What is a Pattern Language?

A Pattern Language is an attempt to express the deeper wisdom of what brings aliveness within a particular field of human endeavor, through a set of interconnected expressions arising from that wisdom. Aliveness is one placeholder term for "the quality that has no name": a sense of wholeness, spirit, or grace, that while of varying form, is precise and empirically verifiable.

The term was originally coined by architect Christopher Alexander, who, together with five colleagues, published A Pattern Language for building in 1977. Others have since applied the term to economics, software design, liberatory communication, wikis and more.

Notable features of Alexander's pattern language that we have aimed to emulate include:

  • Accessibility: The original book and the others by Alexander that followed it are completely understandable by an interested layperson, requiring no technical knowledge of architecture. They essentially represent a democratization of the field, which perhaps explains why they have been wildly popular except among professional architects.
  • Beauty: As books, A Pattern Language and its sequel The Timeless Way of Building themselves embody "the quality that has no name." They are both simple and complex — elegant, inspiring works that draw the reader into a world of discovery. This ability to enact the qualities they are describing gives them a sense of integrity that has not necessarily been matched in other pattern language efforts.
  • Connection: It is clear from the text that Alexander's book was written in "hypertext" decades before the technology existed to support it. Each of the 253 patterns listed includes links to other patterns it is embedded in, relates with, or supports.

A pattern language is not a collection of methods or techniques. It's more than a set of tools in a toolbox. It moves beyond a list of processes, to seek activities or qualities that repeat across many of those processes. We explore the commonalities that cross boundaries of method, in an effort to home in on what works. It is an interconnected whole, that when applied coherently, brings "the quality that has no name" into a field of human endeavor.

By way of analogy, you might be able to learn a few words of French, and throw them into English conversation. But if you learn the language of French to fluency, then each word of the language is given meaning by the interpretations of the words around it. While a translation dictionary may be helpful, no one would say that a foreign language is merely a list of words with translated definitions beside each one. Rather, taken as a whole, the learning of a new language opens up a new perspective on the world, brings one into a different relationship than was possible before.

Not all of the patterns listed by Alexander et al. apply to any particular building project, and likewise not all of our patterns here apply to every group conversation. The aim is to provide a deep well for inspiration, and a set of doorways into the "core commons" of deepening group conversation.

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