Peter Stutchbury 1992. Israel House. Paradise Beach, NSW, Australia.

Pool House by TongTong studio.

“We are all of us capable of doing harm to other people by simple treating them, or our transactions, as something machine-like.”

Christopher Alexander

Christopher Alexander: A Pattern Language


Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

— Seamus Heaney

Gradual Stiffening as a Philosophy of Action

'A Pattern Language' can inspire on most pages, yet here I am struck by the beautiful simplicity of the maxim under pattern 208, that 'the process of gradual stiffening [in the building and selection of materials of a structure]… is the physical and procedural embodiment of this essential principle.' What principle is that? That 'details are fitted to the whole.'

Now this echoes all over the darkness of my mind - it could as easily provide a way to think about the curriculum, the fluidity and questioning that precedes the more detailed expository ‘stiffening’ of an idea. It could more or less embrace the ‘start with why’ model, which essentially ensures that our actions don’t spring from the trap of detail or secondary concerns, but represent the natural unfolding of a whole. There is freedom in this - a freedom of action that is profound, and I can begin now to understand the sense of gravity with which the writers of ‘A Pattern Language’ articulate their material.

The experienced carpenter keeps going. He doesn’t have to keep stopping, because every action he performs, is calculated in such a way that some later action can put it right to the extent that it is imperfect now. What is critical here, is the sequence of events. The carpenter never takes a step which he cannot correct later; so he can keep working,confidently, steadily.The novice by comparison, spends a great deal of his time trying to figure out what todo. He does this essentially because he knows that an action he takes now may cause unretractable problems a little further down the line; and if he is not careful, he will find himself with a joint that requires the shortening of some crucial member - at a stage when it is too late to shorten that member. The fear of these kinds of mistakes forces him to spend hours trying to figure ahead: and it forces him to work as far as possible to exact drawings because they will guarantee that he avoids these kinds of mistakes.

The difference between the novice and the master is simply that the novice has not learnt, yet, how to do things in such a way that he can afford to make small mistakes. The master knows that the sequence of his actions will always allow him to cover his mistakes a little further down the line. It is this simple but essential knowledge which gives the work of a master carpenter its wonderful, smooth, relaxed, and almost unconcerned simplicity.

In a building we have exactly the same problem, only greatly magnified. Essentially, most modern construction has the character of the novice’s work, not of the master’s. The builders do not know how to be relaxed, how to deal with earlier mistakes by later detailing; they do not know the proper sequence of events; and they do not, usually, have a building system, or a construction process, which allows them to develop this kind of relaxed and casual wisdom. Instead, like the novice, they work exactly to finely detailed drawings; the building is extremely uptight as it gets made; any departure from the exact drawings is liable to cause severe problems, may perhaps make it necessary to pull out whole sections of the work.This novice-like and panic-stricken attention to detail has two very serious results.First, like the novice, the architects spend a great deal of time trying to work things out ahead of time, not smoothly building. Obviously, this costs money; and helps create these machine-like “perfect” buildings. Second, a vastly more serious consequence: the details control the whole. The beauty and subtlety of the plan in which patterns have held free sway over the design suddenly becomes tightened and destroyed because, in fear that details won’t work out, the details of connections, and components, are allowed to control the plan. As a result, rooms get to be slightly the wrong shape, windows go out of position, spaces between doors and walls get altered just enough to make them useless. In a word, the whole character of modern architecture, namely the control of larger space by piddling details of construction, takes over.

— Christopher Alexander, et al. ‘A Pattern Language,’ pp. 964-65.

'Start with Why' by Simon Sinek is a neat model that centralises the importance of the 'why' in our stance before life. Like all good models, it teaches us that the outward forms of our interactions can become dead and restrictive where they are alienated from underlying reasons and substance.

This beautiful Blue Fairy Wren greets us each morning from the verandah. His colour returns each spring; a splendid gift of sexual selection.

A Pattern Language: a means of designing transcendent of form.

Spring and Blue Wrens falling in love for another season and I have at last laid my hands on a copy of ‘A Pattern Language.’ This book does more than live up to its reputation, it exemplifies a method that transcends the fetish with form. I can see how the work became an instant classic among architects, and an instant work of heresy among modernists.  

For some time I have struggled in the building to find a substance to inform my design. One is endlessly admiring forms as a reaction to a sense that something is not quite working as it should - but the cycle seems endless, as the forms only dimly resonate with the conscious anyway. In ‘A Pattern Language’ one finds immediately an approach which steps beyond form by introducing the reader to the concept of a language: a transcendent building material for form and meaning. Simply by so suggesting that building forms can be expressed as the syntax of a deep language of spatial and social interactions, we are provided with a privileged space for thinking about the ‘patterns’ of engagement with space. Each pattern is expressed in a succinct one or two sentences as a ‘problem’ and then, following through the discussion, a tight ‘solution’ is put forward which explains simply what is to be done to meet the challenge of the problem. Furthermore, the book is structured to permit an engaging interaction with the ‘patterns’ and seeks to contextualise each pattern within the larger matrix by referencing interdependent patterns before and after the exposition on each. It is a beautiful structure, and of course expresses the truth about languages as networks where meaning is derived from relationships and juxtaposition, not in isolation.

This element of complexity and meaning via networks is central to an appreciation of the different patterns presented in the book and stems from its central important idea, expressed in the introduction:

"Each pattern can exist in the world, only to the extent that it is supported by other patterns: the larger patterns in which it is embedded, the patterns of the same size that surround it, and the smaller patterns which are embedded in it… This is a fundamental view of the world. It says that when you build a thing you cannot merely build that thing in isolation, but must also repair the world around it, and within it, so that the larger world at that one place becomes more coherent, and more whole; and the thing that you make takes its place in the web of nature, as you make it" (pp.xiii).

This premise of complexity underpinning the books content and method is what makes it such fresh and inspirational reading. As I read it I am naturally drawn to the strength of the approach for education, as well as building; but of course, the book encompasses education as well. One of the patterns, for example, is ‘network of leaning,’ and another ‘Master and Apprentices.’ The pattern called ‘Teenage Society’ is one of the most succinctly potent expositions on deschooling society that I have read.

Yet to stay directly on the building patterns for now - let me take an example pattern and examine how it provides a means of transcending form and giving the builder a tangible position form which to design. The pattern called ‘Entrance Transition’ is states that ‘buildings and especially houses, with a graceful transition between the street and the inside, are more tranquil than those which open directly off the street.’ After some discussion about the examples that proliferate in their studies of these transitional requirements, the pattern is concluded with this solution: 

"Therefore: make a transition space between the street and the front door. Bring the path which connects street and entrance through this transition space, and mark it with a change of light, a change of sound, a change of direction, a change of surface, a change of level, perhaps by gateways which make a change of enclosure, and above all with a change of view."

Here then we have ‘forms’ emerging as solutions to a ‘problem’ - the desired psychological requirements of transition to ‘home.’ This one can ‘feel’ more than witness - and the solutions bubble up with creative energy; almost the opposite of form. Or rather, one suddenly recognises form for what it really is - an expression of a pattern of complex network of meanings. 

* * *

For some time I have wondered at the feeling of peace and beauty I experience when I move through the clump of boulders on the track between Marley and Wattamolla. In isolating form only, I have sometimes concluded that it’s the meandering, labyrinthine arrangement of the boulders - the way you only see glimpses of where you are going, as so on. Now in thinking through this using the idea of a pattern language, I am drawn to the place as a transitional space - and recognise the role that certain forms play in promoting that sense of transition. We have the concealment of view - which until that point has been pervasive. We have a sudden and inconvenient collapse of elevation - this perhaps more than anything else creates the sense of transition or transformation. The vegetation changes, the colours and odours. In a sense, we feel we are passing through a passage of sorts, from one domain into another. This potency of the forms to generate that sense of response, is the critical thing - and that they work together to form the pattern. We undergo an ‘entrance transition’ to the higher or lower ground.

* * *

When I ponder the building here - I can begin to imagine how I could use the sites natural slope to build the elements of the pattern of transition. What a beautiful way to design - for feeling - and not from a blank slate, but from a sensory language of space.