The Patterning of Architecture

I’m a sucker for a good architectural book, and if contains a cool axonometric sketch on the cover I’m usually sold.  I came across a book recently called The Architectural Pattern Book that I found intriguing enough to borrow from my local library.

Creating an architectural pattern is essentially establishing rules and guidelines on what the designer considers to be a viable and pleasant architecture.  It’s a manifesto to ones style.  If you look at the works of most notable architects (and actually most ordinary architects as well) you’ll discover a prevailing style that’s embedded with most of their buildings.  The great ones will allow their style to evolve and transform over the years to best adapt to technological and societal trends, but even with this their style will typically have one or two prevailing themes that tie their work together.  The prevailing theme can be based on an environmental adaptation to site, or it could be based on a particular building material, or it could be based on the advancement of experimentation.

Another reason for establishing an architectural pattern is to convey a design standard to other designers for the sake of consistency and order.  When I was in undergrad I studied Durand, a French engineer that was approached by Napoleon for creating a consistent style for government buildings.  Durand created a system of simple patterns for governmental buildings that allowed architects and engineers with minimal experience and talent the ability to create a building that consistently conveyed the core message that the government wanted to be perceived by the general populous.  A more contemporary example of this is how fast food restaurants typically have the same exact building no matter its location (you can point out an old Pizza Hut building even if it’s not occupied by Pizza Hut anymore).

The Architectural Pattern Book is about creating neighborhoods.  The book contains a history of successful neighborhoods in the United States, and by using those examples establishes parameters for the massing of houses and guidelines for placing those houses to best create a neighborhood.  It also provides examples where other architects have used a pattern book (specifically for a single development) to establish guidelines for architectural detailing, which typically lean towards a very traditional style (a good example of this is the New Urbanism town of Seaside, Florida, where the move The Truman Show was filmed).

After perusing this book I realized that we (as a design profession and as citizens) no longer have the ability to create good neighborhoods.  Since the end of World War II the built environment shifted from being designed to accommodate people towards providing easier access for the automobile.  I just have to look at neighborhood, which was built in the early 1960’s, to see the evidence of this shift – narrow sidewalks, houses that lack any front porch that promotes the interaction of neighbors, wide streets that actually allow people to drive up to fifty miles per hour, and a street layout that’s confusing to say the least (it reminds me of ancient Middle Eastern cities that had a haphazard street layout which was used to confuse invading armies).

I agree with the idea that most of our newer neighborhoods don’t address the issue of creating a viable neighborhood that promotes social interaction, but I also believe that strict guidelines for architectural aesthetics creates a Disney-esque atmosphere (funny enough Disney created their own New Urbanism community called Celebration, where last I read pink flamingos were not allowed on people’s front yards).

Learning from the past is a very important attribute for great architecture.  Creating a pattern for architecture based on the successes of guiding principles of the past is a step in the right direction.  Great neighborhoods are great because the architecture is more than merely a building – it serves as a boundary that forms and creates functional urban spaces.  It also contains an interstitial zone (like front porches) where the occupants of a building are in a protected space that also promotes social interaction.  The strategy of instilling aesthetics of previous architectural styles in order to reestablish the core values of a neighborhood is ignorant to say the least, and in effect stifles the evolution of building upon what actually works.  Architectural patterns should incorporate the number one rule about rules – rules were made to be broken.

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One thought on “The Patterning of Architecture

  1. Lulu Brown

    You make a good point about patterning. We no longer know how to make neighborhoods and substitute aesthetic for actual spatial substance. Instead of creating liveable communities, we just build houses that look a lot alike and usually hearken back to some architectural style and hope that it will make people behave nicely, make a “community.” But what makes a neighborhood is manifold: protected spaces in both the public and private realms (parks, street corners, stores, restaurants, front porches, yards, etc.), to be sure, but also the society itself.

    In Dr. Jean Twenge’s book “Generation Me”, she recounts how lonely people born between 1970 and 1999 are, due in great part to their mobility and focus on the self. The youth of today (and by youth I mean people under the age of 40) are self-focused: they want to go out and live their lives and pursue their dreams. While this leads to a certain amount of personal fulfillment, it also leads to a rootlessness and even clinical depression because so many of our jobs, interests, and lives take us away from our homes and stable family and support systems. Celebration can be built to create “neighborhoods” and “community”, but what will truly cause that to happen is the inhabitants themselves deciding to step out onto their front porches and speak to a passerby.

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