Co-constructing landscape architectural design precedent: “A pattern language”

In light of calls to ‘decolonise’ curricula I have been wondering how to draw from students’ existing knowledge and diverse experience to co-construct knowledge in a classroom.

I work with first year landscape architectural students in their design studio and design theory subjects. Most of the subjects in the second semester focus around the same project – a middle-income residential landscape design. In previous years at this point I have given some input to students, perhaps referring to Alexander, Ishikawa and Silverstein’s 1977 A Pattern Language. Alexander et al have described and illustrated 253 design “patterns” such as “City Country Fingers”, large scale urban; “Flexible Office Space”; and “Paving with Cracks between the Stones”, detailed design. The patterns are intended to be general allowing designers to adapt them to different conditions. “Seat Spots”, for example, describes how benches should be placed facing pedestrian activities, open to winter sun and protected from the noon heat in summer (1977:1120). Although the patterns intend to reflect generic ways in which people use spaces, in my imagination they describe the built spaces of a small, idyllic, Italian hillside community. I was curious to develop this further in the landscape architectural studio to discover firstly what “patterns” we could develop from our own lives, and secondly, to what extent there would be common features between these different “patterns”.  

I began the exercise by asking the students to close their eyes and recall their family home, or a familiar place that they visited when they were younger. I then asked the students to draw a plan or top view of this home and its outdoor spaces (I assured the students that these drawings were confidential and only for them – so I am not able to share these). The next step was for each student to trace their path of their movement throughout the day – where did they wake up and how and where did they move around their home and outdoor space. We then spent the next 10 minutes or so tracing the paths of other family members’ movements as well as tracing pathways of guests arriving and joining the family for a meal. Once the drawings were covered with multiple pathways and movements, we began to analyse the drawings and tried to identify places where meals were prepared and eaten, places for ceremonies or special gatherings, places where a person could go to be on their own. The students then moved into groups and started comparing drawings and discussing two potential aspects for finding patterns in their family home – firstly spaces that were busy and active and secondly,  spaces that were quiet and less active. I asked each group to draw a diagram of each of their patterns and to write a sentence describing each one. The following is a brief description of the patterns that each group produced.

Patterns for quiet, less active spaces:

Group 1 Quiet
Group 1’s pattern for quiet spaces

When comparing their individual drawings, a few of the students in Group 1 found a common “pattern” that their “quiet” spaces were linked to nature – sitting under a tree or tending to sheep or being away from buildings and urban activity. In this pattern a person would sit on a hammock in the middle of a space that is surrounded by trees which act as a barrier or buffer to keep noise at bay.

Group 2 Quiet
Group 2’s pattern for quiet spaces

Group 2 also developed a quiet space where a person would sit in the middle of that space but unlike the group above, there was only one tree in the centre to provide shade. There were no tall obstacles around this space to ensure that “no one can sneak up on you”.

Group 3 Quiet
Group 3’s pattern for quiet spaces

This connection between “quiet” spaces and visibility was also evident in Group 3’s pattern: seating was placed beneath the shade of a tree and at a distance from a busy road or space while still maintaining a visual connection.

Group 4 Quiet
Group 4’s pattern for quiet spaces

A few students in Group 4 grew up in a house with a verandah – which they identified as a potential location for “quiet” spaces. The verandah provided shelter from the rain or sun while distancing itself from the potential busyness of indoor spaces.

Patterns for busy, active spaces:

Group 1’s pattern for busy spaces

One of the students in Group 1 used to help his grandmother fetch water from a nearby water point which he said was a busy social point where people from the surrounding community may meet. Another student explained how social spaces would develop around a cattle dipping point. I suggested to the group that they develop their pattern around a general focal point – which could be different activities or elements in different contexts. The group developed a pattern for an active space that was defined by paths leading to a focal point. The group also felt it was important to add seating on the edges of the space – for people to sit while they waited for others to arrive at the space.

Group 3 Busy
Group 2’s pattern for busy spaces

Group 2 wanted to focus on the shape of a busy social space as well as its proportions and suggested that a wide (as opposed to narrow) rectangle or square would be best. There is some similarity between this pattern and the pattern above in terms of how active spaces include paths or movement routes that cross and converge.

Group 2 Busy
Group 3’s pattern for busy spaces

Similarly Group 3’s pattern also included criss-crossing paths but their discussion of their pattern was more focused around where people would want to sit. This group felt that benches should be placed on the edges of busy spaces to prevent others from listening to conversations. Their pattern also included a water feature to create white noise.

Group 4 Busy
Group 4’s pattern for busy spaces

Group 4’s pattern for social spaces was an island bench that connected to other spaces.


Alexander, C., Ishikawa, S., Silverstein, M., Jacobson, M., Fiksdahl-King, I. and Angel, S. 1977. A Pattern Language: Towns Buildings Construction. Oxford University Press: New York.

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