A Theory of Architecture Part 1: Pattern Language vs. Form Language

As you may have seen, ArchDaily has been publishing UNIFIED ARCHITECTURAL THEORY, by the urbanist and controversial theorist Nikos A. Salingaros, in serial form. However, in order to explain certain concepts in greater detail, we have decided to pause this serialization and publish three excerpts from another of Salingaros’ books: A THEORY OF ARCHITECTURE. The following excerpt, the first, explains the terms “Pattern Language” (as well as“antipatterns") and “Form Language.”

Design in architecture and urbanism is guided by two distinct complementary languages: a pattern language, and a form language

The pattern language contains rules for how human beings interact with built forms — a pattern language codifies practical solutions developed over millennia, which are appropriate to local customs, society, and climate. 

A form language, on the other hand, consists of geometrical rules for putting matter together. It is visual and tectonic, traditionally arising from available materials and their human uses rather than from images. Different form languages correspond to different architectural traditions, or styles. The problem is that not all form languages are adaptive to human sensibilities. Those that are not adaptive can never connect to a pattern language. Every adaptive design method combines a pattern language with a viable form language, otherwise it inevitably creates alien environments.

Architectural design is a highly complex undertaking. Heretofore, the processes at its base have not been made clear. There have been many attempts to clarify the design process, yet we still don’t have a design method that can be used by students and novices to achieve practical, meaningful, nourishing, human results. 

In the absence of a design method and accompanying criteria for judging a design, things have become very subjective, and therefore what is built today appears to be influenced largely by fashion, forced tastes, and an individual’s desire to garner attention through novel and sometimes shocking expressions.

This Chapter puts forward a theory of architecture and urbanism based on two distinct languages: the pattern language, and the form language

The pattern language codifies the interaction of human beings with their environment, and determines how and where we naturally prefer to walk, sit, sleep, enter and move through a building, enjoy a room or open space, and feel at ease or not in our garden. The pattern language is a set of inherited tried-and-true solutions that optimize how the built environment promotes human life and sense of wellbeing. It combines geometry and social behavior patterns into a set of useful relationships, summarizing how built form can accommodate human activities. 

The importance of a pattern language for architecture was originally proposed by Christopher Alexander and his associates. A fairly general pattern language was discovered and presented by Alexander, who emphasized that, while many if not most of the patterns in his pattern language are indeed universal, there actually exist an infinite number of individual patterns that can be included in a pattern language. Each pattern language reflects different modes of life, customs, and behavior, and is appropriate to specific climates, geographies, cultures, and traditions. It is up to the designer/architect to extract specific non-universal patterns as needed, by examining the ways of life and tradition in a particular setting, and then to apply them to that situation.

Living architecture is highly dependent on patterns, which shape buildings and spaces accordingly. A pattern is a set of relationships, which can be realized using different materials and geometries. Architects, however, confuse patterns with their representation, i.e., what an arrangement looks like. Patterns are not material, though we experience them with our senses. It is far more difficult to understand them intellectually, and almost impossible to grasp patterns from within a world-view that focuses exclusively on materials. 

A pattern language for work environments can be put together by examining the components of successful emotionally-comfortable work environments from different cultures and periods around the world. A software developer today has many requirements in common with a distant ancestor looking for a comfortable place to sit and carve a bone or paint a piece of pottery. Being able to work in an emotionally-supportive environment boosts morale and productivity, and cuts down on workplace errors. 

For several decades, however, architects and interior designers have insisted on applying formal design rules to office environments. Such rules tend to give a standard compromise that satisfies almost none of the fundamental requirements for a good working environment. Their occupants usually characterize them as ranging from sterile to oppressive. Here is a fundamental disconnect between what architects imagine office space should look like, and the characteristics of the kind of space that users actually require to be productive in.

In the theory of pattern languages — actually developed more extensively in computer architecture than in buildings architecture — the concept of “antipattern” plays a central role. An antipattern shows how to do the opposite of the required solution. An ineffective solution is often repeated because the same forces that gave rise to it in the first place recur in other similar situations. Assuming that the futility and counterproductive nature of such a solution is evident (which is not always the case), its occurrence can be studied to see what went wrong. 

Antipatterns do not comprise a pattern language, just as a collection of mistakes do not comprise a coherent body of knowledge. It is therefore not appropriate to talk of a language of antipatterns, but simply a collection of antipatterns. Nevertheless, antipatterns could (and often do) substitute for, and displace a genuine pattern language, with very negative consequences. 

Documenting an antipattern can save future designs from the same mistakes by identifying a problematic solution before it is adopted. However, knowing the antipattern does not automatically indicate the pattern, since the solution space is not one-dimensional. Doing the opposite of the antipattern will not give the pattern, precisely because there can be many different “opposites” going out in many different directions in the solution space.

Pattern languages have evolved, and, as with all evolved systems, they have developed an extraordinary degree of organized complexity. It is not possible to understand all this complexity, let alone replace it by a design method based on deliberately simplified rules. And yet, that has been the basic assumption of twentieth-century architects: that we can simply replace all the evolved architectural solutions of the past with a few rules that someone has made up (and which don’t even have the benefit of experimental verification).

The form language, on the other hand, is strictly geometrical. It is defined by the elements of form as constituted by the floors, the walls, the ceiling, the partitions, and all the architectural components or articulations, which together represent a particular form and style of building. A form language is a repertoire of forms and surface elements that can be combined to build any building, and so it represents more than just a superficial style. 

The form language depends on an inherited vocabulary of all the components used in the assembly of a building; rules for how they can be combined; and how different levels of scale can arise from the smaller components. It is a particular and practical conception of tectonic and surface geometry. One extremely successful form language, the “Classical Language”, relies on a wide range of variations of the Classical style of building based on Greco-Roman ancestry.

After centuries of Classical buildings, even with varied and successful adaptations to local climates, conditions, and uses, the Classical form language remains intact. Every traditional architecture has its own form language. It has evolved from many different influences of lifestyle, traditions, and practical concerns acting together to define the geometry that structures take as the most natural visual expressions of a particular culture. A form language is a set of evolved geometries on many different scales (i.e., ornamental, building, urban) that people of a particular culture identify with, and are comfortable with. It is highly dependent on traditional and local materials — at least that was the case before the global introduction of nonspecific industrial materials. 

My present aim is to be able to discern whether a pattern language is genuine, so that it can be connected to a form language and thus define an adaptive design method. It is imperative not to be fooled by a collection of antipatterns, otherwise our resulting design process will be non-adaptive, even though this may not be known at the beginning of the process. We will eventually see it in the non-adaptivity of the results, at which time it will be too late to do anything about it (i.e., after an unnatural city such as EUR, Milton Keynes, or la Défense has been built).

Nikos A. Salingaros, “A Theory of Architecture” (see this book’s Wikipedia entry) is now available in an international edition HERE with shipping to anywhere in the world. Readers in the US can choose between the new printing with Index HERE and the original printing, which is selling at half price HERE. Translation into Chinese HERE, and Persian .

Image of Galleria di Diana via shutterstock.com

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Cite: Nikos Salingaros. "A Theory of Architecture Part 1: Pattern Language vs. Form Language" 23 Mar 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/488929/a-theory-of-architecture-part-1-pattern-language-vs-form-language> ISSN 0719-8884

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