Examples of Patterns and Generative Codes on Socially-Organized Housing in Latin America

The series of articles developed by Nikos A. Salingaros, David Brain, Andrés M. Duany, Michael W. Mehaffy and Ernesto Philibert-Petit researches the peculiarities of social housing in Latin America. This time, examples of strategies and planning in their construction are reviewed, such as the importance of collaborative social processes and the specific sequences of stages.

Check out the previously published pieces:

  1. Design That Establishes Emotional Ownership
  2. Anti-Patterns of Social Housing in Latin America
  3. The Geometry of Control
  4. Socially-Organized Housing: Biophilia, Connectivity, and Spirituality
  5. The Experience of Christopher Alexander
  6. Construction Strategy

Examples of Patterns and Generative Codes on Socially-Organized Housing in Latin America

Cortesía de Mi Parque

Patterns summarize discovered design solutions that make people most comfortable in experiencing and using built form. Their relative merit is that they were decided on a firm (in many cases scientifically valid) basis, rather than being just another opinion. The use of patterns and pattern languages is described in the readily available literature (Alexander et al., 1977). We now describe some patterns for those who may not have seen them before. Mainstream urbanism has neglected the tremendous potential offered by pattern-based design, chiefly for ideological reasons.

Pattern-based design liberates the individual but restrains some of the most profitable (though inhuman) aspects of the building industry.

In building dense urban fabric, one pattern imposes a four-storey height limit for residences. Above that height, a resident feels disconnected from the ground, and from any societal functions, which always take place on the ground. This pattern immediately invalidates high-rise apartment blocks, which are simply a failed social experiment on a vast scale, driven by iconic symbolism. Another pattern requires access to trees. Trees are necessary for a human environment, and their planting has to be carefully thought out to cooperate with nearby buildings and define a coherent urban space (Gehl, 1996; Salingaros, 2005). Alternatively, existing large trees must be saved, and buildings introduced in the same careful and flexible manner (and not according to some arbitrary grid), so that the buildings and trees cooperate to create an urban space. The trees combine with the path geometry and external walls to define a usable urban space, whose dimensions and path structure invite use.

Cortesía de Mi Parque

The point we are making (summarized in this particular pattern) is to use trees and buildings together to define a sacred place. This is far removed philosophically from planting trees simply as visual “decoration”, which simply reinforces the geometry of power. There is a pragmatic reason for this. Unless a tree is protected by forming part of a sacred place, it will soon be cut down and used as building material, or as fuel for heating and cooking. This idea follows the same principle of protecting cows necessary for plowing by making them sacred animals. Then, the cows are not eaten during a famine, so they can be used for agriculture the following season.

In practice, one chooses several different patterns from Alexander’s “A Pattern Language” (Alexander et al., 1977), and begins to design the settlement. As work progresses, one has to go back and work with more patterns as different design needs arise. Another set of patterns helps to guide the street layout. Alexander originally used patterns in 1969 to design social housing in Peru (Alexander, 2001-2005: Book 2, page 352). The way that different patterns have to combine together is outlined in (Salingaros, 2005: Chapters 8 & 9). Some architects characterized patterns as an incomplete method because they could not successfully combine them. Nevertheless, patterns are only one component of a system of design, and their combination has to follow other principles not contained in the patterns themselves. Work by Alexander and others (including the authors) continues to develop the applicability of pattern languages in architecture. Particular insights are being gained from the dramatic success of pattern languages in computer software design.

Cortesía de Mi Parque

Placemaking as a Collaborative Social Process

A far more serious factor that has worked against the adoption of patterns for design is that architecture and urbanism have, for several decades, rested on a philosophical basis of qualitative relativism. This claims that all judgments in architecture are matters of opinion and taste, and architecture is therefore little more than an act of personal expression. Such relativism is in marked contrast to the insights of science, where discovered facts about the structure of reality are found to underlie matters of apparently individual opinion.

Architects and urbanists inculcated in the relativist tradition disregard observable structural effects and evolved solutions. They consider patterns as just another opinion, and one that can be safely ignored (especially as patterns directly contradict the military/industrial typology). But patterns are observable clusters of recurrent configurations of response to recurrent design problems, which constitute a discoverable form of “collective intelligence” in human life and civilization. Note that this collective intelligence has to do with the way we operate in the context of the relationship between built form and our values, aspirations, social practices, etc.

In the age of professional specialization, the built environment has been increasingly subjected to a proliferating array of experts who each bring their discipline to particular kinds of problems. This is often at the expense of the ability to see (much less address) the overall challenge of creating living, beautiful, or sustainable places. The notion of a collective intelligence embodied in patterns should not be understood as a claim to have discovered a final truth, but rather as a recognition of the importance of a living process. It re-establishes the cultural capacity to engage in placemaking as a collaborative social process. 

Cortesía de Mi Parque

Success is not measured in abstract terms, but rather by the local experience of continuous improvement in the quality and sustainability of human settlements. 

The use of patterns in design provides a necessary foundation for a collaborative method that is adaptive and particular to a place (i.e., the constraints of the moment), yet is also capable of responding to human aspirations for something better.

Even when patterns are used for design, the designer must make sure that the project is worked out and built in the correct sequence. This new approach to planning is based on the realization that the emergence of an adaptive form has to follow a specific sequence of steps. Adaptive design requires a “generative process”. A living design is never imposed: it is generated by a sequence in which each step depends upon all the previous steps. The patterns themselves tell you nothing about the proper sequence, however. For this, one has to go to Alexander’s most recent work (Alexander, 2001-2005). Others support the need for a generative process. Besim Hakim reached this conclusion through the overwhelming evidence available from his research on traditional towns (Hakim, 2003).

Originally presented by N.A.S. as a keynote address to the Brazilian and Ibero-American Congress on Social Housing, Florianópolis, Brazil, 2006.

Note: This article was translated into English by Nuria Hernández Amador, and proofread by Ernesto Philibert Petit.


  • Christopher Alexander (2001-2005) The Nature of Order: Books One to Four. Center for Environmental Structure, Berkeley, California.
  • Christopher Alexander, S. Ishikawa, M. Silverstein, M. Jacobson, I. Fiksdahl-King & S. Angel (1977) A Pattern Language. Oxford University Press, New York. Edición española (1980) Un lenguaje de patrones (Gustavo Gili, Barcelona).
  • Jan Gehl (1996). Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space. Arkitektens Forlag, Copenhagen, Denmark. Versión en Español (2006) La Humanización del Espacio Urbano: La Vida Social Entre los Edificios (Editorial Reverté, Barcelona).
  • Besim Hakim (2003). "Byzantine and Islamic Codes from the Mediterranean”, in: CNU Council Report III/IV, Style and Urbanism: New Urban Codes and Design Guidelines (The Town Paper, Gaithersburg, Maryland, 2003), pages 42-43 & 63.
  • Nikos A. Salingaros (2005) Principles of Urban Structure (Techne Press, Amsterdam, Holland). New US printing (Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon, 2014); Asian Edition (Vajra Books, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2014). Algunos capítulos están disponibles en línea traducidos al español.

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Cite: Nikos A. Salingaros, David Brain, Andrés M. Duany, Michael W. Mehaffy & Ernesto Philibert-Petit. "Examples of Patterns and Generative Codes on Socially-Organized Housing in Latin America" [Ejemplos de patrones y códigos generadores en la vivienda social de Latinoamérica] 16 Aug 2020. ArchDaily. (Trans. Valencia, Nicolás) Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/944295/examples-of-patterns-and-generative-codes-on-socially-organized-housing-in-latin-america> ISSN 0719-8884

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