On word painting, pattern languages and finding beauty
I was recently rereading Alain de Botton’s essay “On Possessing Beauty” in his book “The Art of Travel.” In the essay, de Botton talks about John Ruskin, a famous painter and drawing teacher from mid-19th century England. Ruskin was obsessed with teaching people how to draw as he saw drawing as the path towards really seeing the world.
Writing from the 1850s, Ruskin was really bothered by how technology (locomotives at the time) changed how people interacted with the world:
Ruskin was distressed by how seldom people noticed details. He deplored the blindness and haste of modern tourists. [Sidenote: this was the 1850s!]
[Ruskin believed there] was only one way to possess beauty properly, and that was by understanding it, by making oneself conscious of the factors (psychological and visual) responsible for it. And last, the most effective means of pursuing this conscious understanding was by attempting to describe beautiful places through art, by writing about or drawing them, irrespective of whether one happened to have any talent for doing so.
If drawing had value even when practiced by those with no talent, it was, Ruskin believed, because it could teach us to see - that is, to notice rather than merely look. In the process of re-creating with our own hands what lies before our eyes, we seem naturally to evolve from observing beauty in a loose way to possessing a deep understanding of its constituent parts and hence more secure memories of it.”
Drawing (with words or painting) allows us to possess beauty. I love that…
In this vein one of the most wonderful books I read last year was “The Timeless Way of Building” which introduces the concept of “pattern languages.” In that book Christopher Alexander and his co-authors try to pin down what exactly is so special about places that have “the quality without a name” - places with that special feeling of aliveness and magic that was more common in older towns and is so absent in so much modern building. Their thesis is that this special feeling is created by interlocking “patterns” that resonate with us at a deep level. The more patterns there are, the more alive a place feels. To quote Alexander:
A building or town will only be alive to the extent that it is governed by the timeless way. To seek the timeless way we must first know the quality without a name. It is the search for those moments and situations when we are most alive. Every place is given its character by certain patterns of events that keep on happening there. These parts of events are always interlocked with certain geometric patterns in the space. The more living patterns there are in a place - a room, a building, or a town - the more it comes to life as an entirety, the more it glows, the more it has that self-maintaining fire which is the quality without a name.
To reach the quality without a name we must then build a living pattern language as a gate. Once we have understood how to discover individual patterns which are alive, we may then make a language for ourselves for any building task we face.
In “A Pattern Language”, the sequel to “A Timeless Way”, the authors lay out hundreds of patterns that make rooms, buildings, towns and cities come alive. Some of these examples include things like:
“Make the kitchen bigger than usual, big enough to include the family room space, and place it near the center of the commons, not so far back in the house an ordinary kitchen. Make it large enough to hold a good big table and chairs, some soft and some hard, with counters and stove and sink around the edge of the room; and make it a bright and comfortable room”.
“Whenever you build a balcony, a porch, a gallery, or a terrace always make it at least six feet deep. If possible, recess at lest a part of it into the building so that it is not cantilevered out and separated from the building by a simple line, and enclose it partially.”
“Somewhere in the community [there should be] at least one big place where a few hundred people can gather, with beer and wine, music, and perhaps a half-dozen activities, so that people are continuously criss-crossing from one to another.”
Once I started to look for patterns that resonated with me, I can’t help but see them everywhere I go. Now, whenever I am in a place that feels special to me (a garden, house, room, road), I try to find patterns and then describe them (“word paint”): what patterns do I see that make this room/house/garden special? Can I identify the specific things that make this place come alive? I don’t naturally tend towards breaking things down in this way but in doing so I find the experience much richer.
Here is an example to give you a sense for what I mean (please be kind as this wasn’t really made for sharing - as context, it was written when I was at a hotel with large beautiful gardens):
Walking down tree-lined paths with interplay of sun and shade. Sunken corridor of oleaceae with cypress and pine above. Shrubs much lower on the side. Path is basic conifers. Lots of turns and twists. Can’t see infinitely; short paths with smell of pine.
Willows and a short hill. Narrow path. Rooms on the side. Two stories but hidden.
Parking enveloped the outside, makes it all a labyrinth. Small tucked away gardens with tall grasses and hidden paths.
Opening with a dozen tall trees creating shade. A fountain at the end.
Small corners with five or two chairs and a table. Trash cans that blend in - concrete in the corner with an ashtray area.
Spa lined with cypress at the end of the path. Sycamore shaded path leads to the pool.
I wish I knew more about architecture and landscape design so I could use more descriptive language but even now, months later, I can still read these lines and recall the feeling of peace I had that day.
Next time you see something beautiful, try to identify what patterns make it come alive and put pen to paper... And if this at all interesting to you, I can’t recommend de Botton and Alexander’s books enough.
Postscript: some beautiful patterns.