The most comfortable places in our homes and towns are expressions of the way people live in them, rather than of an architect’s master plan. So observes scholar and architect Christopher Alexander, who has studied and codified these patterns of living, as expressed in rooms, buildings, and towns over the centuries. To give a small example: a group of chairs, a sofa and a chair, a pile of cushions—these are the most obvious things in everybody’s life, he writes in A Pattern Language (Oxford University Press). Yet what makes one arrangement gather life around it while another feels sterile? Here’s what Alexander suggests:
The most comfortable places in our homes and towns are expressions of the way people live in them, rather than of an architect’s master plan.
1. A sitting space requires a well-defined, protected area, with paths running past it, not cutting through it, and it should be placed so that people naturally pass by it, stop and talk, lean on the backs of chairs, gradually sit down, then get up again.
2. When people sit down to talk together they like to arrange themselves roughly in a circle. Perhaps that’s because people like to sit at an angle to one another, not side by side. The chairs themselves will only hold this position if the actual architecture—the columns, walls, fireplace, windows—subtly suggest a partly contained, defined area, roughly a circle.
3. Loose, informal arrangements, where sofas, cushions, and chairs are all free to move, work to bring a sitting circle to life. Use different chairs, big ones, small ones, cushions, and a few too many, so that they are never too perfectly arranged, but always in a bit of a jumble. People can adjust the chairs, turning them at slight angles. If there are one or two too many, all the better: this seems to animate the group. People get up and walk around, then sometimes sit back down in a new chair.