[Jenny Quillen] History from A Pattern Language to the Nature of Order


Well, very briefly, if we go back in time, to the 70’s, the US government — very different from the US government today – the US government and the National Institute of Mental Health said that they would like a study done on the relationships between environments and happiness — mental health. And a group at Berkley, in California, run by Alexander, said that they were interested in the topic. So the government gave them the grant to do this study. And what’s interesting for us to remember now is that when Alexander and his team took on the project, they had no idea at all how to go about it. So patterns as a research tool, and then patterns as a design tool, were not the start point of the study — they were actually the end result. So the development of patterns as a methodology was created by and for this grant. A second thing that I think people today tend to forget is that patterns are found, they’re not created. So it’s like a diamond. If you try to artificially make a diamond, it doesn’t really work, I mean, you can do some things, but a real diamond, you find it, and it’s the result of time, and pressures from the earth, then you get a real diamond, and you polish it, and its beautiful. And it’s the same thing with patterns. So, a really good pattern is the result of lots of people, and lots of circumstances, over lots of time. So what you are doing as a pattern writer, is you’re digging, like a miner, you find a diamond in the rough, and you clean it up. But you’re not creating it from scratch. And this I think people tend to forget. So the Pattern Language is I think, 1997, and it’s a very, very long time before we get to The Nature of Order. So the natural question is, what was going on during all that time. And essentially, what happened with Christopher Alexander, is that he saw what people were doing with Pattern Language, and he was disappointed. He said: “This is mediocre! This is not interesting!” And what he found was that people could understand a pattern, and they would do something here, and something there, something over there, but the result wasn’t profound, or really beautiful. It was what we call in English kind of “hokey,” or a little “funky.” So his question was: “What did I miss? I thought the Pattern Language was the answer, and it’s not, because people aren’t making beautiful things with it.” So what happened during the 30 years, is Alexander quite courageously goes back to point zero — a blank piece of paper — and says: “OK, what’s the answer now?” And there is a connection between the Pattern Language and The Nature of Order, although many people don’t see it. They buy The Nature of Order and they think it’s going to be a Pattern Language Plus, you know. And it’s not — it’s very different, right? So, the bridge is this: if you look at a Pattern Language, a traditional Pattern Language — which is really good — if you look carefully at it, it has some meta-qualities. So, the patterns will not be here, here, here, and here, they will be in a hierarchy. They will be in what he calls: “levels of scale.” So a pattern at this level tells you about the pattern beneath it — there’s a connection. They’re distinct, so they’re separate patterns, but there’s a connection. And there’s a connection between this pattern and the pattern above it. And each pattern is what he calls a “center.” So each pattern — you said your favorite was the “Playgrounds” — so “Playgrounds” is a center in a city. And a city is a center of a region. So each pattern is a center in a related hierarchy. So what he does in The Nature of Order is to start to look at these meta-qualities of a good pattern language, and he starts looking at the glue. How are patterns really connected? And that was something that people were missing in their first reading. And it’s also what’s difficult about The Nature of Order, it’s not an obvious topic, but that’s what The Nature of Order is really about.

2 Replies to “[Jenny Quillen] History from A Pattern Language to the Nature of Order

  1. Very nice. It sounds like you're saying "patterns" are really found objects of design, not made, and so the great repositories would then the "naturally occurring design pattern" resource found in how life and environments work, not just designers, right?

    You might then explain the "glue" that connects design patterns in terms of what you see when roaming the environment, looking for what nature uses as joints between independently working things to hold them together. You find things like, "partnerships", "services", "mediums of exchange", "signaling", "niches", "homes", and of course "organization" as all being things that glue environments together.

  2. I think the pattern approach confused analysis with creativity. The Nature of Order pays attention to the creative process, not just its result.

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