When we discover a space that has a higher degree of life, how do we explain how it got there to others? What language do we use? That is the problem that Christopher Alexander tried to solve with the publication of A Pattern Language in 1977. The language is based on the combination of patterns. In fact, he identified 253 patterns. Each pattern consists of a specific problem that occurs over and over again in our environment and “the core of the solution” described so that “you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice.” The patterns are numbered and arranged within a hierarchy that stretches from a macro look at regions down to a micro look at where climbing plants should be placed.
Alexander was the winner of the first medal for research ever awarded by the American Institute of Architects. He taught at the Department of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley for thirty-eight years.
When use properly, the patterns can become a vocabulary where various combinations provide an infinite array of solutions. However, just like the ingredients you use for cooking, you have to get the mix just right. Too much of the wrong thing or mixing the ingredients improperly will spoil the result. However, when you get it right, when the result is something that is greater than the sum of its parts, you have achieved a higher degree of life. That is the aspiration of anyone who must design a space that others will use.
The book teaches you how to discern or create clarifying patterns within complex mixtures.Pattern recognition is a crucial skill for an architect or urban planner, who must create a highly ordered environment amid many competing and frequently nebulous design considerations.
To illustrate how properly applying positive design patterns can create spaces with a higher degree of life and possess that quality without a name, I will use one of my favorite spots in Disneyland. Those that have visited the park have certainly walked by it. Those that have discovered this spot know exactly what I am talking about. Let’s take a seat on the Wizard of Bras porch.
As you enter Disneyland and stroll down Main Street USA on your way toward Sleeping Beauty Castle, continue pass the Silhouette Studio on the right hand side. Next-door to the studio is a frilly Victorian facade with a small front porch. A few steps lead to a bench and two chairs that are bolted to the floor. This is the spot.
You can look at this space a number of ways. A city planner would notice that this is the only building along the west side of Main Street that is set back from the build-to line. A build-to line is a way to regulate where a building’s façade must be placed. Urban life is predicated on proximity, walkability, and immediacy. Within a commercial business district setting buildings back from the sidewalk makes them less accessible to people passing by, reduces the economic viability of first floor businesses, and weakens the spatial definition of the street. The facades along Main Street are right up to the build-to line forming a street wall that helps to create an outdoor room. However, this one porch is the exception.
From the perspective of a planning historian, the porch represents what may have been the last house on the block that was not torn down during the growth of the central business district. Typically over time, as the community would become more prosperous, the land uses along a major transportation corridor would change from primarily residential to primarily commercial. It is not hard to imagine that at some point, this home may have been converted into a commercial building. As the city gained more wealth, converted residential structures and storefronts with wood facades would give way to taller masonry commercial buildings. Nevertheless, in relationship to the adjacent buildings, this porch still clings to a residential like quality and heritage.
The real history of the porch is very different. For many, this is known as the “Wizard of Bras” porch. If you needed lingerie while visiting Disneyland this would be the place to go. When the park opened in 1955, many of the shops along Main Street were licensees. Walt didn’t have enough money for everything and leased off bits just to get things done and to raise some extra cash. One of the first vendors was Hollywood-Maxwell’s Intimate Apparel Shop. The store was the only place to buy lingerie, brassieres, and torsolettes in the park and to learn about the history of underwear in the museum. Chris Stodder tried to find why this porch exists in the first place. He said it was up for speculation. Some experts have said it was built so that guests would have to be adult size in order to see the showroom window. Others have said it was meant as a resting place for men while their lady companions shopped inside. The shop closed in 1956 and the door sealed in 1959; but, the porch remains as an inviting spot to sit and watch the passing crowds.
Today, the door does not open but the façade has been cast in a new role. This would be the home of Fargo’s Palm Parlor. They specialize in “Predictions that will haunt you” and are “Bazaar, Whimsical & Wizard.” The window on the second floor is a tribute to Imagineer Roland “Rolly” F. Crump. He specializes in “designs to die for” and examples of his sketches for the Museum of the Weird, which later became the Haunted Mansion, are featured in the window design.
When using the patterns in A Pattern Language you can describe how Main Street is embedded with positive design patterns and why it is so alive or what is called the MAGIC OF THE CITY (10). The Main Street USA corridor is known as a PROMENADE (31) between two ACTIVITY NODES (30). The space functions as a SHOPPING STREET (32) with a MARKET OF MANY SHOPS (46). The atmosphere is almost a CARNIVAL (58) and it is not uncommon to see DANCING IN THE STREET (63). The result is a COMMON LAND (67) and a PUBLIC OUTDOOR ROOM (69). The appearance along Main Street is one of INDIVIDUALLY OWNED SHOPS (87) even though we know that is not a reflection of the reality inside. There are STREET CAFES (88), FOOD STANDS (93), and occasionally people SLEEPING IN PUBLC (94) in Town Square and in the Plaza Hub.
The shops along Main Street are only four large buildings. However, the clever design of the BUILDING COMPLEX (95) by breaking down the large structures through the use of small storefronts has created an experience that becomes a PEDESTRIAN STREET (100) lined with a FAMILY OF ENTRANCES (102). The street becomes POSITIVE OUTDOOR SPACE (106) lined with CONNECTED BUILDINGS (108).
The PATHS AND GOALS (120) are designed to help propel you forward and the street is defined by the BUILDING FRONTS (122), which is the same as the build-to line I was talking about earlier. Everything has come together and created the appropriate PEDESTRIAN DENSITY (123).
The Wizard of Bras porch is an example of a pattern called the HALF-HIDDEN GARDEN or more specifically a PRIVATE TERRACE ON THE STREET (140). With the space elevated, it allows the people on the terrace to look down at the traffic below while feeling protected from the people below.
When in use, the porch becomes and ACTIVITY POCKET (124) and people sitting on the steps are taking advantage of STAIR SEATS (125). These spaces help to enliven the street and provide safety through “eyes on the street” and greater sense of security.
The porch is part of an INTIMACY GRADIENT (127) of public spaces and becomes a semi-public space.Every social group needs a place to informally gather and the porch fulfills the need for COMMON AREAS AT THE HEART (129).
A porch is also functions as an ENTRANCE ROOM (130) and without such a space, the transition between the public and private realm can sometimes seem harsh and abrupt, and an opportunity is lost. This type of space is an opportunity to create places that bridge the transition between the private and the public realm. In the United States, a front porch on a house traditionally served this function. The end result is a tranquil space just out of reach yet still connected to the hustle and bustle below.
I find the porch a wonderful spot to sit and watch the passing parade of guests. The result is a view that is hypnotizing in the same way as looking out at a river or a lake. What you experience is a ZEN VIEW (134) made up of a TAPESTRY OF LIGHT AND DARK (135). For many, it serves as an effective PLACE TO WAIT (150) and a SUNNY PLACE (161). Because of the positive design qualities, the porch has become an OUTDOOR ROOM (163), which is an outdoor space that provides relief and reflection and is activated by the OPENING TO THE STREET (165).
This porch’s size somewhat satisfies the SIX-FOOT BALCONY (167). Porches are not enjoyable unless they are protected from the surrounding traffic and noise. A low wall or some other element that defines the space should protect this space. The common area is supported by and a HALF-OPEN WALL (193).
Overall, the space is made up of GOOD MATERIALS (207) and the PERIMETER BEAM (217) creates a strong frame for the opening. Alexander would suggest that the pitched roof is a good example of a ROOF VAULT (220) and the low railing acts as a LOW SILL (222) and expands the seating capacity on the porch. The thick columns create a COLUMN PLACE (226). The extra bit of detail at the capital (top) generates a COLUMN CONNECTION (227).
When you stand across the street you notice the ROOF CAPS (232), that extra little detail at the peak of the roof that did not have to be there but you would feel it if it were gone. The wooden floor provides a contrast to the street below and the FLOOR SURFACE (233) is warm and inviting. Even the front door strengthens the space with SOLID DOORS WITH GLASS (237).
How a structure is built adds to a higher degree of life. The HALF-INCH TRIM (240) is the proper method. Most importantly, the porch becomes a wonder SEAT SPOT (241) and functions like a proper FRONT DOOR BENCH (242). The ORNAMENT (249) is appropriate for the style of the architecture.
What matters most is the Imagineers where thoughtful and included a place to pause and reflect, relax and unwind yet still be a part of the action. They create a space that has that quality without a name and achieves a higher degree of life. The use of patterns only scratches at a common understanding so that the experience could be shared and possibly duplicated elsewhere.
If you enjoy reading SAMLAND, you’ll love his book. Walt and the Promise of Progress City is a detailed look into how Walt Disney envisioned the future of communities. Along the way, we explore many facets of a fascinating man.