Literary Interior Design: A PATTERN LANGUAGE by Christopher Alexander

Elizabeth Bastos

Staff Writer

Elizabeth Bastos has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, and writes at her blog 19th-Century Lady Naturalist. Follow her on Twitter: @elizabethbastos

For the first time in my adult life I live in a house. Granted, I don’t own it; I live in a house on the campus of the private school in Baltimore County where my husband works. But it’s as close as I’m ever going to come to being a mogul of real estate and it’s tantalizing. I get to say, “We need throw pillows,” and my family takes me seriously.

The basement is finished. Like, with carpet.

pattern_languageSo I’m in search of style. It’s not my strong suit. But I have help. In surveying the living room’s multiplicity of Ikea sectionals from the “As Is” clearance section of our local, I don’t ask myself, What Would Frank Lloyd Wright Do? I ask myself, “What Would Christopher Alexander Do?” He the 80-something activist architect, professor emeritus at UC Berkeley, creator and defender of humane spaces, author of the seminal 1977 work on New Urbanism, A Pattern Language. His work has influenced computer science and religion.

A Pattern Language is divided into 253 lyrical tone poems, “patterns” as Alexander calls them. He space-cowboys large-scale urban development and the planning of towns: the goal should promote citizenship, interconnectedness, sustainability, walkability and beauty. And he is also a masterful miniaturist. There are little gems about the best design of small intimate spaces. Homes. Rooms. Gardens.  A fireplace and a hearth is vital: “Fire is an emotional touchstone, comparable to trees, other people…and the sky.”

Alexander’s world is inspirational psychology, using construction materials and the layout of space. I took copious notes. I moved my desk from the wall to the window, to “have a view of life.”  His patterns made sense to me. The places in my life that I’ve loved best to be in followed them with grace and naturalness: “glimpses of other rooms,” a “sitting circle,” “a sunny place,” “windows which open wide,” “child caves,” and “an overgrown garden.”

The essay “the marriage bed” from “the couple’s realm” is so unabashedly romantic it made me cry sweet joy-tears. Read it at a wedding or a renewal of vows and you’ll bring down the house.


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