Pattern language


Dear Artist,

Architectural visionary Christopher Alexander has produced a four-volume “essay” that attempts to cure architecture. The Nature of Order: the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe makes some valuable assertions. Apart from being interested in the “universals” that he thinks ought to apply to buildings, I was playing with the idea of applying his principles to art in general and painting in particular:


The Eishin Campus cafeteria, near Tokyo, Japan
Christopher Alexander, architect (1936- )

— A range of sizes is pleasing and beautiful.

— Good design has areas of focus and weight.

— Outlines focus attention to the centre.

— Repeating elements give order and harmony.

— The background should not detract from the centre.

— Simple forms create an intense, powerful centre.

— Small symmetries are better than overall symmetry.

— Looping, connected elements give unity and grace.

— Unity is achieved with visible opposites.

— Texture and imperfections give uniqueness and life.

— Similarities should repeat throughout a design.

— Empty spaces offer calm and contrast.

— Use only essentials; avoid extraneous elements.

— Designs should be interconnected, not isolated.

— Scale and echo create positive emotions.


15 Principles of Wholeness
A Pattern Language” by Christopher Alexander

A lot of what Alexander says has to do with “getting to the centre” — what painters like to call the “centre of interest.” Funny to think that the treatment of an elevator block in an office-building foyer might relate to the climax area of an easel painting. Both draw you in. Both are a focus and a first impression. Paintings, like buildings, are an environment. They are either successful or unsuccessful. Some of the elements of what he calls “pattern language” may be hard-wired into our brains. Like the middle C at the end of a symphony, we need them. Though our imaginations may freely fly with all combinations possible, according to Alexander we omit these elements at our peril.

Why then do we deviate from these laws? The world is chockablock with weak, wishy-washy buildings, built down to a price. That goes for paintings too. Perhaps the human spirit is as much in love with error as it is with righteousness. Without sin there is no salvation.


Julian Street Inn lobby
San Jose Shelter, California

Best regards,


PS: “These tools allow anyone, and any group of people, to create beautiful, functional, meaningful places. You can create a living world.” (Christopher Alexander)

Esoterica: Alexander, who lives in California, is the architect of hundreds of structures and landscape environments. His numerous books and papers have influenced computer science, information systems, organizations, office furniture design, domestic interiors, even Oriental carpet studies. His philosophy of nature and life has our universe as a coherent whole, encompassing feelings as well as inanimate matter. Studying Alexander invites curiosity about the gaping space between theory and practice. Like many a “Renaissance Man,” Alexander also paints.

This letter was originally published as “Pattern language” on September 24, 2004.


Eishin Campus lights

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“In short, no pattern is an isolated entity. Each pattern can exist in the world only to the extent that is supported by other patterns: the larger patterns in which it is embedded, the patterns of the same size that surround it, and the smaller patterns which are embedded in it.” (Christopher Alexander)



  1. I just packed a piece- and am headed to the post office to ship. The built surface consists of 2 textiles: one with a paper money design- the other with a coin money design. It’s the 19th in my “Fractured” series- so its construction structure is identical to every other “Fractured” piece. But it is sub-titled “Financial System”. “Fractured :19: Financial System” And so it carries what is for me- rare political commentary. It was purchased before it had even gone through the second surface stitching process- which is a checkerboard grid of circles- and squares on point. I used 20 different colored threads- which both match and contrast the textile’s colors. However- the textiles themselves are so similar in value that you step back only a very few feet and you can no longer tell exactly what is happening.
    I counted. It breaks 9 of these 15 rules- and bends all the rest. Some viable functioning perfectly art simply doesn’t follow anybody’s expectations of “good design” or whatever you want to call it. I’m very happy with how odd it turned out. And its owner is also very happy with it.

    • It’s not fair to entice us with a mysterious description that leads to intense curiosity
      with no visible relief in sight, J. Wilcox. Will the new owner not permit us a peek at
      this rule breaker and bender?

      • It’s posted on my facebook page- and also in any number of denver/colorado art groups as well as several fiber art groups. Just look me up on facebook- everything’s public. There is no way to include it here.

  2. Fascinating and encouraging “to boldly go where no man has gone before!” A wonderful glimpse into the theory and tools for getting there. Great article by an amazing architect!

  3. It seems to me that any list of “rules” for how to communicate an idea in visual terms is bound to fail. The painter determines the rules by which the play is presented. The audience determines the value of that play in their own terms.
    Breaking the “rules” as a goal sometimes shortens the length of time we can bear to look. I say- if we can describe it we don’t need to paint it. Learning to look is good enough.

  4. Thanks for the book tip! There is nothing that prevents an artist from ignoring these principles, and the many others that have been identified in many practices, including fine art and design. In fact, there are times when ignoring them is important to the piece. And I doubt anyone has ever considered every good design pattern in a single work, though it would be an interesting (and ultimately frustrating perhaps?) exercise to try. Regardless, understanding principles of design and how they potentially affect the viewer is important if not essential knowledge for an artist.

  5. Today I found out I missed another important deadline for something. I know deep down that there is nothing that can make or break my success in life but me. So many times long after the hoops have closed, I am still standing there, now so ready to jump straight through them. I find myself shifting back and forth, looking for the reasons that are seemingly beyond my control, remembering slowly that the best things that are most important in my life happen anyway without much thought or struggle. There is a clock to desires being fulfilled and it is not always as quick as we would hope. Those dreams you continue to dust off just needed more time, and a few more hoops to be ready to jump through, next time with bells on!

  6. I remember this letter from 12 years ago. I believe that Robert had a codicil which went something like “once you know the rules its good to break them”. You are in fact the best judge of what you want to achieve and accidents sometimes produce the most amazing results.

  7. for the win , immerse in a set of rules, like learning a new skill, and try it and see what it has, like a journey, to share. Then stay or leave.

    You are an artist.
    You can back off and see the gestaldt….immerse and let the gestaldt see you….yes.
    Whole new startrek worlds at the easel


  8. Robert has made a wonderful commentary on the common ground shared by architecture and painting. I’m always looking for ways to self-critique my paintings. These design elements provide several reminders, and are fascinating in themselves. It’s no surprise to me that Alexander is also a painter. When I create my cityscapes, sometimes I feel a little like an architect myself!

  9. HI Sara – your Dad would have guffawed and agreed: we love architecture but they have become famous for losing the practicum entirely and forgetting the people THERE – not swanning about, as at an artshow, but working , loving, struggling to stay on time and on budget….or to LIVE when a plane crashes into the lovely building.

    The design elements in architecture apply TOO WELL to painting a canvas whose sole purpose will be to enhance the aesthetic life of the viewer and mentally empower evolution and inspiration and positive action. A crucifix in hand on nineleven made miracles of survival for more than one, I’ll bet, but even that much is getting into the extraordinary inspiration.

    Architect, add to your assertions : get the occupant safety & escape technology into the third millennium – tech was ready and it was affordable , both in planes and tall buildings, and after the attack in ’96, should have been implemented. It wasn’t and 5,000 dead, 3 on the day and 2 more from the toxins since.

    What could possibly be a higher or more valid assertion, than to design and implement the thing that is key – “This building enhances the experience of life in all ways.”

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