Christopher Alexander on Walls and Other Components

The following is a chapter from A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, which is a guidebook on designing spaces and communities by considering human behaviors. This chapter is on Wide Walls. 

“Houses with smooth hard walls made of prefabricated panels, concrete, gypsum, steel, aluminum, or glass always stay impersonal and dead. 

In the world we live in today, newly built houses and apartments are more and more standardized. People no longer have a chance to make them personal and individual. A personal house tells us about the people who live there. A child’s swing hanging in a doorway reflects the attitude of parents to their children. A window seat overlooking a favorite bush supports a contemplative, dreamy nature. Open counters between kitchen and living space are specific to informal family life; small closable hatches between the two are specific to more formal styles. An open shelf around a room should be seen at one height to display a collector’s procelain, best seen from above; at another height and depth if it is to be used to support a photographer’s latest pictures; at another height again for setting down drinks in the house of a perennial party-giver. A large enough fireplace nook, with enough built-in seats, invites a family of six to sit together.

Each of these things gives us a sense about the people living in the house because each expresses some special personal need. And everyone needs the opportunity to adapt his surroundings to his own way of life…

…Smooth hard flat industrialized walls make it impossible for people to express their own identity, because most of the identity of a dwelling lies in or near its surfaces – in the 3 or 4 feet near the walls. This is where people keep most of their belongings; this is where special lighting fixtures are; this is where special built-in furniture is placed; this is where the special cozy nooks and corners are that individual family member make their own; this is where the identifiable small-scale variation is; this is the place where people can most easily make changes and see the product of their own craftsmanship…

… Open your mind to the possibility that the walls of your building can be thick, can occupy a substantial volume- even actual usable space- and need not be merely thin membranes which have no depth. Decide where these thick walls ought to be.”

I agree with Alexander that the walls of a home are the components that often say the most about its occupants. That’s why I believe that altering and modifying the walls is the best way to take control of the space you live in.

Also in A Pattern Language, Alexander disliked mass production of building materials and how it made every space impersonal because 4 x 8 sheets of factory-made plaster board “do not lend themselves at all to the gradual modification which personal adaptation requires.” I think this statement is a little outdated, because now with digital fabrication, a 4 x 8 sheet that has a factory finish is ideal for creating something that is one of a kind, modifiable and adaptable.

I’ve come up with a few sketches showing how ideas from A Pattern Language could be coupled with a new age of Do-It-Yourself digital fabrication, such as CNC routers and 3D printers.

plugin app wall

attach to existing stud typo

 First the idea of a grid system that would rely on the existing or typical structure of a 2×4 stud wall. This grid would add depth to the walls which are typically about 4 1/2 inches thick, making built in components possible and adds personality to a space with little craftsman skills necessary. Next, components would hang off of the grid to create any possible use such as shelving, seating, or enclosure.

thick walls

You could potentially add thickness to any wall in a home by adding this grid system. Then you could configure and reconfigure the components in those spaces whenever you want to switch the use of a space. A spare bedroom could be used for storage with deep shelves for one year. Then when the bedroom is needed for a new family member, the shelves could be replaced with seating areas, diaper changing surfaces or toy chests.

adustable cut sheet

adjustable modules

The members of the grid could be configured to different heights to adapt to different houses.

modular built in cabinets

cabinet space

This is one idea of different storage components that could hang off of the grid system. Some of the components can be deep enough to inhabit.

window place

One of Alexander’s patterns is a window place which can provide a more private alcove.

ceiling height variety

Another pattern describes how lowering the ceiling height of an area can create a difference in the spaces to create a sense of a home and personality.

alcove space

One of my favorite ideas is creating an alcove between two existing spaces by building under the wall. This solution creates shelving, cabinets, and a personal workspace.

half open wall

An entire stud wall that is partitioned with gypsum wall board could be replaced with panels that are CNC routed to create a half-open wall that starts to connect the two rooms visually. Special patterns and shapes would be easy to assemble with digital fabrication.

For the next two weeks I will be focusing on creating this grid system which can be applied to existing walls or self-standing. I will also be working with people that will develop components that can plug into the frame and start to define spaces and use according to some of Christopher Alexanders patterns. Stay tuned for some Sketchup models and prototype physical models of the grid and some components, which will all be available to download and build yourself at


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s