Several times at NEPC, reference was made to the book A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander. When I got back to town I went straight to the library to get it. Sadly, it was out, but another book, The Timeless Way of Building was in, and I’m glad for this happy little accident [sic].
The Timeless Way of Building (Volume 1 in the series) lays out, methodically, the difference between a built environment that is alive and one that is dead, what makes it possible to create the living one, that is a shared pattern language, how it is possible that normal people like you and I can build these living environments, what a pattern is, how to recognize one, and how to build a shared language of patterns and combine them in specific methods of design. A Pattern Language (Volume 2 in the series) is then, one attempt to build such a language that has general applicability.
Since Permaculture is all about design and a lot about pattern, I am glad to have stumbled onto these books. Which is not to say that they weren’t explicitly recommended in my PDC, or even by Mollison in the DM- they probably were. But they are both critically important books, IMHO, for Permies everywhere.
Here’s Alexander’s definition of a pattern:
Each pattern is a three-part rule, which expresses a relation between a certain context, a problem, and a solution.
The Timeless Way of Building, p. 247
I believe this is what Dave Jacke was referring to when he said a pattern is a way in which conflicting forces get resolved. This is also another way of restating the Permaculture principle: “the problem is the solution.”
Further, Alexander shows how we can discover these patterns.
- Pick a kind of a place- entrance, window, garden, tree grove, sidewalk, path, hedge, whatever
- Look around for good and bad examples of this type of place
- Try to isolate the property the good ones have in common. This will not be a simple property, like a color or size, but will be a relationship
- Look at the bad examples and define what the problem is with them
- Expand the problem with any additional information you may have about it, generalize it. What does the space need to accomplish or solve?
- Identify specifically the ways that the good patterns resolve this problem
- Give this pattern a specific name which will clearly identify it
This is a very specific and detailed form of “protracted and thoughtful observation,” and is quite similar to the ways both Mollison and Toby Hemenway suggest to identify guilds. Zone and Sector analysis is very good at quickly locating components in an overall site, in a general way. Alexander’s method seems to me much more definitive when you get down to the details of where to place the actual greenhouse, swales, paths, compost bin, chicken coop and so on in relation to each other and to existing components, within or across any zone/sector analysis segment.