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A Pattern Language: 08/16/10

cover art

Back in my first life as a masters student, I was planning my thesis around the codification of the city on the Hollywood road film. I blame (or perhaps credit) this wacky idea on my long commutes. See, UCLA is in Westwood and I lived in Pasadena at the time. There is no straight shot between the two locations thanks to the Hollywood Hills. That means I had a fifty mile commute in typical L.A. traffic (gridlock) and plenty of time to ponder stuff while I started at the dashed white line blipping by my windshield.

Before I could apply Hollywood's interpretation of the city and its roadways in the Road Film genre, I had to understand the symbols used in Los Angeles and more broadly, the United States. Why had we settled on the signs, patterns, and other symbolic short cuts that we had? In trying to come to an understanding of the language of the city and its roads, I started to read books by the bucket load on things like Los Angeles history, the automobile, urban architecture and the like.

When I didn't get accepted to the PhD program I stopped my research. Maybe now that I'm back in academia again or maybe it's just been long enough for the burnout to have faded, but I've started re-addressing my interest in the city.

One of those books I didn't get to in my first round was A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander (et al). It's a huge architectural, urban planning tome, coming in between 900 and 1200 pages depending on which edition you read. I don't expect many (if any) of my regular readers to rush out and get a copy to read for fun. OK, I know of one friend who has read it (I don't know if it was for fun or for school), so maybe there will be others.

Although I'm not an architect, I loved the book. The 900 pages (older edition) flew by quickly. At the time I read it, I was just starting out as a Non-Response Housing Unit Follow Up Enumerator (aka one of those door to door census takers) so maps, city planning and basic human behavior was forefront on my mind. What I was reading and what I was experiencing in the field meshed.

The gist of the book is this: people naturally live together in groups and these groups naturally form patterns that can be analyzed to judge the stability of the population. For areas to grow they need access to certain other areas in predictable, easy to reach locations. More importantly, these patterns can be put into place to help a city or neighborhood's success. I see a lot of the current day "green neighborhood" planning coming right out of this book.

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