We live in houses maximized for square footage and filled with commoditized furniture. Our neighborhoods feel soulless, disconnected. Cities around the world are laid out with complicated zoning and laws that are impossible to navigate.
It feels like we don’t have much control over our environment.
How can I do anything about my surroundings without an Architecture degree or a Masters in Urban Planning? We’re all focused on screens anyway, so this environment stuff can’t be that big of a deal, right?
But the physical space around you does have a strong influence--on your mood and even on your behavior. The layout of your town or city changes who you interact with, and what those interactions look like. In our homes, lighting, smell, and even the arrangement of furniture all affect us in subtle ways, even if we are tied to our screens.
Beautiful Spaces vs. Livable Spaces
It’s easy to joke about the bachelor pad with a single chair and a Playstation. This type of room would make any visitor feel uncomfortable. Even if the owner claims to not mind the sparse environment, his surroundings invite him only to play video games.
What’s harder to see are the rooms we find on Pinterest or Instagram. They look beautiful. We aspire to have something equally share-worthy. But what happens when you design a room for your eyes, but live in it with your body?
*Photo by [Devon Janse van Rensburg](https://unsplash.com/@devano23?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText)*
This room looks cozy. But the illusion breaks down as soon as you live in it. Bedtime means moving at least seven pillows. Where? Probably to the ground. The nightstand decorations, so meticulously placed, now block any space for your water glass, your phone, your reading glasses. Waking up in the morning means groggily tiptoeing around pillows strewn everywhere. Try not to fall over as you pull on your socks.
Now that many of us are stuck at home, the effects of our surroundings are starting to feel more salient. Uncertain supply chains, Zoom meetings, and increased time at home necessitate a more DIY approach. If anything, now is the time to learn how to improve our own environments.
A Pattern Language
One of the best books on the subject is A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander. Published in 1977, the book outlines a series of architectural patterns (253 of them) that form pleasant environments. Starting on the scale of cities, suburbs, and rural land, A Pattern Language scopes all the way down to the arrangement of seating in a room. Alexander manages to do all this without falling to legibility traps.
A Pattern Language is written with the idea that homes and towns should be largely designed by the people who live in them. Rather than a definite prescription, the patterns are more like guidelines, meant to be applied with the local context in mind. Each pattern is numbered for reference and can be used individually or in conjunction with others. Combined, they create beautiful--and more importantly--livable spaces.
One of my favorite patterns is Window Place (180)
"Everybody loves window seats, bay windows, and big windows with low sills and comfortable chairs drawn up to them.
In every room where you spend any length of time during the day, make at least one window into a 'window place'”
We’re often drawn towards bright windows, without explicitly knowing why. We also seek comfort in chairs, couches. But what happens when the only place to sit is far from the window? Without window places (180), we bounce between wanting to be comfortable in a chair or wanting to look out the window.
Look at this cozy window place:
*Photo by [Rob Wingate](https://unsplash.com/@robwingate?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText)*
This kind of place looks nice to the eye, yes, but it also invites you to sit and read a book, to watch the birds, to stare into space. Window places make a room more comfortable to be in. They make living better.
I often list A Pattern Language as one of my favorite books. But I have a confession...I've never actually read it! Why? Despite loving the idea of patterns, implementation still felt inaccessible to me. I'm not in a position to build a house from scratch, and I'm certainly not in a position to layout a new town. Without a way to apply the patterns I struggled to learn them.
Enter Animal Crossing
Animal Crossing is a simple game. You and an entrepreneurial racoon set up a tent on a deserted island. You’re encouraged to do exciting things like pick up weeds, chop wood, or talk to your anthropomorphic neighbors. The ‘goal’ of the game is to build an island where other animals want to live...and pay off your suspiciously large mortgage.
So how did a game about doing your chores sell 5 million copies in its first month? And what on earth does this have to do with A Pattern Language?
Animal Crossing sold 5 million copies because it’s comfortable.
A big source of this comfort lies in the games’ inherent use of Alexander’s Patterns.
Many Patterns are built into the game; knowingly or not: the island is dotted with fruit trees (170) and pools and streams (64), the buildings are all set up with south facing outdoors (105), and the wild nature of the island provides a natural connection to the earth (168).
It's quite easy to build a town which follows a lot of Alexander's patterns.
Can you see where this is going?
I decided to improve my Animal Crossing island by applying ideas from A Pattern Language.
In this way, I could gain a better understanding of A Pattern Language and have an excuse to play video games (this isn’t the first time I’ve done something like this).
Animal Crossing x A Pattern Language
In Animal Crossing, we have the responsibility of placing houses, shops, and other buildings. Let's start on a macro level by applying patterns to the layout of our island:
*A map of my Animal Crossing island*
14 identifiable neighborhood
"People need an identifiable spatial unit to belong to.”
29 density rings
"Define rings of decreasing local housing density around the nucleus.”
To comply with the density rings (29) pattern, I’ve placed most of the housing downtown, near the town center, shops, and museum.
As you move away from the city, the houses spread out, but they still belong to small identifiable neighborhoods (14): housing nestled between the cliffs and the river, beachfront housing with no fences, and bougie hill living. Each neighborhood maintains its identity with unique pathing, lot shapes, and plants.
62 High Places
"The instinct to climb up to some high place, from which you can look down and survey your world, seems to be a fundamental human instinct...build occasional high places as landmarks throughout the city.”
Sacré-Cœur in Paris is the second most visited landmark in Paris. The basilica owes its popularity to two major factors: beautiful architecture, and its location on the largest hill in Paris. Sacré-Cœur calls you to climb Monmarte hill, and when you get there you’ll be rewarded with an amazing view of the city.
New visitors to Animal Crossing islands stay at a campsite. I want new guests to be wowed by all my island has to offer, and what better way for them to see it than from a high place (62).
In the Northeast, I’ve built a tall hill just for the campsite. From here visitors can enjoy beautiful ocean views, or look down on the burgeoning city.
It’s not as grand as the basilica at Sacré-Cœur, but my visitors enjoy it all the same.
"Encourage the gradual formation of a promenade at the heart of every community, linking the main activity nodes. Put main points of attraction at the two ends, to keep a constant movement up and down."
Circled here is my island’s “promenade”. It’s a shopping street (32), complete with a museum, a bodega, and a tailor. Just below it is a small public square (61) with some seating for tired shoppers. To finish out the pattern, the promenade (31) is bookended by a carnival (58) and an adventure playground (73).
59 Quiet back
"Build a walk along this quiet back...protected from noise by walls and buildings...connect it up with other walks...converge on the local pools and streams..."
Sometimes the hustle and bustle of a main shopping street is too much. A quiet back provides a more peaceful area for introverts to take a walk.
For a real-life example, compare Takeshita street in Harajuku with this quiet back literally a block away:
I placed a quiet back (59) behind my island's main shopping street (32). Below, an introverted resident and I relax away from the crowd. This slightly hidden path along the river creates a nice getaway that’s still close to the city.
A Pattern Language and Gardens
Alexander puts great emphasis on green spaces, gardens and parks, flowers and trees, and for good reason. Looking at greenery has a calming effect and promotes well-being. Residents can contribute to their community by growing and maintaining gardens.
In the center of town I’ve placed a zen garden. See if you can spot these patterns:
- Outdoor Room (163)
- Garden Wall (173)
- Garden Seat (176)
- Connection to the Earth (168)
Below is an excellent example of a yard, not from my island but from Austin John Plays (the roped off area will become a house).
Intentionally or not, Austin uses quite a few of the Patterns outlined in Alexander's book: 111, 112, 173, 105…
111 Half hidden garden
"Do not place the garden fully in front of the house, nor fully to the back. Instead, place it in some kind of half-way position, side-by-side with the house, half hidden from the street, half exposed”
A fully exposed garden will be awkward to work in, but a private garden won't be used either. The shorter fencing here allows the resident to work in comfort while still being able to chat with neighbors who walk by.
112 Entrance transition
"Houses with a graceful transition between the street and the inside, are more tranquil than those which open directly off the street.”
The small bend in the entrance path creates a graceful transition from busy street to private home.
173 Garden wall
"Gardens and small public parks don't give enough relief from noise unless they are well protected...Form some kind of enclosure to protect the interior of a quiet garden. If it is a large garden or a park, the enclosure can be soft, can include bushes, trees, slopes and so on. The smaller the garden, however, the harder and more definite the enclosure must become"
The brick walls around the yard create privacy and isolate the yard from noise.
Interior Design and A Pattern Language
About half of Alexander’s patterns are dedicated to individual buildings and their interiors. Let’s take a look at some of these patterns used in my Animal Crossing home.
189 Dressing Rooms
Dressing and Undressing, storing clothes, having clothes lying around, have no reason to be part of any larger complex of activities. Indeed they disturb other activities: they are so self-contained that they themselves need concentrated space which has no other function.
Give everyone a dressing room--either private or shared--between their bed and the bathing room.
My whole life I’ve had a messy bedroom. Clothes on the floor, clothes on the bed, clothes everywhere. I always thought I was just a messy person, that if I tried harder I could be neat and tidy. Turns out I just needed a dedicated dressing room (189).
A self-contained space for dressing allows the rest of the bedroom to become a place of relaxation instead of a closet.
In my Animal Crossing room, I’ve partitioned off a space just for changing clothes, complete with dresser, mirror, and privacy screen.
253 Things from your life
"Do not be tricked into believing that modern decor must be slick or psychedelic, or 'natural' or 'modern art' or 'plants' or anything else that current taste-makers claim. It is most beautiful when it comes straight from your life--the things you care for, the things that tell your story."
We can help out our neighbors with some patterns too. Stinky, one of our island residents, is a “Jock”-type character. He loves working out and yelling about Muscles.
*That’s Stinky on the left in a tracksuit*
The inside of Stinky’s home wouldn’t do well on Instagram, but it serves his own needs well. Note his choice of both whey and casein protein powders, a yoga ball, and a workbench to fix gym equipment.
Would Stinky be better served with an Eames chair or a Noguchi coffee table?
Stinky’s yard is filled with gym equipment. He can get a pump or bike around the island whenever he wants. What a perfect space for a workout junkie!
Stinky’s living space is filled with things from his life (253), and he’s loved our island from day one.
185 Sitting Circle
“Place each sitting space in a position which is protected, not cut by paths or movement, roughly circular, made so that the room itself helps to suggest the circle--not too strongly--with paths and activities around it, so that people naturally gravitate toward the chairs when they get into the mood to sit. Place the chairs and cushions loosely in the circle, and have a few too many”
251 Different Chairs
“People are different sizes; they sit in different ways. Never furnish any place with chairs that are identically the same. Choose a variety of different chairs, some big, some small, some softer than others, some rockers, some very old, some new, with arms, without arms, some wicker, some wood, some cloth”
Sometimes you want to lounge on a couch, sometimes you want to sprawl out on the floor, and sometimes you want to lean back in a lounge chair. Furnishing a room with only couches may look cohesive but will only invite one single sitting style. A sitting circle (185) with different chairs (251) promotes more social interactions in the home.
And finally: 74 Animals
"Animals are as important a part of nature as the trees and grass and flowers. There is some evidence, in addition, which suggests that contact with animals may play a vital role in a child's emotional development.”
Here our resident hamster Flurry studies her pet hamster. Something tells me this might hamper her emotional development...
Using A Pattern Language in Your Own Space
Before I undertook this little ‘experiment’, A Pattern Language sat on my shelf, unused. I figured it would stay there until I moved into a house. Now that I’ve played with the patterns, I feel more confident applying them to my living space.
I hope this exploration of patterns inspires you to make some changes to your own island, or even your real home.
Arranging a liveable space isn’t as difficult as it sounds. If you need some inspiration, flip through A Pattern Language and pick out some patterns that resonate.
Think about how you use, live in, and inhabit a space before you think about how it looks. And if you really really love throw-pillows, I’m sure you can dedicate a place to put them at night.
- The New Old Home - What will homes look like as more people work from home?
- A New Old Pattern Language - What patterns would emerge if A Pattern Language were written in this post-COVID world?
- Designing a New Old Home: Part 1 - Simon Sarris Simon and Simplicity Sarris build their home in a traditional manner, taking inspiration from A Pattern Language
- Strong towns - A new way forward for sustainable quality of life in cities of all sizes. Book by Charles L. Marohn Jr.