Marxism and A Pattern Language

The preparation for the Radical EC1 Walk continues with the usual diversions and tangents and books being brought together without obvious connections. I’ve been reading Communitas by Percival and Paul Goodman, a lot of Christopher Alexander and the first chapter of the Grundrisse.

I suspect I understand about 10 percent of what Alexander and Marx are saying but both are immensely enjoyable to read. There are moments of great illumination which light up the sometimes obscure and hidden path to knowledge.

Alexander’s three books, The Timeless Way of Building, A Pattern Language and The Oregon Experiment (I’ve not read the latter) cover much more than architecture, design and planning. Which is how it should be as these areas cannot be separated from life in general, how we live, and why we live in the ways we do.

The Grundrisse covers much more than money and capital. Marx takes a process such as exchange and carries out a forensic examination of what is actually happening. This changes our perception not just of exchange and the commodity-object, but also of reality.

It may be off-beam, and a theoretical ambition destined to be broken by its own incoherence, but could a relationship between Marxism and A Pattern Language be established?

Some key ideas of Marx include:

  • Material basis of history
  • Creation of surplus
  • Division of society into classes
  • Private property
  • Exploitation of labour-power
  • Production of commodities
  • Competition within production
  • Accumulation of capital
  • Expansion of capital
  • Alienation
  • Oppression
  • Material basis for the destruction of capitalism
  • Liberation of humanity

These determinants can all be used as starting points (and can be integrated as multiple starting points) to critique capitalist society itself. They can also be used as the wider, general context in which the specific philosophy and technical elements of A Pattern Language can be understood.

The individual physical objects which are put together to create a building – doors, windows, bricks, floorboards, light fittings, sink, toilet, heating system, internet connections, door handles, roof tiles, skirting boards and so on – are all created using highly standardised mass production techniques.

Within capitalist society these objects are all created as commodities with the primary function as exchange-values; to be sold for profit. This determines their quality and the conditions they are produced within.

The commodity-objects themselves are highly visible. We are surrounded by them. Not just as primary objects (doors, windows, floorboards, clothes, books, kitchen utensils, individual food items and so on).

But also as agglomerate items such as buildings where different components are assembled as a whole. This mass of commodity-objects, all products of human labour-power, form the material basis, the visual expression, of the spectacle of capitalism.

However the conditions of production are highly invisible to most people most of the time. It is known generally that all production within capitalism is predicated on exploitation of labour-power. But the only people who really know what the conditions of production are like in individual factories and workshops, transportation systems and warehouses, are the people who work in these places. Their voices and experiences are rarely heard.

Alexander was a practising architect, builder and Professor of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley. His interests were in the human basis of environmental structure, human sensory experience in the built environment and the social character and coherence of buildings and their locations and surrounding spaces.

Form and function cannot be mechanically reduced to the class struggle. The shape and arrangement of individual components of a building – the doors, windows, bricks and so on are determined by physical necessity. The components of the building must meet functional requirements such as keeping the heat in and the weather out.

For a door to be a door it must follow a certain technical determinism. It must fit the door frame (whether that frame is square, round or triangular is irrelevant) and it must be possible to open and close and secure (against the wind if nothing else). If it fails to met the technical requirements then it isn’t a door.

But the implications of Marx’s key determinants (see above) on the pattern language can be more clearly seen where many buildings are bought together in an urban area. Here the influence of private property, the dominance of capital, the drive to accumulate capital and make profit within the conditions of competition, are highly visible.

What has this to do with EC1, (or anywhere else for that matter)? Well because parts of EC1 could be up for grabs. Or, to be less subtle, redevelopment. In the grim world of post-modernism this usually means large towers made of steel and concrete draped with glass. These edifices are dominated by right -angles (with the occasional startling and eccentric exception) giving rise to a competition of facades.

It has struck me while walking around Long Lane, Cloth Street, Middle Street, Newbury Street, Bartholomew Close, West Smithfield, Charterhouse Square and Cowcross Street (roughly the route of the walk) that there is a great deal to see here.

Not in terms of ‘iconic’ (a lazy term) buildings or the faux-populism of a ‘Walkie Talkie’ or ‘Gherkin’. But something more subtle and on a friendly-scale. And many elements described in A Pattern Language, including, but certainly not limited to:












It is impossible to measure a great deal (if any) of the Pattern Language in terms of weight, price, value, worth and all those other odd social relationships dominated by money (the strangest of objects).

The risk is that things that cannot easily be measured are eliminated by things that can be measured, and costed and expressed in finance systems and spreadsheets. This is how commodification and monetization is applied and takes shape.

The Grundrisse, The Timeless Way of Building and Communitas are not obviously connected but they come together surprisingly well.

And make good starting points for thinking about how urbanity might change, and dare we say, be improved.

But ‘improvement’ is a keyword; which means it is a carrier of class interests, class power and relationships of class.

The term ‘improvement’ currently embodies immense contradictions, conflicts and tensions which will not be resolved in a battle of ideas, but in the dissolution of private property.

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