Introduction to “Pattern Language”

by Antonio Caperna

Using the work of Christopher Alexander and Nikos Salingaros, I present a paper that want discuss the philosophical structure that are behind The Pattern Language (PL). Through a simple way I’ll show you the intimate connection existing among the PL and other cultural aspect like painting as well as the fractal geometry. I have referred my philosophical approach especially to the work of Oswald Spengler and his work “Der Untergang des Abendlandes

Philosophical aspect

Before introducing the essential elements to be exposed by Salingaros I would like to devote our attention, even though in a concise way, to the philosophical structure which has generated Alexander’s research on Pattern Language [1].

The structure that can be individuated within the Pattern Language is the result of a culture that has seen its flourishing during the first years of the 20th century.

Spengler’s philosophical studies, which in their aspects of reaction to the illuministic cultural structure have tried an historical-ideological reconstruction of the historical processes, attributing to these a cyclic structure in which the cosmic symbolism, so filled with poetry, juxtaposes to our modern cultural structure, so strongly centred on technical and scientific progress and on the principle of cause and effect that it has ended by losing into the mazes of our centuries-old cultural matrix; the research in the logic-mathematical field of Gödel, Boole and Morgan, or of logic applied to the machines as in the case of the mathematician Turing, the discovery and definition of the fractal structure, and lastly the works of the Dutch painter Escher; all these have supplied the cultural background from which Alexander has certainly started to give birth to his theory about Patterns. Certainly it has been – and still is – a current of thought which belongs to an élite, to those few that, according to the main culture, think nostalgically to past realizations. This is a culture, as abovesaid, born from a reaction to the illuministic spirit; yet I believe it is mainly an attempt to renew – certainly not in a trivial, or worse in a merely imitative way, the primeval link from whose essence springs the element of creation.

Here are then the attempts to reinforce the concept of Pattern as an architectonic archetype, as an essence which is able to communicate, through the language of patterned forms, i.e. of those symbolic structures which have imbued all the cultures, throughout the world, patterns which have had not only architectural, but also musical, theatrical and singing expressions and which have given form to the same mythology.

Salingaros has become a lover and a scholar of that theory, producing a great deal of essays to demonstrate Alexander’s thesis. According to Salingaros, the intimate connection that has always existed between mathematics and architecture has been almost thoroughly broken during the 20th century. The greatest expressions of architecture had never broken off this link before.

In order to demonstrate this deep connection, Salingaros reports in his works the various historical times characterized by it. As a matter of fact, since ancient times the architects were mathematicians and their constructions – from Egyptian pyramids to the ziqqurat up to the projects of hydraulic engineering – even now fill us with wonder and enchantment.

The same can be said about the works realized at the time of ancient Greece or Rome; just think, for instance, that emperor Justinian commissioned two mathematicians to build the Hagia Sophia, so that they would realize a sublime structure. This tradition has maintained even in the Islamic world, where the architects have created “a richness of bi-dimensional elements which have preceded by centuries the classification worked out by Western mathematicians”.

This constructive process, linked to an “intimate need of mankind to generate patterns” is not only valid for the great architectures, as the Pantheon of St. Peter’s Basilica – where it is clearly “visible the mathematical element in the structure and its hierarchisation into sub-elements characterized by symmetries that go perfectly well with the microscopic structure of the material – but also for architectures that come out of popular traditions, where the basic idea of re-employment of information and a strongly geometric vision end by producing structures which are mathematical expressions and, therefore, evident expression of patterns.

All this tradition has, however, undergone deep wrenchings during the 20th century; according to Salingaros, this is due to two reasons:

i) the achievements of the Modern Movement;

ii) a socio-cultural structure that has a world vision centred on anti-pattern.

The author indicates the Modern Movement as the suppressor of pattern in architecture. The works of modern masters show a vision of architecture based on anti-pattern. Contrasting with the traditional works which are “intrinsecally mathematical, the works of a Le Corbusier or of Loos result devoid of patterns, although many of these works recover elements of geometry from the classics.

But then, what does Salingaros ask to this architecture in order to define it as intrinsecally mathematical and therefore adhering to the principles of the Pattern Language?

Well, according to Salingaros, architecture and town-planning from the Modern Movement onwards have no fractal properties; on the contrary, nearly all of the architectural and urbanistic realisation of the moderns have done nothing but remove the fractal structure from our environment.

Besides, the fact that many moderns have employed elements of classical geometry does not necessarily involve the compatibility of these realizations with fractals.

Even le Corbusier, though he had created the MODULOR – a system of modelling able to create a link between architecture and mathematics – “has never applied” it to the design of surfaces, since he preferred to realize empty and raw surfaces in concrete. This happens also in the façade of the convent of Ste Marie de la Tourette – produced together with the composer Xenakis – where “he has produced at random a merely ornamental façade and not a pattern”.

The same principle is valid for town-planning. According to Salingaros, the Modern Movement, though it has “regularized the roads and disposed the buildings in accurate modular rows” has been merely able to generate an “oversimplified geometry in the town form”, producing an environment in which the mathematical complexity – which was on the contrary so present in the historical areas – has been strongly reduced, leading in this way to a removal of spatial and dynamic pattens, which brought to the creation of empty and deprived-of-life suburbs.

The methodology of the Pattern Language, instead, proposes itself as a method able to guarantee a global order, a planning process able to produce a balanced development between the needs of the various social groups and the whole, adapting, thanks to a light bureaucratic structure, to the unpredictable environmental and social changes.

This is a methodology that greatly strays from present planning procedures for two reasons:

1. first of all, because it is not a “design method”, i.e. patterns are not graphic representations, but elements which define a “philosophical” structure, deeply linked with the socio-cultural processes that have always distinguished, in a clear and coherent way, the history of a place and the relations of these elements with man; it is on the basis of similar considerations that indications may originate in order to let a place become the extension of man and of his activities; every act of urban “creation” should then be consistent with some principles such as:

  • ORGANIC UNITY, i.e. the constructive processes which can be considered as parts of a whole;
  • PARTICIPATION, i.e. citizens should be the protagonists of the planning process of their environment; that is, a process of self-construction will be accomplished, the only process being able to generate a superior urban quality that, though the result of an unplanned operation, succeeds in defining a formal and cultural coherence through the language of patterns.
  • GROWTH BY PARTS, i.e. the ability to grow through small plans carried out in short times, which will nevertheless allow a unitary growth through patterns;
  • PATTERNS, i.e. the leading principles for the actual building of plans;
  • DIAGNOSES, i.e. the creation of a light structure being able to preserve the well-being of the whole through a yearly diagnosis, aimed at the individuation within the urban structure, of the spaces which remain dynamic from those that lose their dynamism;
  • COORDINATION, i.e. the ability to guarantee the organic unity of the interventions through a regular financial flux;

2. the interventions, mainly when operating at the level of town planning, are no longer characterized by a “vertical” methodology, i.e. by a methodology which excludes, or at least takes into little account, the real contingencies of citizens.

That methodology, in Alexander’s opinion, does not end by being a limitation of planning freedom, on the contrary, it offers a myriad of possibilities among the directions offered by patterns. This “architecture” becomes then the only one able to offer a “syntax” which allows qualitatively superior urban developments, because it succeeds in conjugating all the different elements into a unique complex and coherent creative act.

As suggested before, the Pattern Language differs from the classical methodology of planning which is static and distant from the citizen’s needs. It aims at being a methodology exalting an urban quality attained through an urbanising process highly connected to local culture; where town-dwellers are the authors of that process, that – even though self-constructing – is, in fact, the result of a careful choice, coherent with its socio-cultural processes.

Therefore the Pattern Language becomes a sort of historical – philosophical planning trend where various elements, through which one tries to give a “soul” to space, are interlaced. Patterns are structured so that they can be containers and content at the same time. Starting from a general pattern it is possible to go deeper and deeper inside it, thus operating also on the single constructive details.

The formal link between Pattern Language and fractals comes out of this consideration, and Salingaros individuates this link most of all in the geometry of the suburban parts of the town.

According to Salingaros, a “fractal” urban geometry is the one which best defines, through the methodology of patterns, an urban web able to encourage and promote those socio-economical processes that also generate an ecologically satisfactory environment. All that said, it is interesting to see, even though very briefly, the way we proceed operatively.

As we have previously seen, patterns individuate problems often present in planning practice, analysing both the spatial and social context. From this point we can find out the solutions to come to an agreement within the community, giving thus origin to a self-constructing process of our plan.

The logical structure of each pattern is so organised:

  • a drawing which defines an archetype;
  • a brief text, that defines the context and the ways of introducing patterns on a larger scale;
  • the essential elements of the problem;
  • a more closely examined description;
  • the solutions, through a series of directions and possibly a sketch;
  • links with other patterns.

Alexander in his work has individuated even 253 patterns, which articulate from town planning to the planning of constructive details. If we consider, for instance, the patterns in growing order, starting then from the urban context, we will proceed on a hierarchical structure as follows:

  • 1. Independent Regions.
  • 2. The Distribution of Towns.
  • 3. City country Fingers.
  • 4. Agricultural Valleys.


Then we start going deeper and deeper into detail, defining every time the guidelines, as for example in the control of the features that have to be impressed into the town development:

  • 21. Four-Story Limit.
  • 22. Nine percent Parking.
  • 23. Parallel Roads.
  • 24. Sacred Sites.
  • 25. Access to Water.
  • 26. Life Cycle.
  • 27. Men and Women.


The process undergoes then a more detailed examination, such as in the definition of gardens, roofs and terraces, of the volume of buildings and the spaces between them, of open and enclosed spaces:

  • 110. Main Entrance.
  • 111. Half-Hidden Garden.
  • 112. Entrance Transition.
  • 113. Car Connection.
  • 114. Hierarchy of Open Space.
  • 115. Courtyards which Live.
  • 116. Cascade of Roads.
  • 117. Sheltering Roof.
  • 118. Roof Garden.


As a conclusion, it is possible to assert that Pattern Language is the attempt to permit the survival in the human language – be it in architectural or in other forms – of those complex forms characterising both our biochemical development and the development of the unconscious needs of man.

Alexander tries to perpetrate an urban development based on free choices, yet at the same time expression of an ancestral language and deeply rooted into the historical, cultural and evolution processes.

A development which proceeds according to general guidelines supplied by patterns; which allows man to feel he is the author of his own environment, re-appropriating of that cultural entity that architecture and town-planning of the 20th century have deprived him of.

It will certainly be a hard task, on the account that never before the processes of alphabetisation have produced on the one hand a middle culture that has much raised than in past centuries, and on the other hand they have determined a disaffection towards that cultural structure – the matrix of our culture – which has produced so many masterpieces. It is probably this cultural relaxation, this feeling orphans of our socio-cultural matrixes that makes us feel the environment we have built more hostile than welcoming.


[1] Alexander, C., Ishikawa, S., Silverstein, M., Jacobson, M., Fiksdahl-King, I. and Angel, S. (1977) A Pattern Language (Oxford University Press, New York).

[2] Spengler Oswald, “Der Untergang des Abendlandes”, C.H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung (Oscar Beck) München 1923

[3] Escher M.C. Many Escher’s works are a sort of paradoxt. The mathematicians were first admirer because in this work it’s possible to look at a fractal expression and the representation of the flight between finite and infinite.