Pattern language: Alexander, Bollier & Helfrich

‘Pattern language’ was coined in the 70s as the name for a conceptualising frame in architectural design and place-making, by Chris Alexander and colleagues at Berkeley. They produced two wonderful, poetic, dancing books: The timeless way of building (1979) and A pattern language - Towns, buildings, construction, (1977).

The notion has been widely influential across fields of design and cultural organising, but interpreted in quite diverse - and sometimes relatively casual - ways. For example, Rob Hoskins has offered a pattern language for transition in the Transition Towns movement, which is more of an activists’ to-dolist (a bit similar to the final ‘build the building, on the ground’ phase of Alexander’s language, not much like the preceding two phases of visioning, and evolving of usage and material organisation in 'nested' spaces).

Care needs to be taken with the architecture of the language - its basic framing. FoP RoP is concerned with the production of practices, in contrast with Alexander’s language which is about the production of - lovely, at-home, integrating, enduring) experiences: material spaces as ‘staging’ for living and working. Alexander’s work clearly has a bearing on the material economy, including the built environment, and some Alexander-patterns can thus walk right in to a pattern language for commoning. For sure, the arising of motivations, expectations, basic orientations and so on, in the lived experience of commoners and commons-activists, is basic, as a sphere of literacy (§3 ‘emotional commons’) in FoP RoP. But these are more like starting points - ‘natural’ defaults often to be mindfully departed from - than the end points that they may be for Alexander.

FoP RoP is about achieving previously unachieved balances within the dynamic emerging of futures, rather than any kind of ‘timeless’ experience. Although often such balances are described as arriving at eternal states of being, FoP RoP as a historical, evolutionary perspective has no option but to treat the underlying processes as ones of active (and mindful, and historically local) choosing, making, skilling and being-present.

Bollier & Helfrich


David Bollier & Silke Helfrich have a major programme of researching and conceptualising directed toward a patten language, in something very close to the sense of FoP RoP, and their commons scholarship gratefully is drawn upon in foprop. On first encounter (in their fedwiki of work in progress) it seemed to me that B&H’s mode is something like: Here we have a commons or potential commons or threatened commons; what do we know about how to do that commoning successfully? The focus is organisational. and perhaps even a little functionalist. While FoP RoP is more like: Here I am, a person in a pluriversal world full of competing powers and intentions; how may I acquire and cultivate the capacities to recognise, participate in and facilitate commoning? And at the same time, take the next step in the constructing of my own life story? You might say, it’s phenomenological? I would say, it’s theory-of-practice, in a very full sense.


So perhaps the B&H language addresses out-there social forms, while FoP RoP is attempting to be experiential, orienting to in-here landscapes and engaging with the situational learning and skilling of activists and commoners. Neither is ‘right’; perhaps each has a different kind of actor tacitly in view, perhaps sometimes one and sometimes the other might be carrying the necessary resources?

This initial view of B&H’s pattern language may need to be changed, in the light of their publication of Free, fair and alive - The insurgent power of the commons (2019). In this book the patterns are put to work, without displaying them systematically as a pattern language in classic Alexander fashion, and as I intend to here in foprop. A parallel emphasis in the book is a deep ontoshift that B&H believe is needed, in order to achieve a society of commons - and I agree with them: this 'onto-' shift (as in ontology) is deep in the perceptions of persons, and their orientations to action. However, in the book the onto emphasis is largely on language: terms that are no longer safe to use (because contaminated with extrativist or propertarian ethos, for example) and terms that capture and help prefigure practices of commoning. These language cues are indeed phenomenological in intent, as is foprop; but they are separate from the pattern language in the book’s presentation.


Here in foprop there is no separation. The kind of perceptual cues noted by B&H tend to appear, in the foprop pattern language, in patterns located in the §3 landscape of valuing and perception xxx and in the ¿1 zone of ‘in-here’. xxx And they go much further than changes in language: they are concerned with remaking the #heart-mind, and #structures_of_feeling . . an even more challenging activist proposition, one of the core dimensions of the foprop pattern language, embedded in landscape §3 as a project of radical valuing and affiliating, alongside the project of radical knowing and organising (§2) and radically re-made provision of means of subsistence and wellbeing (§1).

Previous | Architecture