Frequently Asked Questions about the

University's use of the Pattern Language

Last Updated: February 7, 2014

Q. What is a "Pattern Language?"

A. The term "pattern language" is best known from the book of the same title, A Pattern Language (New York: Oxford UP, 1977), by Christopher Alexander, who, in the early 1970s, helped the University of Oregon develop its planning process. The process and its constituent components are described more fully in Alexander's 1975 book The Oregon Experiment (New York: Oxford UP). The purpose of developing a pattern language was to provide a non-technical vocabulary of design principles that would allow those who work, study, and/or live in buildings to communicate effectively with the planners and designers of those buildings.


Q. What is a pattern?

A. In Alexander's own words, "... we may define a pattern as any general planning principle, which states a clear problem that may occur repeatedly in the environment, states the range of contexts in which this problem will occur, and gives the general features required by all buildings or plans which will solve this problem." (The Oregon Experiment, p. 101) These patterns ideally function together as words in a sentence, creating a cohesive whole built on a common design language, the pattern language.


Q. What is the Oregon Experiment?

A. The Oregon Experiment refers to a 1970s planning project, which established a new campus planning process for the University of Oregon. It outlined six fundamental principles that guide the planning process on campus. These principles are organic order, piecemeal growth (or continuous adaptation), patterns, diagnosis, participation, and coordination. The term "Oregon Experiment" comes from Christopher Alexander (who wrote three books based on the experience of working with the University of Oregon in the early 1970s: The Oregon Experiment, A Pattern Language, and A Timeless Way of Building). The Oregon Experiment was adopted as the University of Oregon's planning process in the early 1970s. In 1991, it was integrated into the planning processes and policies established in the 1991 Long Range Campus Development Plan. In 2005, the plan was updated and modified, but the essence of the 1991 document, including the underlying Oregon Experiment principles, was retained.


Q. What is the main premise of this planning process?

A. The main premise is to have a planning process that makes development decisions on an ongoing basis rather than relying upon a static "fixed image" master plan. This concept acknowledges the fact that although change will occur, the exact nature and magnitude of that change cannot be predicted with any degree of certainty, and that object-oriented plans based on explicit assumptions about the future become outdated as that "future" becomes known. Tied in with the idea that planning is a continual process, the process honors the university's tradition of meaningful consultation with user-groups on campus.


Q. What is a user group?

A. A user group is a combination of faculty, staff, and students who will use the proposed facility, along with representatives from neighboring buildings, the Campus Planning Committee, and one of the relevant design departments (architecture, landscape architecture, or interior design). The user group is directly involved in the design process, acting as the university's client representative. It is responsible for establishing the building program, selecting the architect, and meeting with the architect throughout the design process. A more thorough explanation of the roles of user groups can be found here.


Q. Which patterns does the university use in its planning and design?

A. About seventy patterns in the Campus Plan apply to development on campus (A Pattern Language outlines more than 250 patterns). Some of these patterns have campus-wide applications, and others respond to specific issues and/or regions of campus. As intended, new patterns are created for individual projects to respond to specific design elements.


Q. How has the planning process changed?

A. One of the main ideas behind the Oregon Experiment is that we need to be able to adapt to changes in campus development that we may not have anticipated. The application of patterns rather than reliance on a fixed-image master plan is effective in accommodating change. In 1991, a new Long Range Campus Development Plan created a systematic way to describe the university's campus planning norms, traditions, and policies that had evolved of the course of the institution's history, including the use of patterns and the fundamental principles of the Oregon Experiment. In 2005, the update process (and subsequent amendments), established new patterns and policies to respond to changing needs and to better define the planning process. Refer to the current Campus Plan for a full description of the current planning process.


Q. What led the university to work with Christopher Alexander?

A. The University of Oregon enjoyed several decades of successful planning and building under the supervision of Ellis F. Lawrence. Following Lawrence's death in 1946 and in response to post-war demands and ideals, the buildings and campus plans of the 1950s and 1960s departed from Lawrence's design concepts. Several building projects seemed disconnected from the campus and the users. There had already been a tradition of user participation in planning at the University of Oregon, and there was a feeling that the planning process had become too rigid. At the same time, Alexander (as head of the Center for Environmental Structures in Berkeley) was working with his colleagues on developing ways to relate people to the places in which they live or work. He was already trying to develop these concepts into a practical system and planning policy, which was just what the University of Oregon was looking for, and he was soon hired.


Q. How can I participate in the planning process?

A. You can get involved with a user group. You can volunteer to serve on the Campus Planning Committee. There are also opportunities to attend Campus Planning Committee meetings and provide comments on projects. In addition, many projects also have informational meetings or focus groups with which one can get involved. For more information, contact Campus Planning and Real Estate at (541) 346-5562.


Q. What aspect of the Oregon Experiment has been most effective?

A. Participation continues to be a fundamental element of the planning process at the University of Oregon. The process of including users, neighbors, designers, and planners in the planning/design process is key. In order to be most effective, those involved work together to solve design issues that arise.

This type of group participation differs from most other design processes in which a designer may ask for feedback from users, but the users rarely are involved in the designing or planning itself. Participation is effected through the use of user groups and also in the Campus Planning Committee for which anyone can volunteer.

The use of patterns is also a great strength of the planning process. Though development needs can change and be adjusted, the use of patterns remains an effective way of maintaining shared traditions and understandings in the design process at the University of Oregon.


Q. What aspects of the Oregon Experiment have been least effective?

A. Alexander's suggestion to have the user group develop a schematic design before hiring an architect has not been effective. Users still participate in the schematic design process, but it has been much more effective for them to work with the assistance of architects.

Another principle that has not been fully implemented is that of "piecemeal growth." The idea of piecemeal growth is to distribute funds in a way that allows for incremental improvements across campus through small building projects. This strategy has been difficult to implement because all campus projects must go through the Oregon State Legislature, which tends to favor larger building projects. Small projects are still accomplished, but not to the extent originally envisioned in the Oregon Experiment by the principle of piecemeal growth.