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The Timeless Way of Building

Submitted by Leonidas » Sun 19-Feb-2012, 16:43

Subject Area: Quality

Keywords: Christopher Alexander, design, quality, design patterns, pattern language, architecture

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The Timeless Way of Building is an intense reflection on the true nature of quality. What differentiates this book from all others on the subject is its practical guidelines on how quality can be manifested in real life. It is the best text I have ever read on this subject.
The fact that it is written by architect Christopher Alexander and focused on architectural design and town planning is irrelevant. Alexander formalised the concept of reusable design patterns which is directly applicable to software design. In doing so he unwittingly created an industry in books on software design patterns for example:
- Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software, Gamma et al
- Pattern Oriented Software Architecture: A System Of Patterns, Buschmann et al

The big idea common to all these texts is that no professional designer starts with a blank page. Somewhere in the recesses of the mind are a set of patterns which have been used before and are known to be successful. Here we have a group of professionals, led by Alexander, who are defining the structure of a pattern and then writing them down so they can be passed on.

To read this book is to be constantly reminded of why we are building systems.
In Alexander's words:
When you create an environment that exactly matches the way people want to work it actually comes alive. It becomes organic. Part of you. Almost part of nature.
When you have to fight it to get your work done it creates a dead space that no one wants to be - and you lose your audience.


Alexander's architectural patterns spawn metaphors for software design that just keep bouncing off the page. Here's one I've never forgotten even though I read the book for the first time more than 10 years ago.

I once saw a simple fish pond in a Japanese village which was perhaps eternal.
A farmer made it for his farm. The pond was a simple rectangle, about 6 feet wide, and 8 feet long; opening off a little irrigation stream. At one end, a bush of flowers hung over the water. At the other end, under the water, was a circle of wood, its top perhaps 12 inches below the surface of the water. In the pond there were eight great ancient carp, each maybe 18 inches long, orange, gold, purple, and black: the oldest one had been there 80 years. The eight fish swam, slowly, slowly, in circles--often within the wooden circle. The whole world was in that pond. Every day the farmer sat by it for a few minutes. I was there only one day and I sat by it all afternoon. Even now, I cannot think of it without tears. Those ancient fish had been swimming, slowly, in that pond for 80 years. It was so true to the nature of the fish, and flowers, and the water, and the farmers, that it had sustained itself for all that time, endlessly repeating, always different. There is no degree of wholeness or reality which can be reached beyond that simple pond.


One can easily replace the "space" or "place" that is the subject of architectural design with the "mind space" that a user occupies when interacting with a system.
The following loosely translated quotes then take on a whole new meaning:

p 55 ... Every place is given its character by the certain patterns of events that keep on happening there.

P 65 ... the life of a house, or of a town is not given to it , directly by the shape of its buildings ... But by the quality of the events and situations we encounter there.

P 105 ... a man is alive when he is wholehearted, true to himself, true to his own inner forces, and able to act freely according to the nature of the situation he is in.
When a system stands in the way of a user achieving what he wants the way he wants to achieve it - you have entered the dead zone.

P 106 ... The software product must be in harmony with the way the business wants to operate (not the other way round)

P 114 ... a system that does not allow us to resolve conflict and stress - and leaves us in a state of tension is judged as poor quality.


Beyond fish ponds and carp, the concept that has endured with me is Alexander's oft repeated philosophy that,

We need to develop deeper insights into what people perceive as quality. And they need to be precise.

He follows it up with a practical suggestion that,

Pattern languages are like the English language - it frees you from having to sort through meaningless combinations of words to communicate with others. It doesn't destroy your creativity it enables you to be creative.

This is the essence of quality management, about as pure as you can get.
So if you're in a garage aiming to create the next killer app take a day off and read this book.
And if you're not impressed by any of the above turn to page 176 were Alexander explains how to build a barn which is,

... beautiful because it is deeply in touch with its function.


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