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April 10, 2006

Pattern Languages in the Cyberverse


A pearl of a book in my library is A Pattern Language. Every student of design but especially every set designer, game designer and architect should ingest the contents of this invaluable bible of architectual patterns.


It's difficult to summarize A Pattern Language. The patterns themselves can best be described as those qualities of human or evolutionary design that function together in the style of a network, whether one is observing the most minute flourish or standing back and observing from afar... either way the patterns are still present, working seemlessly together in a sort of language (or vernacular). In nature, that which is not fit enough to function correctly within the parameters of the patterns dies. But humans can tend to keep oppresive architectural and design trends alive – billboards, fast food restaurants, above ground parking garages – despite their various malignancies. So in order to live harmoniously within the context of a city, building or structure, humans can artificially create (or evolve) their own pattern languages based on careful [intuitive] observation of what has and has not worked in structures throughout time and around the world. They then can apply this language to future city-planning, building or structural designs.

Or they can haphazardly throw things together, without any planning.


Though anyone can come up with their own pattern language, A Pattern Language presents the authors' version of a language, laying forth many well researched patterns as varied and practical as "Four Story Limit", "Lace of Country Streets", "Promenade" and "Windows Overlooking Life", each of which is described in detail and well-illustrated by sketches or photographs.


If I have any complaints about the book, it's that the patterns seem to be built on inspirations from quaint old world towns and villages; the tastes of the authors are decidedly old world. Perhaps this is forgivable; the authors' research has led them to seek out those patterns which have proven (to them) to be the most time tested. But it's really not too much of a problem: many of these age old principles can easily be applied to even modern and post modern design.


There are probably other faults with the book; which is why it all has to be taken with a grain of salt and run through one's personal grid, with the end result of forming one's own pattern language. In fact the authors openly encourage this.

I'm not a city planner; I can only guess how architects or city planners might utilize information like this, but I've found it all very useful and I'm certain that game designers who routinely create large environments would stand to profit greatly by reading or at least referencing A Pattern Language.

Second Life is a great example, and I don't mind picking on it because it's so poorly designed. In fact, it's a designless environment. The Second Life world physically evolves as the combination of inhabitants desire it to evolve; the players are the authors of the content. Which sounds wonderful... in a way it is a unique experiment. But it could be much more than this; it has the potential of attracting a much broader audience: all ages and in all walks of life. It will never do that until it has a overarching "point of view" given to it by the Second Life staff. It is seriously in need of a pattern language.

For example, as a newcomer to Second Life, one is lost against the endless flat megapolis, cramped with flashing buildings and more flashing buildings. There's barely space to move: one must fly to get away. Perhaps that's because there are no paths or greenways in the city (do I dare call it a city?). Trees are instantly mowed down to make way for more flashing buildings. Not once did I ever encounter a city park or city forest, though I always enjoyed resting on random spots of unsold land (which would quickly be bought – the trees soon mowed down). Nowhere is there a Second Life sponsored monument or memorial. Not even a sponsored Town Hall or city square. There are not housing hills or house clusters or seperate shopping promanades and markets. Instead, everything is thrown together in one endless chaotic clutter.

Second Life is not even a visual circus: it is an endless trash heap of a city. It will never achieve true cyberverse status because it can't really compete with the real universe for our attention. In the Second Life environment, even the most unfit structures survive... in fact they seem to thrive. Discarded structures survive (my own land and it's pile of half-built experiments sits there... no one cares). It is a world with hardly any ground rules, no limits, no divisions; it is not an evolutionary design, it is cancerous growth.


(click to enlarge)

Second Life is just one example of a cyberverse that could greatly increase its audience by an increased understanding of the classic patterns that make life itself livable. These are the same patterns to which we are naturally attracted in cities such as San Francisco, Kyoto or Calcata. They are also very often present in classic, visually immersive works of fiction, such as Disneyland, Star Wars or fill-in-the-blank.*

A Pattern Language is obviously just one reference tool out of many. But an invaluable one. I recommend it. If you're a designer, you won't be sorry.


Reader comment: gfburke says,

Pattern language is excellent stuff and indirectly spawned the object-oriented programming discipline of design patterns. Are you familiar with Christopher Alexander's other works, such as A Timeless Way Of Building and especially the recently published four volume masterwork The Nature of Order?

Update: Thanks gfburke! I just received my copy of The Nature of Order and am shocked (and thrilled) to see that Christopher Alexander's philosophy is based around nature and life (I hadn't clearly understood this until now). I can't wait to dig in.

* Walt Disney or the visual designers of A New Hope never read A Pattern Language (the first edition was released in 1977), but many of the book's principles are intuitively sound. Many designers have intuitively used many of these same patterns long before this book ever existed (they're often that intrinsic), not only utilizing the language but also intentionally misusing it for dramatic effect.

Note: There is a Pattern Language website, but it cost money and doesn't have a clear interface – it's jumbled – which is ironic given the nature of their book. A Pattern Language cost around $40 at Amazon.

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Pattern language is excellent stuff and indirectly spawned the object-oriented programming discipline of design patterns. Are you familiar with Christopher Alexander's other works, such as Timeless Way Of Building and especially the recently published four volume masterwork Nature of Order?

Posted by: Gary | Apr 11, 2006 7:15:14 PM

Certainly a very interesting thing to think about. I certainly think there is a lot of planning in cities that really doesn't work. In my opinion, I don't think the obsession with skyscrapers and high density that seems to be increasingly prevalent really works. It would be infinitely more interesting if there were a bunch of smaller buildings, with one sticking out far overhead.

I think in some cases, at least with real world applications, form needs to follow function. It can provide some very interesting results. Hopefully, I'm on topic enough with this post. It's definitely a complicated subject.

That Second Life sounds like a total nightmare, and clear evidence of the need for planning . . .

Posted by: Alex | Apr 11, 2006 9:20:11 PM

What an extremely interesting and for me very timely post. I was just contemplating how we build square and rectangular buildings and how they seem so contrary to the natural world of shapes. Taking it one step further and thinking about chaos and fractals and the incredible designs found in these mathematic structures, I was also wondering if these hard edged geometric structures that we build then become "malignant" to the natural order.

I don't know if that makes sense, but these are the things that sometimes occupy my mind and then ah-ha I come across this post.

I just might give Amazon a jingle and get this book.

Posted by: rgmb | Apr 12, 2006 6:04:29 AM

Actually, squares are valid seed shapes for fractals as well, and in very complex (real) cities, you can sometimes see fractal patterns emerge in plan view.

More on this later.

Posted by: Scott Elyard | Apr 12, 2006 10:11:43 AM

Scott Elyard, this is true and also in crystalline formations this applies as well. I think though to form a building from geometric type "building blocks" is understandable, but I think I'd prefer more organic shapes on the macro level.

I'd love to see some city plans that show fractal patterns. This whole topic is very keuul indeed.

Posted by: rgmb | Apr 12, 2006 10:35:02 AM

Interesting, I havn't yet read pattern language, but I have read 1/2 of the first book in The Nature of Order, he talks about how a make-shift house in a third-world slum can be more natural or beautiful then alot of modern buildings.

Posted by: Stephen Henderson | Apr 12, 2006 2:59:08 PM

I don't have direct experience with SL, but it sounds like there needs to be consequences(beyond aesthetic)to bad design decisions. Perhaps too few trees might cause a local haze which would prevent seeing much of anything. I suspect a short list of environmental contraints might have dramatic emergent effects.

Posted by: Chris G | Apr 24, 2006 2:32:28 PM

Pattern for pattern's sake isn't necessarily always a good thing. Symmetry in videogames, while pleasing from a bird's eye view can be confusing at the ground level, as every place in the pattern reminds you of someplace else.

In Second Life, most of the mainland sims divided into small lots of 512 or 1024 square metres, making it somewhat difficult to execute the broader comprehensively planned visions that one finds on private island estates, however there are sims such as Boardman that utilize roads as publicly navigable and intuitively understandable corridors for passage.

Despite the challenges and limitations, one can find many examples of brilliant structures, both from an architectural and a thematic perspective. Just as in that other user-created immersive environment called Real Life, its simply a matter of knowing where to look.

Posted by: Chip Poutine | May 3, 2006 11:09:51 PM

One interesting thing about Second Life, I find, is that the private areas with building constraints don't actually conform entirely to one person's vision; constraints are set but they are frequently not centrally planned and executed, particularly with sims where plots are rented.

What I think I understand as a pattern language develops organically from all of the constraints, consciously stylistic from the owner and also the residents' interpretations of that, ones based on the practicalities of building technology and interaction with the world, and the combination of the two. It's a pity that you (Robyn) don't seem to have visited these.

The mainland is certainly chaotic as it only has the technical constraints. There's a certain pattern there but it's not one which is friendly to humans as it has no human element.

Posted by: Ordinal Malaprop | May 5, 2006 3:16:30 PM

It's hard to find things in Second Life at first until you can learn to sift through Events and FIND PLACES and such. I work hard at maintaining 10 sims' worth of land across some 50 sims in exactly the coherent patterns described, either in simple arrangements of typical 19-th and 20-th century houses around a town square, or more scattered but interesting clusters of cliff buildings around a Japanese spa and lodge and such in Free tibet. I often feel when I make something as clich-driven as a town square in a square, with houses facing toward it in lines, that I haven't done a thing to advance the world. Why must I put it *that way*? Most people will never actually come and stand on, or socialize on, that commons. They have *no need* because in SL in the flying, avian world, they are working with IMs, p2p, mapping, and don't walk and cluster in squares on roads as they do in RL.

Critics often complain about SL being "filled with suburbia" or "ugly" or "tasteless" but frankly, there isn't *the valuation to pay for something there*. I maintain some 40,000 m2 of public land preserve -- it's only a minority of residents who are interested in using or supporting or thinking about such spaces. *Who will pay the tier* on the servers is the constant question you have to ask -- and if it turns out what pays and what sells is a lot of sugary white square pancaked island, that's what's there.

There is plenty of human element on the mainland because it has interesting geographical elements that give sims a sense of geographical place.

Why roads? You can't really drive on them as they haven't perfected the technology to cross the sim seams. So there are treehouses, cliffhouses, skyscrapers, ledges, and yes, RL versimilitudes, sometimes perched in odd places. It's an avian world.

Posted by: Prokofy Neva | May 5, 2006 11:05:30 PM


need i remind you how you hated the ugly morass of "the world wide web" ten years ago? how much time do you spend there now?

yes, SL is an ugly ugly place. it's young, give it time.


Posted by: qarl | May 6, 2006 12:05:21 PM

Secondlife is regrettably, for the most part an unplanned mess. Its embarrassing that someone as well-known and talented as yourself had to see SL with its designer pants down, as it were. We're getting better in some areas, but there is a long way to go.

I only regret not knowing you were in-world, or I would've personally showed you the rare jewels of simulators and builds that have manged to escape the tarpit of randomness.

Hang in there, its getting better over time.

Posted by: Maxx Monde | May 6, 2006 3:16:30 PM

Give me the tarpit of randomness any day over the creator-fascism of rigid ideologies of gigantism and cold Herculeanism exemplified by Maxx Monde and others. It's not that the world needs the staff of Second Life to plan it, nor even elites like Maxx Monde and his friends. Rather, it needs the tools to make manageable and viable communities of consent, not coercion. We don't have those tools now. The Lindens don't even enforce the TOS they could be enforcing against things like spam and grief builds and devaluation of land through aggressive signage like the extortionist "Impeach Bush" campaign.

When the tools are better to make communities, then people will make the architecture work better -- you can't first lay down architecture and force people to adapt to it.

Posted by: Prokofy Neva | May 29, 2006 12:41:19 PM

Many newcomers to SL are taken aback by the haphazard nature of development, but you soon learn that the social architecture is what matters -- it's a network of social and business relationships that only uses the metaphor of a physical landscape when convenient. Because most SL residents teleport or fly between destinations, the world space does not need to be organized in any particular pattern. The SL landscape is like a warehouse strewn with old theater sets and props. Its architecture is disposable.

I prefer the SL model to, say, World of Warcraft, which is a beautiful Disneyland of static cities, roads, and wilderness that never adapts to the usage patterns of the residents!

Posted by: Dougmander | Jun 7, 2006 9:00:23 AM

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