design patterns

from the greek orders through Christopher alexander to a basement with an illegal separate entrance.

The term Design Patterns is usually attributed to Christopher Alexander - an architect and mathematician, who in 1977 completed his PhD in the Faculty for Architecture at Harvard, titled “The Language of Patterns”. Alexander’s main conclusion was that architects, like any other designers, don’t “invent the wheel”, but rather use common design patterns adapted to circumstances. Sometimes, they manage to advance the pattern with a successful, one-time combination; but more often than not, consciously or unconsciously, they repeat previous “brain waves” that have managed to survive the test of time. Alexander, who published his conclusions in 1979 in his book The Timeless Way of Building, swiftly concluded that design patterns actually exist in every natural detail (live or not ), and soon after came out with a new book “The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe”.

The main importance of Alexander’s work, which merely recycled Aristotle, Plato and Pythagoras’ ideas, was that it contributed to the reinforcement of the connection between architecture and mathematics, thus enabling the development of CAD software, and later on – the associated parametric design software - Revit and its ancestors - all of which are based on recurring design patterns in different systems of constraints (AI # 79).


Today, every Psychometric examinee knows that the answer to an enigmatic problem lies in some repeated pattern. The idea is to define a concept through conditions and constraints, in order to create a formula that can be “logically” explained, even if it seems to be meaningless, as long as it fits into the specific logic of whoever defined the premises.

This essay doesn’t deal with the weak spots in Alexander’s findings, which are in fact based on the Aristotelian pattern of definition, whereby the validity of the definition is determined by generalization or differentiation. That is, by testing whether something complies with the minimal boundaries of a category. One might say that in architecture, as in any other field - definition is the heart of the problem, and not for nothing does each subject in the Planning and Building Law start with a chapter on “Definitions”, which later constitutes a basis for interpretation and reference.

The subject of definition is naturally debated in Plato’s Theaetetus dialogue and, in fact, by every other philosopher who respects himself, when asking: what makes a table a “table”, what is an animal, and why is something that flies not necessarily a bird, as it might also be an airplane.


This logical problem is well expressed in “The Black Raven Paradox” presented by Carl Hempel during the 40s’, striving to undermine the inductive method, according to which science determines the laws of nature through generalization, based on observation alone. The paradox derives from the premise - “all ravens are black” implying that everything that isn’t black is not necessarily a raven, since there is no binding relation between the two.

However, whether logically valid or not, it was (and still is) the design patterns which constituted the basis for mass production during the Industrial Revolution - whether a fork or a hospital ward.


The observation whereby design patterns in fact exist in every detail of nature led to the study of order in nature by Plato, Pythagoras and Empedocles, which led in turn to the attempt to understand the principles of growth, expressed (in modern times) by the explorations of Scottish biologist Darcy Wentworth Thompson who translated spiral patterns of growth (morphogenesis) into mathematical models; Benoit Mandelbrot who developed the Fractal Theory - repeated evolving structural patterns, based on the research of Belgium physicist, Joseph Plateau who formulated the principles of the minimal surface of soap bubbles, in the 19th century.

Based on these ideas, British mathematician Alan Mathison Turing (1912-1954) later developed the Turing Machine - the decoding machine that broke the German Enigma code during World War II, actually formulating the modern computer prototype.

The act of definition is basic to any language – whether verbal, physical, or spiritual. Hence, its significance in architecture is fundamental. An applied medium, architecture is inherently based on the definition of space, needs and solutions, primarily those already tried in the past and that have stood the test of time, thus evolving into an integral part of design. Among these are all the corner stones of design - such as windows, doors, roofing and flooring etc.


Architectural theories naturally strive to interpret phenotypical events through universal genotypical rules, whether these are based on a formal model (like CAD) or on space organization (like Space Syntax Theory). However, design patterns actually dictate the whole design process. Thus, for instance, the basic definition of a table is “a raised surface usually supported by four legs”. But not necessarily, because fewer legs could do the work - or kind of support. The preferential order of its components stems first of all from its meaning, and only afterwards from the way in which it is raised, the materials from which it is made, and finishing, according to its purpose: A dining table, a living room table, or a work table. Thus, the design pattern determines the creative process, preferences, and as a result, the meaning, form and context of its components.


And in terms of architecture: the basic, minimal need of a bedroom to be a bedroom is the presence of a bed. This dictates in turn the character of other components of the room according to their importance - cabinet, closets, chests of drawers, lighting, and consequently - the openings in relation to other parts of the house. If a master bedroom, it will be remote for privacy, while the children’s rooms will be together, with a nearby family bathroom, while the parents’ one is piously dedicated to them alone.
Another common design pattern is the kitchen, basically defined as a “space for preparing food, cooking and eating”, with the “golden triangle” dictating the functional relationship between the sink, optimally located near the infrastructure, the stove, refrigerator and a work surface between them, which lately takes on the shape of an island, as part of modern life that has turned the kitchen into a representational space that includes a refrigerator the size of a cabinet.

And as a result, the new social status of the kitchen affects its proximity to the dining room adjoining the living room, in order to respond to the definition of ‮"‬living space‮"‬, usually separated from the bedrooms by a corridor, at the end of which is the master-bedroom, as mentioned - for privacy.

And - to go to an extreme - the location of the building in the topography, since all this requires the presence of a “foreign worker”, who probably needs a separate room with television and a shower in the basement, that opens onto an English courtyard, with illegal steps to allow a separate entrance.

Although the (inductive) claim that grows from the part to the whole may be logically invalid, such a line of thought may balance the failures of the contemporary deductive approach whereby individuals must adapt to the whole. While the first expresses content, the second is enslaved by form.


And, to descend from the philosophical Olympus – the best known design patterns are the Greek Orders, in the frame of which innumerable buildings were constructed throughout the world till today, and likewise all the other identified styles of building: Assyrian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Roman, Byzantine, Renaissance, Romanesque, Gothic, Modernist, Brutalist, Post-modern, digital, and post digital – fundamentally, all design patterns that are repeated in variable contexts, needs, location and fashion.