the languages have broken down

"But in our time the languages have broken down. Since they are no longer shared, the processes which keep them deep have broken down: and it is therefore virtually impossible for anybody, in our time, to make a building live." -- Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building

I first heard of Christopher Alexander in architecture school. I didn't know quite what to do with him then, didn't know how to make him and my love of vernacular architecture fit within the confines of what I was expected to do to graduate. Even so, I knew that what he was saying and what I was feeling were important, and his discerning analysis of the failures of modern society has stayed with me.

What I've realized more recently is how much his insights apply to all facets of modern human life, not just the making of spaces.

He starts off here speaking of what happens when personal autonomy is a given:

The connection between the users and the act of building is direct.

Either the people build for themselves, with their own hands, or else they talk directly to the craftsmen who build for them, with almost the same degree of control over the small details which are built.

The whole emerges by itself and is continally repaired. Each person in a town knows that his own small acts help to create and to maintain the whole. Each person feels tied into society, and proud because of it.

The adaptation between people and buildings is profound.

Each detail has meaning. Each detail is understood. Each detail is based on some person's experience, and gets shaped right, because it is slowly thought out, and deeply felt.

Because the adaptation is detailed and profound, each place takes on a unique character. Slowly, the variety of places and buildings begins to reflect the variety of human situations in the town. This is what makes the town alive. The patterns stay alive, because the people who are using them are also testing them.

But, by contrast, in the early phases of industrial society which we have experienced recently, the pattern languages die.

Instead of being widely shared, the pattern languages which determine how a town gets made become specialized and private. Roads are built by highway engineers; buildings by architects; parks by planners; hospitals by hospital consultants; schools by educational specialists; gardens by gardners; tract housing by developers.

The people of the town themselves know hardly any of the languages which these specialists use. And if they want to find out what the languages contain, they can't, because it is considered professional expertise. The professionals guard their language jealously to make themselves indispensable.

[...]The languages start out by being specialized, and hidden from the people; and then within the specialities, the languages become more private still, and hidden from one another, and fragmented.

Most people believe themselves incompetent to design anything and believe that it can only be done properly by architects and planners.

This has gone so far that most people shrink, in fear, from the task of designing their surroundings. They are afraid that they will make foolish mistakes, afraid that people will laugh at them, afraid that they will do something "in bad taste." And the fear is justified. Once people withdraw from the normal everyday experience of building, and lose their pattern languages, they are literally no longer able to make good decisions about their surroundings, because they no longer know what really matters, and what doesn't.

People lose touch with their most elementary intuitions.

If they read somewhere that large plate glass picture windows are a good idea, they accept this as wisdom from a source wiser than themselves -- even though they feel more comfortable sitting in a room with small windowpanes, and say how much they like it. But the fashionable taste of architects is so persuasive that people will believe, against the evidence of their own inner feelings, that the plate glass window is better. They have lost confidence in their own judgment. They have handed over the right to design, and lost their own pattern languages so utterly that they will do anything which architects tell them.

Yet, architects themselves, have lost their intuitions too. Since they no longer have a widely shared language which roots them in the ordinary feelings people have, they are also prisoners of the absurd and special languages which they have made in private.

Even the buildings built by architects start to be full of obvious "mistakes."

[...] There is not a single building built in recent times, nor a single part of a city laid out by planners, in which such trivial mistakes -- caused by the loss of patterns -- cannot be described a hundredfold. This is as true of the greatest works of so-called modern masters, as of the most mundane works built by tract developers.

And those few patterns which do remain within our languages become degenerate and stupid.

This follows naturally from the fact that the languages are so highly specialized. The users, whose direct experience once formed the languages, no longer have enough contact to influence them. This is almost bound to happen, as soon as the task of building passes out of the hands of the people who are most directly concerned, and into the hands of people who are not doing it for themselves, but instead for others.

So long as I build for myself, the patterns I use will be simple, and human, and full of feeling, because I understand my situation. But as soon as a few people begin to build for "the many," their patterns about what is needed become abstract; no matter how well meaning they are, their ideas gradually get out of touch with reality, because they are not faced daily with the living examples of what the patterns say.

If I build a fireplace for myself, it is natural for me to make a place to put the wood, a corner to sit in, a mantel wide enough to put things on, an opening which lets the fire draw.

But, if I design fireplaces for other people -- not for myself -- then I never have to build a fire in the fireplaces I design. Gradually my ideas become more and more influenced by style, and shape, and crazy notions -- my feeling for the simple business of making fire leaves the fireplace altogether.

So, it is inevitable that as the work of building passes into the hands of specialists, the patterns which they use become more and more banal, more willful, and less anchored in reality.

--From The Timeless Way of Building, Chapter 13, The Breakdown of Language