The Kubala Washatko Architects, Inc.
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June 7, 2011

EDRA 42: Reflecting on Alexander and the Use of Patterns as a Design Tool

Christopher Alexander's Fifteen Fundamental Properties of Wholeness

In 1977, Christopher Alexander co-authored a book on architecture and urban design called “A Pattern Language”. The goal of the book, as well as subsequent writings by Alexander, was to describe a process for building that offered the promise of greater beauty and livability – or Wholeness – within the built environment. Nearly 35 years since its original publication Alexander’s book on pattern writing remains one of the best-selling books in architecture. Despite its popularity among the general public, and despite the success of pattern writing as a theoretical framework for design within other disciplines such as computer software development, a systematic and disciplined integration of Alexander’s work has not been widely adopted as a design approach within the architecture profession. At The Kubala Washatko Architects, Inc. we have found we are the rare exception.

A recent invitation for TKWA staff to speak at the 2011 EDRA (Environmental Design Research Association) conference in Chicago offered our firm the opportunity to reflect on Alexander and on our success, and failures, with patterns as a design tool. What we found is that, while we have come a long way, we still have much to learn and improve upon. Our first attempts at pattern writing began in the mid-1990’s with the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, and in 1999 with the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center. While our early efforts at using patterns as a tool for guiding physical design decisions remained in its infancy, we discovered flashes of their potential. Our pattern describing “Parking Pockets” at Schlitz Audubon, for instance, helped the design team – as well as the client – better visualize a more sustainable approach to parking layout within a sensitive natural environment. Writing patterns for Schlitz Audubon also helped our design team understand daily life at the Center. By more intuitively understanding the way people worked and lived together as a human organization we were better able to make meaningful decisions about the physical form of the building. We were learning to rely less on abstract ideas about form.

For the EDRA conference TKWA co-founder, Tom Kubala, along with TKWA designers Chris Socha and Ethan Bartos, reviewed six recent firm projects that incorporated some degree of pattern integration in the design. The projects represented a spectrum of our studio experience – from a master plan for an 1100-acre environmental center to a prominent new administrative building for a major university, from a highly sustainable new addition to a National Historic Landmark to an unbuilt speculative office building. We tried to demonstrate that patterns can be used for planning and design at many levels of scale, under a variety of budget and schedule constraints, and for a diverse set of client needs and expectations.

Successful integration of pattern writing into design, we told our EDRA audience, requires more than a theoretical or passing commitment. This approach takes sustained effort over time. It requires a way of thinking and seeing that one must master. Our real-world experience with pattern writing has convinced us that this design approach has much to offer. Striving to integrate Alexander’s ideas into our daily practice has made all the difference.

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