VisRhet: Bibliography Entry 2

Alexander, C. (1996). The origins of pattern theory, the future of the theory, and the generation of a living world. Speech presented at Keynote Speech to the 1996 OOPSLA Convention, San Jose, CA. Retrieved from

chris_alexander_oopsla_croppedSee video of this speech on YouTube

Scholar and practitioner Christopher Alexander has produced theory about architectural and space design since the 1960s. His most well-known theory is pattern language, originating from a 1977 text co-authored with colleagues from the Center for Environmental Structure, an organization in Berkeley, CA, that Alexander founded and led. In this text — a transcript of a keynote speech (available on YouTube) given at the 1996 ACM Conference on Object-Oriented Programs, Systems, Languages and Applications (OOPSLA) — Alexander not only explicates pattern language and theory, but he also discusses the nature of order and generation of a living world, each of which is, or has become since this speech, a subject on which Alexander has considerably expanded in his publications (see NPR interview; Nature of Order). This speech compactly combines the highlights of much of Alexander’s intellectual work into one place, and that is why I selected it for this entry. Alexander’s connections to software design, on the other hand, while meaningful, play little into the reason for my selection, and, therefore, the summary does not delve into such application.

Beginning with pattern language, Alexander argues that this theory is intended to promote “physical structures that make the environment nurturing for human beings” and, on a large scale, creates a genetically and locally adapted approach to a “living structure.” Fundamental to pattern theory, however, is the idea that townships and structures in general were historically created by the people and for the people. Pattern theory, then, attempts a reversion in design, so that a network of living structure is created “in a fashion which could be in everybody’s hands, so that the whole thing would effectively then generate itself.”  Incidentally, readers of the original text, A Pattern Languagecan see this idea fleshed out with the 253 patterns Alexander provides to empower readers to form their own language of living spaces through sequences of these patterns.

Some of the fascinating pieces of pattern theory that Alexander points out in this speech is that it possesses “a moral component,” aims to create “morphological coherence in the things which are made with it,” and generates coherent, morally sound objects, focusing on the created whole. Comparatively, pattern theory, as of course it is Alexander’s wrestling with a language, shares some properties with rhetorical theory, especially as previously discussed in Hattenhauer’s article on the rhetoric and semiotics of space design.  For instance, both Alexander and Hattenhauer (1984), to use the words of the latter author, see “that architecture’s communications are not totally subjective and open-ended. Rather, architects can predict what behavior their designs will induce” (p. 73).  That said, however, greater differences appear between Alexander and Hattenhauer’s languages of space than similarities.  For example, when discussing ethos, as related to architecture, Hattenhauer places the weight on observers, saying that it is their ethos or worldviews that give space meaning; however, Alexander imparts an inherent ethos on architecture, giving it a moral quality itself, outside of an anthropological or sociological viewpoint (i.e., that of the observer or user).

Additionally, Hattenhauer and Alexander differ in their notions of generation and coherence. Again, this contrast has more to do with where the weight of architectural meaning is distributed. Generation for Hattenhauer happens through observer or user exploration, fantasy, or imagination; but for Alexander it borrows more from the pattern itself, rather than from the user experience (i.e., Alexander has created empirical studies which he later narrows down to 15 properties that lead to creating a nurturing environment, and while those studies come from investigating human behavior and expectation, the meaning becomes more objective than subjective). Likewise, this idea of morphological coherence, or coherence in general, for Hattenhauer is, to borrow from media studies theory, more rhizomatic than rooted. Alexander, on the other hand, sees coherence as the most conclusive evidence of creating a successful pattern theory (and structure).  As Alexander points out, one can use good ideas to put together a structure, and those ideas will result in a “few fragmentary structural ideas,” but they will not create a coherent and well-formed structure. Speaking of which, Alexander seems rather fastidious about coherence, and he remarks how although builders began to use his patterns in the late 1970s and early 1980s, they still were not producing coherent design, so that is what led him to work on the nature of order, the second part of his career (and his speech).

Regarding this order, Alexander notes:

. . . I began to notice a deeper level of structure and a small number (fifteen) of geometric properties that appeared to exist recursively in space whenever buildings had life. These fifteen properties seemed to define a more fundamental kind of stuff; similar to the patterns we had defined earlier, but more condensed, more essential—some kind of stuff that all good patterns were made of.

Alexander sees these 15 geometric properties as the “substrate of all patterns.” Moreover, he argues the existence of an objectivity regarding architecture’s coherence and, more specifically, his arrival on these fundamental properties, as they are based on studies that measure the “profound feeling of wholeness” a user experiences with specific designs.


Centers are important! A strong center, as the courtyard depicts in this photo, is one of Alexander’s 15 fundamental properties. He also refers to the properties as centers. (Photo: Living Neighborhoods)

Although 15 different properties, Alexander notes that they all are rooted in “a recursive structure based on repeated appearances of a single type of entity—the primitive element of all wholeness.” He calls these entities “centers.” He says, “Centers have life, or not, in different degree, according to the degree that the centers are built from other centers using the fifteen geometric relationships which I have identified.”

Interestingly, Alexander’s thinking here on the nature of order within architectural design draws some parallels to the suggestions Sojna Foss lays out in her chapter “Theory of Visual Rhetoric” in the Handbook of Visual Communication (2005).  For instance, Foss suggests two applications for investigating the visual image: a deductive application of the rhetorical to the visual (pp. 147-48) and an inductive exploration of the visual to the rhetorical (pp. 149-50). The deductive method uses rhetorical theory to guide them through the meaning of the artifact, looking, for example, for its pathetic, mythic, or epideictic nature.  The other more inductive method arrives at rhetorical theory based on the image’s qualities.  One might argue that Alexander has taken the more inductive route, creating a language — a rhetoric of sorts — around the architectural artifacts.

To round out his speech, Alexander discusses the “generativity problem” with architecture and what might be done about it.  He cites a statistic that all “built stuff” along with exterior and outdoor space equates to about 10 to the 14th square feet (at least it was in 1996).  Alexander follows up by asking, “How do we create, or generate, living order in 10 to the 14th square feet of construction?” His response:

 . . . [B]oth A Pattern Language and The Timeless Way Of Building [the work that preceded A Pattern Language] say that the pattern language is to be used sequentially. In practice, however, this feature dropped out of site, and was not emphasized in use. [. . . ] In our most recent work, that has changed. We are now focusing on pattern languages which are truly generative. That means, they are sequences of instructions which allow a person to make a complete, coherent building, by following the steps of the generative scheme.

All that said, Alexander realizes he has made little mark on the world of architecture and space at 10 to the 14th square feet, even after 25-30 years of building.  In turn — and here’s where I will mention the audience — Alexander asks for the programmers in the room to join him in creating a “natural genetic infrastructure of a living world.”

Application to Project

What do I pull away from Alexander’s work for my project?  I think his work allows me to consider some key questions about writing centers:

  1. Are writing centers part of a living structure?
  2. Are writing centers producing a nurturing environment?
  3. Are writing centers coherent, whole, unified? Or just fragments of good ideas?
  4. Are writing centers generative (especially since writing is a generative act itself)?
  5. Are writing centers infused with some of the 15 fundamental properties?

Overall, Alexander’s oeuvre may contain some seemingly utopian ideals, but the fact that he has performed empirical studies over the years speaks to the viability of his theories, and they offer excitement about application to writing centers.


Foss, S. K. (2005).  Theory of visual rhetoric. In K. Smith, S. Moriarty, G. Bartbatsis, & K. Kenney (Eds.), Handbook of visual communication: Theory, methods, media (141-152). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Earlbum Associates.

Hattenhauer, D. (1984). The rhetoric of architecture: A semiotic approach. Communication Quarterly, 32(1), 71-77.




VisRhet: Bibliography Entry 3

McKinney, J. G. (2005). Leaving home sweet home: towards critical readings of writing center spaces. Writing Center Journal, 25(2), pp. 6-20.

home-sweet-home-1414676696Q7GThis article delves into the history and expectations of the atmosphere, arrangements, and accoutrements recommended for writing centers.  Discussing their historical ambiance, author Jackie McKinney points to past metaphors used to describe writing centers, such as “Andrea Lunsford’s garret, storehouse, and Burkean parlor; Elizabeth Boquet’s laundry or safe house; or Steven North’s skills center, fix-it shop, or cross between ‘Lourdes and hospice’” (p. 8).  McKinney says, however, that the most prominent description of writing centers has been toward a homelike setting. She gives examples of a number of writing center professionals who have argued for their spaces to appear in such abstract terms as welcoming, inviting, non-threatening, non-remedial, and non-classrooms.  To create such a mood, recommended furnishings and architecture in writing centers have included everything from couches, bean bags, lava lamps, coffee pots, posters, and plants, to soft carpet, calming colors, and a window to stare out.  Altogether, these items and the variously suggested designs and arrangements that create a homey feel in writing centers are a deliberate response to yesteryear’s “auto-tutorial writing labs” with their skill-and drill-sensibilities (cited in Boquet, 1999, p.51).  What is more, the homey metaphor plays into the whole idea of writing center staff being perceived as part of the family (cited in Carino, 1995, p. 20).  McKinney argues, however, that these descriptions of writing centers are more about ideal centers than an actual critical reading of how the space looks and feels.

With that in mind, the author turns to Nedra Reynolds 1998 article “Compositions Imagined Geographies.” In this work, Reynolds suggest that compositionists look at the material realities of the spaces in which students write, rather than looking through them. This call for a more critical reading of writing centers turns McKinney to ask more analytical questions about what moods these spaces actually exude. For instance, she writes, “[D]escribing a center as having a couch and softly painted walls may invoke the metaphor of home for some readers . . . [but] what if the couch is terribly stiff, the walls a dirty beige, and the center itself full of cranky tutors?” (p. 10).  Further, McKinney uses the work of Reynolds, who identifies Tim Cresswell’s principle of critical geography, which moves away from “geographic regions” to an analysis of the “role geographic forces has in the explanation of other things.”

In addition, the author contends that writing center professionals have to look at more than just space but also focus on objects in the space. She uses W. David Kingery’s work, here, to help flesh out the idea of cultural materialism and how reading geography and objects, although more difficult to read than text, will help staff better understand the privileged and relative space of a writing a center.  To exemplify, McKinney picks up on the works of Colleen Connolly and her colleagues and Leslie Hadfield and hers—“Ericka and the Fish Lamps” and “An Ideal Writing Center,” respectively—demonstrating how design choices within writing centers truly take on different meanings among administrators, staff, and students.

Interestingly enough, even in these different critical readings of writing centers, McKinney suggests that a sense of hominess ultimately still seems to exist.  As a result, in a full section, McKinney gives three admonitions regarding the idea of a homelike writing center: 1) comfortable is a way of “aligning with mainstream [and middle-class] values” (p. 16); 2) the home metaphor can be off-putting to students, as some homes are “dangerous or abusive” or “too loud or enticing” and students may be looking for an escape from such a setting (p. 16); and 3) homelike settings imply a gendered read, giving in to the stereotype of feminine nurture and the “director mother,” especially as writing centers have been predominantly directed by women over the years (p. 17).  As a caveat, McKinney is quick to point out that readers should not confuse this feminization with feminism. She cites bell hooks who “describes a different kind of feminist space—one that does not nurture but works because of confrontations and the exchange of ideas . . . “ (p. 18). McKinney concludes that the dominant metaphor of writing centers as homes has narrowed our gaze. Writing center professionals should, instead, look at their spaces and not through them.

Compared to my own research, McKinney contrasts with the work of architectural theorist Christopher Alexander, father of pattern language, who in his 1996 address to the Silicon Valley crowd (transcript available here), argues for living structure to sustain and nurture individuals as well as for objects and architecture to offer a “condition of wholeness” when individuals move into their presence.  On the other hand, McKinney’s view reminds me of Pratt’s work on contact zones back in the 1990s, but McKinney never really explains how architecture and objects might dictate such contact or conflict. She only rails against the lack of difference, so to speak, in writing centers, and like Joe Harris (1995) warns regarding Pratt’s theory when put into practice, a “multicultural bazaar”(p.33) may be all that a writing center ends up becoming if McKinney’s notion is not carefully put into practice.

In context within the course, McKinney’s article reminds me of the work on material rhetoric by Propen (2012), especially her discussion on Foucault’s heterotopias that “asks that we take a look at the hierarchic ‘history of space’ . . . to expose the different relationships that delineate them” (p. 29).  Further, Propen points out how Foucault calls for knowledge in unfamiliar spaces (p. 31). With these Foucauldian ideas in mind, perhaps another way of looking at McKinney’s work, here, on writing centers is not necessarily to see the space as merely aiming to produce conflicting ideas for its users but as a space striving to produce something different than the norm for all of its users. One user may prefer a homelike setting; another may choose a more collaborative, debate-like setting. How do writing center professionals accommodate for these differences all in one space? A versatile architect, both real and metaphorical, is needed.


Harris, J. (1995). Negotiating the contact zone. Journal of Basic Writing, 14, 1, 27-42.

Propen, A. (2012). Locating visual-material rhetorics: The map, the mill, and the GPS. Anderson: Parlor Press.

VisRhet: Bibliography Entry 1

Hattenhauer, D. (1984). The rhetoric of architecture: A semiotic approach. Communication Quarterly, 32(1), 71-77.

Although more than thirty years old, this article is a useful primer on linguistic and rhetorical theory with regards to architecture, making the central research question the following: how does architecture communicate and give meaning to its users and viewers through its perceived function and values?  To flesh out this question, the author discusses multiple theories within three sections—Architecture as Language, Architecture as Rhetoric, and Architecture as Movement and Fantasy—about how critics have defined and discussed architecture within a twentieth-century communications studies context.

First, Hattenhauer introduces Saussure and Barthes’ theories of semiotics and explains how this sign theory is built on such “oppositions as horizontal and vertical, dark and light, hot and cold” (p. 71).  The author applies this principle in particularly to architecture since viewing two or more constructed spaces allows for comparative analysis regarding architectural areas, such as line, size, or depth.  Additionally, semiotics, as they are rooted deeply within cultural systems, bring divergent meanings to signified architecture based on the connotations and denotations of the viewer.  Meaning is derived, then, from past cultural connotations, which inform and influence present values or beliefs. That said, semantic shifts can occur.  For instance, Hattenhauer cites how the tallest buildings were often considered the most sacred, but as modern architecture developed, this notion shifted; rather, tall buildings have become, instead, structures to be praised or celebrated.  Because of semantic shifts, critics may struggle with discovering the original meaning for the architecture, requiring, instead, difficult and often imperfect attempts to reconstruct earlier ethos and worldviews.

Beyond semiotics, Hattenhauer discusses architecture as rhetoric, and in this section, he most intriguingly theorizes that “not only [does] function follow meaning but also that form follows meaning” (p. 73).  The author gives the example, here, of faux beams or fireplaces in homes as “vestigial accouterments” even when function is gone.


Casa Batllo in Barcelona Spain (Source: Wikimedia)

As far as form goes, Hattenhauer expounds on Gaudi’s 1906 Casa Batllo in Barcelona, with bony-like pillars and rail-less balconies with seeming eyes, to show how a form communicates multiple meanings. Still, the caveat is given “that architecture’s communications are not totally subjective and open-ended. Rather, architects can predict what behavior their designs will induce” (p. 73), from theme-based fast-food restaurants that encourage invented elements (e.g., a seafood restaurant that appears underwater), to mobile seating used for lectures and discussions, say, in an educational setting.  In fact, Hattenhauer argues that architecture can create practice and ritual.  It can change or affirm behavior based on one’s ethos or worldview.

With those two contrasting notions in mind—that architecture can have both an intentioned, objective meaning and a user-defined, subjective significance—Hattenhauer moves to another section of the article discussing architecture rhetorically by movement (i.e., the seemingly more objective meaning) and by fantasy analysis (i.e., the ostensibly more subjective meaning) and how the two intersect.  The author extensively teases out the architectural movement, dubbed International Style, and how it promotes the principle of functional form in Modern Architecture.  While this principle may be viewed as timeless and objective, Hattenhauer argues that it is merely imagined, and critics, especially those with rhetorical propensity, can find greater flexibility in the meaning of architecture through fantasy analysis, by which he means that “rhetorical criticism can be used to criticize not only the form but also the ideology of communications” (p. 76).

Implications of Hattenhauer’s theorization, here, offer vast contexts for understanding the meaning of buildings and spaces in general.  His semiotic applications toward architecture suggest the need for comparison among spaces; that is, no buildings or their accouterments can stand isolated in their meaning.  They have a borrowed meaning of sorts based on users’ previous experiences or pre-established beliefs or values.  In the object of study, for example, of a writing center, designers, in creating or recreating one, should seek to find what works well at other colleges or universities for this type of venue. Likewise, designers should provide design charrettes and build focus groups for those potential users of the writing center to gain ideas about their previous experiences and what preconceived ideas (e.g., levels of noise often are a point of difference in writing centers) the population may have.

Regarding the author’s theorization on the rhetoric of architecture, his views propose that architecture—and its elements—can afford or affirm symbol or custom for its users; however, it can also effect change in behavior. As such, designers of a writing center, for instance, might decide to place it in a library because of said building’s historical symbolism as a hub of knowledge, a knowledge that users might think intellectually diffuses to them simply by being in the space.  On the other hand, writing center designers might decide to include a new piece of technology, such as meeting and conference technology (see Media:Scape), to encourage a change in user behavior toward a more collaborative and innovative way of working.


Is a stately library the best environment for a writing center? (Source: Wikimedia)

Additionally, Hattenhauer’s theorization of fantasy analysis within architecture suggests a need for imagination and exploration, not just persisting with old notions of design, just for the sake of doing so. Rather, architecture—and its principles—can be reimagined and redefined within a new context. To exemplify, writing centers may historically project a formal, studious appearance, but simply because of an archetype—a movement of sorts—designers may reimagine a center atmosphere that’s more of a paper playground than a stately stereotype.

Overall, this article serves as a good background to my study.  Thinking about writing centers in semiotic and rhetorical terms affords value to their real and realized meaning as a learning and collaborative space.  To expand, I envision asking questions of students about their perceived meaning of the writing center and how the architecture of the space encourages or discourages certain behaviors.  Likewise, questions for staff, especially those who have been working in it since its inception, should include their imagined view of how they originally thought the writing center would look and operate versus their current view of how it looks and operates today.

One of the most poignant bits of utilizing rhetoric to understand the meaning of architecture (at least for me) is the identification and unraveling of emotion, of which a writing center certainly is not devoid, especially if we think of writing as a creative—and partially emotional and affective—act.  This sense of emotional design aligns with the work of Norman (2004) and especially his passage where he says, “[C]ognition interprets and understands the world around you, while emotions allow you to make quick decisions about it” (p. 13).  With such rapid-fire judgments through the affective domain, writing center designers should find it more incumbent on them than ever to be sure the first visual impression is a good one.


Norman, D. A. (2004). Emotional design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things. New York : Basic Books.