articulated by words. The book is an object lesson on the different meanings conveyed by the written and the visual, how the two are distinct yet can accommodate each other to produce a larger meaning.

I had never really appreciated the importance of the photographs until I read Roland Barthes book again, even though I had not related that book to A Pattern Language until I picked it up and read it again. The feelings that a good photograph can imbue, and the memories that resurface, being what I believe Barthes devotes Camera Lucida to. 

One of my favourite little chapters is entitled “Zen View” and the opening illustration is a painting by Pierre Bonnard. The text describes a beautiful view in Japan, including in the distance, the sea. Many a modern architect would design a massive window into the main room of the building that he is constructing. The Zen approach might be to instead, include a small window facing the view, halfway up a staircase. It is only seen as one climbs or descends that staircase, sometimes one stops, usually in a slightly different position to look and consider, every time, the prevailing conditions whether it is night or day, sunny, raining or shady, the view, the light, is different. It never bores, but since you deliberately stopped, invokes a new thought or memory. The effect is to really see. Sublime. 

The experience that I derive from this book, is that human beings all have similar needs, even though at a local level, we have different ways of solving them. They are never fixed, since newer ideas and threats regularly surface and need to be incorporated into those ways, and the best way to do this is to ensure that the paramount human urge is conservative and localist and most importantly, not de(con)structive.  In my view and that of the authors, the manner in which we can solve our global problems is by looking after our local community issues through negotiation, a public secularity, local judgements where disputes arise, and a sense of history applied to the present and held in trust, for the sake of those yet to be. It is what the ancient Greeks, and Roger Scruton (among others) sum up in one word – “Oikophilia”. The love of home and beauty, and the avoidance of mere utility. If we look after the parts that are within our scope, we can manage the whole planet, and hold it in trust for the foreseeable future. And the method for achieving this, is what the Irish politician and philosopher Edmund Burke described as “The little platoons”. 

Anyway, to sum up, this book is an essential read, and I note that Amazon still lists it, if anyone wants to take a punt. 

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