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Patterns in the Public

"A pattern is a solution to a problem in a context." -Christopher Alexander

The effects of pattern in our personal environments can be astounding, as in this café on Mallorca. We were sitting here finishing an early lunch and coffee when a bus arrived and unloaded a mass of large and loud tourists, wreaking havoc upon a peaceful meal among the locals. We sat waiting for the check, annoyed by the sudden change to the environment. Suddenly the sun appeared from behind some clouds, blanketing the café in a pattern of vivid sun dots piercing through the perforated awning. The atmosphere underwent a complete visual transformation, and the bodies retreated into the background, like deer in a forest. We left the place more amused than irritated.


Pattern is so ubiquitous that we often take it for granted unless it sneaks up on us. Click here for examples.Construction sites as they seem to offer many compelling patterns, perhaps because of the geometry of the materials, or perhaps because they display an underlying order to a structure that will subsequently be masked with a less compelling skin.Architects will intentionally create patterns out of light and shadow, consorting with the natural elements as they change over day and season. Pattern seduces us. It is the reason that shoppers linger in the vegetable section of Whole Foods and pay extra for radishes and garlic. But it is not the radishes and garlic themselves that seduce us. It is the fact that some force created a formal unity to these veggies, each of which is unique in shape and color. Pattern creates harmony and order.

But many of the most compelling patterns are not created intentionally by designers but come about unwittingly. Pattern is potent enough to create similar compositions of hanging car keys in Miami and prayer tags in Tokyo. It effects a common visual vocabulary in objects as disparate as road markers and church candles. Click here to view additional images. Look down carefully and you will see that patterns are around us on the common sidewalk. They change at every instant and mark a moment in time, which may be a great part of their fascination. They work to keep us in the present.

The recognition of pattern can be an inroad to design for those linear thinkers who consider design to be primarily for creative, right-brained visual people. Insurance assessors and financial analysts use patterns in the form of graphs and charts to assess risk. Lawyers seek out patterns in precedents and reiterate verbal messages to juries. The military uses it to camouflage people and airplanes. Mechanics time engines, baseball fans study RBIs and masons set brick, all by relying on some form of repetition. It is as common a unifying human preoccupation as any. Only those people who have never tapped their foot to a melody, whistled a tune, or arranged their shoes in a closet can claim ignorance to pattern. It makes us challenge the very definition of "linear." After all, a line is nothing more than a series of points in a row, itself a pattern.

Pattern is a huge subject with metaphysical meaning and relevance that extend beyond the bounds of a brief newsletter. Christopher Alexander, professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, has devoted more than 10 books on pattern in the public spectrum, including A Pattern Language. But the greatest aspect to pattern may be that you do not need to read or study them to enjoy them. But sometimes it takes a dramatic change in environment for us to appreciate their special power.

I am expanding my gallery of pattern photos and would appreciate receiving any special images you would be willing to share. Please email them as JPEG attachments and they will come directly to me.


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