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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