Architectural Beauty – and Some Books on How We Lost It

In my last blog entry I posted several photos of this beautiful old colonial home (built 1738) which we found while driving along a Massachusetts country road.

While photographing the enchanting entryway,

my mind turned to a memorable book I read some years ago.  It was called The Timeless Way of Building, by Christopher Alexander, architect, builder and author, winner of the first medal for research ever awarded by the American Institute of Architects.  There were also two companion books in this “Center for Environmental Structure Series” by the same author, A Pattern Language (Oxford University Press, New York, 1977) and The Oregon Experiment (Oxford University Press, 1975).    One by one, I checked these books out of the college library, and because they rang so true for me, I devoured all of them.   The principles from these books have had great influence in the decisions made on our own home remodeling and restoration projects, our landscaping, and how we think about living space and architecture.  I vowed that someday I would have the books in our own private library.

Despite the fact that Ron and I spend a good part of our lives book scouting, I had never come across a copy of these books.  (That is not to say they can’t be purchased on-line…they can.  I guess I have been waiting for the books to find me.)

Call it serendipity, call it chance, but a few hours after leaving the beautiful old house in the photos above, we drove to Troubadour Books in Hadley, Massachusetts, where we spent an hour or two selecting books.  Just as we were checking out, a book on a shelf in the corner of the room caught my eye.

The Timeless Way of Building ( NY: Oxford University Press, 1979)

If you would like to understand what “magic” makes a particular place seem inviting, alive, and beautiful, you would enjoy this book.  If you want to know why old construction often has the timeless qualities we seek, while most new construction leaves us cold, you would enjoy this book.  The author gives us a real pattern language to use in design and construction that speaks to us as human beings.  And none of these ideas are reliant on expensive solutions – they are all ideas that ring true, and can be put to use in an apartment, a one room cottage, a large estate, or a whole city.

A few examples of the pattern language:  half-hidden garden, transitional entrance, alcoves, sheltering roof, window place, positive outdoor space, south facing outdoors.  Each of these terms represent design features which have traditionally functioned to make a place welcoming, and give us a sense of comfort and well-being.  The features listed in this book have been behind almost all ways of building for thousands of years, because they are intrinsic to a happy and user-friendly environment.

These qualities were lost as we moved into the age of mass produced housing which has been foisted on us by developers and building manufacturers.  From this list, you can envision what can be done to improve your own dwelling to make it a place of comfort and contentment, or be able to draw a plan for building a pleasing house.

You can add your own pattern language terms as you become more aware of what characteristics make a home or a building sing to you personally.

Utilizing just one or two of the ideas can vastly improve your living space.

Here are two websites to visit to learn more about the architectural principles in these books:

Another favorite book in a similar vein is The Old Way of Seeing, by Jonathan Hale (Houghton Mifflin, 1994).   This is also a book which enriches our possibilities of creating buildings that have life and character.  I will cover it in my next blog.


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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Christopher Alexander, still alive at 75, is a fascinating thinker, and I’m glad you finally scored a personal copy of “The Timeless Way of Building.” I remember during my undergraduate years in the late Seventies, when the three books of Alexander’s that you mention were new, that there were stacks of them on sale in the book department of the Yale Co-op. There is something strangely seductive about the external plain-ness of the volumes, as if Alexander deliberately eschewed any sort of marketing glitz – which, given his philosophy, is quite probably the case.

    • Patrick, Thank you for your comment. You are right, the books are very simple and straight-forward in their design…which does reflect the writer’s philosophy. When I first read these books, I appreciated so much that someone had finally put into words the features that make certain places enchanting and livable. And it seemed a brave thing to do, given the path most modern builders and architects have taken.
      – Cathy Petruccione

  2. You make me feel really old including Alexander in your antiquarian category! We had pre-published copies when I worked in the art and architecture library in the mid 70s.

    • David,
      I feel like an antique sometimes myself — most of my favorite authors are pushing up daisies. Nice to know Christopher Alexander is thriving. His books deserved a place on collectors’ shelves as soon as they came off the press.
      – Cathy Petruccione

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