Christopher Alexander’s “The Timeless Way of Building” was never marketed as a self-help book, a utopian novel, a treatise on any named philosophy, or even as a book for the social scholar. In actuality, it was written as a work on architecture and design theory, now widely referred to by many (often confused) designers and software engineers alike. However, it offers more insights into the social and economic groundwork of our daily lives than most books befitting those labels. It could easily be said the core of this book, isn’t drafting techniques or geometry, but rather people- emotion and the environmental patterns that can drive and channel it. Alexander spends a solid hundred pages trying to define “a quality that is without name”, that “quality” which eludes planned communities and only comes through the natural flow of patterns generated by people going from one place to another. It’s what makes a well-settled town teem with life whereas a freshly built neighborhood might feel uneasy and sterile. In this book he even goes so far as to describe how many new patterns associated with “societal progress” have come to actually to sacrifice other things lost on improvement. One of the best examples described is the family unit, and how the commute has put it under strain-
For instance, in some towns, the pattern of relationships between workplaces and families helps us to come to life.
Workshops mix with houses, children run around the places where the work is going on, the members of the family help in the work, the family may possibly eat lunch together, or eat lunch together with the people who are working there.
The fact that family and play are part of one continuous stream, helps nourish everyone. Children see how work happens, they learn what it is that makes the adult world function, they get an overall coherent view of things; men are able to connect the possibility of play and laughter, and attention to children, without having to separate them sharply in their minds, from work. Men and women are able to work, and to pay attention to their families more or less equally, as they wish to; love and work are connected, able to be one, understood and felt as coherent by the people who are living there.
In other towns where work and family life are physically separate, people are harassed by inner conflicts which they can’t escape.
A man wants to live in his work and he wants to be close to his family; but in a town where work and family are physically separate, he, is forced to make impossible choices among these desires. He is exposed to the greatest emotional pressure, from his family, at ,that moment when he is most tired—when he just comes home from work. He is confused by a subtle identification of his wife “and children with ‘leisure,’ 'weekends,’ and hence not the daily stuff of life.
A woman wants to be a loving woman, sustaining to her children; and also to take part in the outer business of the world; to have relationships with "what is going on." But, in a town where work and family are completely separate, she is forced to make another impossible choice. She either has to become a stereotyped "housewife,” or a stereotyped masculine “working woman.” The possibility of both realizing her feminine nature, and also having a place in the world beyond her family, is all but lost to her.
A young boy wants to be close to his family, and to understand the workings of the world and to explore them. But, in a town where work and family are separated, he, too, is forced to make impossible choices. He has to choose to be either loving to his family, or to be a truant who can experience the world. There is no way he can reconcile his two opposing needs; and he is likely to end up either as a juvenile delinquent, who has torn himself entirely from his family’s love, or as a child who clings too tightly to his mother’s skirts.
Thanks to changes in our economy and our way of life, today few people enjoy the benefits described in that first idealized example, but for what its worth, keeping work separate and family life distanced should not have to mean the same thing.
The material presented here is an excerpt from pages 107-108 of Charles Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building, published in 1979 by the Oxford University Press. The information here is presented for educational purposes and is therefore considered to be fair-use. To read this work in its entirety, buy a copy, pick one up at your local library or otherwise request one via the OCLC’s World Catalog.
This review has been published several times on other platforms in the past- I am duplicating it here for consistency, compiling my blog posts in a single location.