When we discover a space that has a higher degree of life, how do we explain how it got there to others? What language do we use? That is the problem that Christopher Alexander tried to solve with the publication of A Pattern Language
Alexander was the winner of the first medal for research ever awarded by the American Institute of Architects. He taught at the Department of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley for thirty-eight years.
When use properly, the patterns can become a vocabulary where various combinations provide an infinite array of solutions. However, just like the ingredients you use for cooking, you have to get the mix just right. Too much of the wrong thing or mixing the ingredients improperly will spoil the result. However, when you get it right, when the result is something that is greater than the sum of its parts, you have achieved a higher degree of life. That is the aspiration of anyone who must design a space that others will use.
The book teaches you how to discern or create clarifying patterns within complex mixtures.Pattern recognition is a crucial skill for an architect or urban planner, who must create a highly ordered environment amid many competing and frequently nebulous design considerations.
As you enter Disneyland and stroll down Main Street USA on your way toward Sleeping Beauty Castle, continue pass the Silhouette Studio on the right hand side. Next-door to the studio is a frilly Victorian facade with a small front porch. A few steps lead to a bench and two chairs that are bolted to the floor. This is the spot.
From the perspective of a planning historian, the porch represents what may have been the last house on the block that was not torn down during the growth of the central business district. Typically over time, as the community would become more prosperous, the land uses along a major transportation corridor would change from primarily residential to primarily commercial. It is not hard to imagine that at some point, this home may have been converted into a commercial building. As the city gained more wealth, converted residential structures and storefronts with wood facades would give way to taller masonry commercial buildings. Nevertheless, in relationship to the adjacent buildings, this porch still clings to a residential like quality and heritage.
Museum of the Weird, which later became the Haunted Mansion, are featured in the window design.
When using the patterns in A Pattern Language you can describe how Main Street is embedded with positive design patterns and why it is so alive or what is called the MAGIC OF THE CITY (10). The Main Street USA corridor is known as a PROMENADE (31) between two ACTIVITY NODES (30). The space functions as a SHOPPING STREET (32) with a MARKET OF MANY SHOPS (46). The atmosphere is almost a CARNIVAL (58) and it is not uncommon to see DANCING IN THE STREET (63). The result is a COMMON LAND (67) and a PUBLIC OUTDOOR ROOM (69). The appearance along Main Street is one of INDIVIDUALLY OWNED SHOPS (87) even though we know that is not a reflection of the reality inside. There are STREET CAFES (88), FOOD STANDS (93), and occasionally people SLEEPING IN PUBLC (94) in Town Square and in the Plaza Hub.
The shops along Main Street are only four large buildings. However, the clever design of the BUILDING COMPLEX (95) by breaking down the large structures through the use of small storefronts has created an experience that becomes a PEDESTRIAN STREET (100) lined with a FAMILY OF ENTRANCES (102). The street becomes POSITIVE OUTDOOR SPACE (106) lined with CONNECTED BUILDINGS (108).
The PATHS AND GOALS (120) are designed to help propel you forward and the street is defined by the BUILDING FRONTS (122), which is the same as the build-to line I was talking about earlier. Everything has come together and created the appropriate PEDESTRIAN DENSITY (123).
The Wizard of Bras porch is an example of a pattern called the HALF-HIDDEN GARDEN or more specifically a PRIVATE TERRACE ON THE STREET (140). With the space elevated, it allows the people on the terrace to look down at the traffic below while feeling protected from the people below.
The porch is part of an INTIMACY GRADIENT (127) of public spaces and becomes a semi-public space.Every social group needs a place to informally gather and the porch fulfills the need for COMMON AREAS AT THE HEART (129).
A porch is also functions as an ENTRANCE ROOM (130) and without such a space, the transition between the public and private realm can sometimes seem harsh and abrupt, and an opportunity is lost. This type of space is an opportunity to create places that bridge the transition between the private and the public realm. In the United States, a front porch on a house traditionally served this function. The end result is a tranquil space just out of reach yet still connected to the hustle and bustle below.
I find the porch a wonderful spot to sit and watch the passing parade of guests. The result is a view that is hypnotizing in the same way as looking out at a river or a lake. What you experience is a ZEN VIEW (134) made up of a TAPESTRY OF LIGHT AND DARK (135). For many, it serves as an effective PLACE TO WAIT (150) and a SUNNY PLACE (161). Because of the positive design qualities, the porch has become an OUTDOOR ROOM (163), which is an outdoor space that provides relief and reflection and is activated by the OPENING TO THE STREET (165).
Overall, the space is made up of GOOD MATERIALS (207) and the PERIMETER BEAM (217) creates a strong frame for the opening. Alexander would suggest that the pitched roof is a good example of a ROOF VAULT (220) and the low railing acts as a LOW SILL (222) and expands the seating capacity on the porch. The thick columns create a COLUMN PLACE (226). The extra bit of detail at the capital (top) generates a COLUMN CONNECTION (227).
When you stand across the street you notice the ROOF CAPS (232), that extra little detail at the peak of the roof that did not have to be there but you would feel it if it were gone. The wooden floor provides a contrast to the street below and the FLOOR SURFACE (233) is warm and inviting. Even the front door strengthens the space with SOLID DOORS WITH GLASS (237).
How a structure is built adds to a higher degree of life. The HALF-INCH TRIM (240) is the proper method. Most importantly, the porch becomes a wonder SEAT SPOT (241) and functions like a proper FRONT DOOR BENCH (242). The ORNAMENT (249) is appropriate for the style of the architecture.
What matters most is the Imagineers where thoughtful and included a place to pause and reflect, relax and unwind yet still be a part of the action. They create a space that has that quality without a name and achieves a higher degree of life. The use of patterns only scratches at a common understanding so that the experience could be shared and possibly duplicated elsewhere.
Sam Gennawey is an urban planner who has collaborated with communities throughout California over the course of more than 100 projects to create a great, big, beautiful tomorrow. For the past couple of years he has been the publisher of , a blog dedicated to the history and design of the North American Disney theme parks. Sam is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Los Angeles Regional Planning History Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving municipal, county, and private sector planning documents from throughout Los Angeles County.
Sam has recently contributed to a book which celebrates the 40th anniversary of Walt Disney World. "Four Decades of Magic" is now available in both hard copy and Kindle version at Amazon.