The Timeless Way of Building

  1. ​Mind of no mind​
  2. ​The quality without a name​
  3. ​An objective matter​
  4. ​Bitterness​
  5. ​The most precious thing we ever have​
  1. ​Some emptiness in us​
  2. ​Deliberate acts​
  3. ​No kind​
  4. ​​
  5. ​A Pattern Language​
  6. ​Non-architects​
  7. ​The Side View #17: Susan Ingham & Chris Andrews​
  8. ​The usages of life​
  1. The quality without a name

    There is a central quality which is the root criterion of life and spirit in a man, a town, a building, or a wilderness. This quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named.

    There are words we use to describe this quality:


    But in spite of every effort to give this quality a name, there is no single name which captures it.

    1. ​No words to describe​
    2. ​This language without words​
  2. An objective matter

    We have been taught that there is no objective difference between good buildings and bad, good towns and bad.

    The fact is that the difference between a good building and a bad building, between a good town and a bad town, is an objective matter. It is the difference between health and sickness, wholeness and divided ness, self-maintenance and self-destruction. In a world which is healthy, whole, alive, and self-maintaining, people themselves can be alive and self-creating. In a world which is unwholesome and self-destroying, people cannot be alive: they will inevitably themselves be self-destroying, and miserable.

  3. Bitterness

    The quality which has no name includes these simpler, sweeter qualities. But it is so ordinary as well, that it somehow reminds us of the passing of our own life.

    It is a slightly bitter quality.

  4. When our forces are resolved

    When a person’s forces are resolved, it makes us feel at home, because we know, by some sixth sense, that there are not other unexpected forces lurking underground. He acts according to the nature of the situations he is in, without distorting them. There are no guiding images in his behavior, no hidden forces; he is simply free. And so, we feel relaxed and peaceful in his company.

    Each of us knows from experience the feeling which this quality creates in us.

    And for this reason, each one of us can also recognize this quality when it occurs in buildings.

    1. ​The doctrine of salvation by bricks​
    2. ​A sense reflected in the plans​
  5. Patterns of life

    If I consider my life honestly, I see that it is governed by a certain very small number of patterns of events which I take part in over and over again.

    Being in bed, having a shower, having breakfast in the kitchen, sitting in my study writing, walking in the garden, cooking and eating our common lunch at my office with my friends, going to the movies, taking my family to eat at a restaurant, having a drink at a friend’s house, driving on the freeway, going to bed again. There are a few more.

    There are surprisingly few of these patterns of events in any one person’s way of life, perhaps no more than a dozen.

    When I see how few of them there are, I begin to understand what huge effect these few patterns have on my life, on my capacity to live. If these few patterns are good for me, I can live well. If they are bad for me, I can’t.

  6. Fabric

    And finally, the things which seem like elements dissolve, and leave a fabric of relationships behind, which is the stuff that actually repeats itself, and gives the structure to a building or a town.

  7. They are the atoms of our man-made universe

    Further, each pattern in the space has a pattern of events associated with it. We realize then that it is just the patterns of events in space which are repeating, and nothing else. Nothing of any importance happens in a building or a town except what is defined within the patterns which repeat themselves.

    Each building gets its character from just the patterns which keep on repeating there.

    Each neighborhood is defined, too, in everything that matters, by the patterns which keep on repeating there.

  8. Forces of conflict

    A pattern which prevents us from resolving our conflicting forces leaves us almost perpetually in a state of tension.

    For, if we live in a world where work is separated from family life, or where courtyards turn us away, or where windows are merely holes in the wall, we experience the stress of these inner and conflicting forces constantly. We can never come to rest. We are living then, in a world so made, so patterned, that we cannot, by any stratagem, defeat the tension, solve the problem, or resolve the conflict. In this kind of world the conflicts do not go away. They stay within us, nagging, tense…The build-up of stress, however minor, stays within us. We live in a state of heightened alertness, higher stress, more adrenaline, all the time.

    1. ​Fucking up the world​
  9. To fly past each other

    In our own lives, we have the quality without a name when we are most intense, most happy, most wholehearted.

    This comes about when we allow the forces we experience to run freely in us, to fly past each other, when we are able to allow our forces to escape the locked-in conflict which oppresses us.

    But this freedom, this limpidity, occurs in us most easily when we are in a world whose patterns also let their forces loose. Just as we are free when our own forces run most freely within us, so the places we are in are also free when their own forces themselves run free, and are themselves resolved.

    The quality without a name in us, our liveliness, our thirst for life, depends directly on the patterns in the world, and the extent to which they have this quality themselves.
    Patterns which live, release this quality in us.
    But they release this quality in us, essentially because they have it in themselves.

  10. When a building has this fire

    And when a building has this fire, then it becomes a part of nature. Like ocean waves, or blades of grass, its parts are governed by the endless play of repetition and variety, created in the presence of the fact that all things pass. This is the quality itself.

  11. Modularity

    One of the most pervasive features of these buildings is the fact that they are “modular.” They are full of identical concrete blocks, identical rooms, identical houses, identical apartments in identical apartment buildings. The idea that a building can - and ought - to be made of modular units is one of the most pervasive assumptions of twentieth-century architecture.

    Nature is never modular. Nature is full of almost similar units (waves, raindrops, blades of grass) - but though the units of one kind are all alike in their broad structure, no two are ever alike in detail.

    The same broad features keep recurring over and over again. And yet, in their detailed appearance these broad features are never twice the same.

    On traditional cultures and their building processes, Alexander expands this view:

    Each building was a member of a family, and yet unique.
    Each room a little different according to the view.
    Each tile is set a little differently in the ground, according to the settling of the earth.

  12. It is going to pass

    The character of nature can’t arise without the presence and the consciousness of death.

    When we make our own attempt to create nature in the world around us, and succeed, we cannot escape the fact that we are going to die. This quality, when it is reached, in human things, is always sad; it makes us sad; and we can even say that any place where a man tries to make the quality, and be like nature, cannot be true, unless we can feel the slight presence of this haunting sadness there, because we know at the same time we enjoy it, that it is going to pass.

  13. The gate

    To reach the quality without a name we must build a living pattern language as a gate.

  14. The patience of a craftsman

    Here there is no mastery of unnameable creative processes, only the patience of a craftsman, chipping away slowly; the mastery of what is made does not lie in the depths of some impenetrable ego; it lies, instead, in the simple mastery of the steps in the process, and in the definition of these steps.

    On the process of making a Samoan canoe.

  15. An infinite variety

    The people can shape buildings for themselves, and have done it for centuries, by using languages which I call pattern languages. A pattern language gives each person who uses it, the power to create an infinite variety of new and unique buildings, just as his ordinary language gives him the power to create an infinite variety of sentences.

  16. Each pattern is a rule

    Each pattern is a rule which describes what you have to do to generate the entity which it defines. It is a three-part rule, which expresses a relation between a certain context, a problem, and a solution.

    There is an imperative aspect to the pattern. The pattern solves a problem. It is not merely “a” pattern, which one might or might not use on a hillside. It is a desirable pattern; and for a person who wants to farm a hillside, and prevent it from erosion, he must create this pattern, in order to maintain a stable and healthy world. In this sense, the pattern not only tells him how to create the pattern of terracing, if he wants to; it also tells him that it is essential for him to do so, in certain particular contexts, and that he must create this pattern there.

    It is in this sense that the system of patterns forms a language.

  17. The network of connections

    Each pattern depends both on the smaller patterns it contains, and on the larger patterns within which is is contained. Each pattern sits at the center of a network of connections which connect it to certain other patterns that help to complete it. It is the network of these connections between patterns which creates the language.

  18. The grammar of the language

    An ordinary language like English is a system which allows us to create an infinite variety of one-dimensional combinations of words, called sentences. A pattern language is a system which allows its users to create an infinite variety of those three-dimensional combinations of patterns which we call buildings, gardens, towns.

    It tells us which arrangements of words are legitimate sentences, in a given situation, and which are not. And, furthermore, which arrangements of words make sense in any given situation, and which ones don’t. It narrows down the total possible arrangements of words which would make sense in any given situation.

    Second, it actually gives us a system which allows us to produce these sentences which make sense. So, it not only defined the sentences which make sense in a given situation; it also gives us the apparatus we need to create these sentences. It is, in other words, a generative system, which allows us to generate sentences that are appropriate to any given situation.

  19. Rules of thumb

    Of course, these patterns do not come only from the work of architects or planners.

    Architects are responsible for no more than perhaps 5 percent of all the buildings in the world. Most buildings, streets, shops, offices, rooms, kitchens, cafes, factories, gas stations, freeways, bridges… which give the world its form, come from an entirely different source.

    They come from the work of thousands of different people. Each of them builds by following some rules of thumb. And all these rules of thumb - or patterns - are part of larger systems which are languages. Every person has a pattern language in his mind. This is true of any great creative artist, as of the humblest builder.

    At the moment when a person is faced with an act of design, he does not have time to think about it from scratch. Even when a person seems to “go back to the basic problem,” he is still always combining patterns that are already in his mind.

    It is only because a person has a pattern language in his mind, that he can be creative when he builds. The rules of English make you creative because they save you from having to bother with meaningless combinations of words. A pattern language does the same.

  20. Ordinariness

    We have a habit of thinking that the deepest insights, the most mystical, and spiritual insights, are somehow less ordinary than most things - that they are extraordinary.

    In fact, the opposite is true: the most mystical, most religious, most wonderful – these are not less ordinary than most things – they are more ordinary than most things. And it is because they are so ordinary, indeed, that they strike to the core.

    1. ​The natural thing to do​
  21. A genetic process

    The mere use of pattern languages alone does not ensure that people can make places live.

    The fact is, that the creation of a town, and the creation of the individual buildings in a town, is fundamentally a genetic process. So long as the people of society are separated from the language which is being used to shape their buildings, the buildings cannot be alive.

  22. Discovering patterns

    In order to discover patterns which are alive we must always start with observation.
    Try to discover some property which is common to all the solutions which feel good, and missing from all the ones which don’t feel good.
    Knowledge of the problem then helps shed light on the invariant which solves the problem.
    Sometimes we find our way to this invariant by starting with a set of positive examples.
    At other times, we may discover the invariant by starting from the negative examples, and resolving them.
    Occasionally, we do not start from concrete observation at all, but build up the invariant by purely abstract argument.

  23. You must make the language first

    It is the structure and content of the language which determine the design. The individual buildings which you make will live, or not, according to the depth and wholeness of the language which you use to make them with.

    One you have it, this language is general. If it has the power to make a single building which lives, it can be used a thousand times, to make a thousand buildings live.

  24. It must constantly be re-created

    A language is a living language only when each person in society, or in the town, has his own version of this language.

    To reach this deeper state, in which each person has a pattern language in his mind as an expression of his attitude to life, we cannot expect people just to copy patterns from a book. A living language must constantly be re-created in each person’s mind. As he modifies his language, and improves it, depends it, throughout his life - he does it, always, by creating, and improving rules which he invents.

    Once people share a language in this way, the language will begin evolving of its own accord. The language will evolve, because it can evolve piecemeal, one pattern at a time. As people exchange ideas about the environment, and exchange patterns, the overall inventory of patterns in the pattern pool keeps changing.

    Of course, this evolution will never end.

  25. Repair

    Within the larger language, it is impossible for any act not to help repair the larger whole. It is impossible for any act of building to remain an isolated act: it always becomes a portion of the flux of acts which is helping to maintain the whole.

    Even the laying of a brick, to mend a wall, will not only be used to mend that wall, but will be used to help repair the seat, the terrace, or the fireplace which that wall helps to form.

    1. ​104. Site Repair​
  26. The process of unfolding

    The sequence of the patterns for a design - as generated by the language - is therefore the key to that design.

    The process of unfolding goes step by step, one pattern at a time.

  27. Chopped and disfigured

    The details of a building cannot be made alive when they are made from modular parts

    If the builder wants to build the room from modular four-foot panels, he must change the size of the rooms, and change their shape, to fit his panels.

    In such a building system, it is impossible for a person to create a plan which reflects the larger subtleties of site or plan. Each plan will always be chopped and disfigured to make it fit the building details.

    To make the building live, its patterns must be generated on the site, so that each one takes its own shape according to its context.

    1. ​What's suitable for each unique condition​
  28. Until we leave the gate behind

    And yet the timeless way is not complete, and will not fully generate the quality without a name, until we leave the gate behind.

    Indeed this ageless character has nothing, in the end, to do with languages. The language, and the processes which stem from it, merely release the fundamental order which is native to us. They do not teach us, they only remind us of what we know already, and of what we shall discover time and time again, when we give up our ideas and opinions, and do exactly what emerges from ourselves.

    At this final stage, the patterns are no longer important: the patterns have taught you to be receptive to what is real. It is the gate which leads you to the state of mind, in which you live so close to your own heart that you no longer need a language.

    This is the final lesson of the timeless way.

    1. ​The natural thing to do​