There are actually three books by Alexander and his team; the first is called a Timeless Way of Building, I’ve not read it, but I think it lays out his view on what makes architecture ‘timeless’ as opposed to ‘modern’ or ‘classical’.
I don’t know how important it is to read because all the best stuff is in the second book; A Pattern Language.
Each ‘Pattern’ is a short description of a problem or conflict involving the built environment/society, followed by an argument for the particular solution. The solution is defined as a principle which should be adheared to, but implemented in whatever ways the context and participants decide.
The patterns start from a regional scale, becoming smaller in focus, right down to suggestions for materials and methods of construction. They are written in order to re-inforce each other, supporting and overlaping each other in different ways for different design projects; such as city centre planning, or a house for a family. In this way the patterns can be swapped and reordered like a language. Each pattern is graded according to the authors idea of wheather is absolutely vital or more of a hunch that feels good.
I’ll give you a few examples. (although my problem here is that when I describe a pattern it will sound really dull, but believe me it is a beautifully written and illustrated book that touches me every time I open it).
Some of the patterns suggest forms that are so simple and obvious and yet are alien in most modern design, like the appropriate size of a public square, the need for low walls instead of benches for people who want to linger but not commit themsleves to acctual sitting, the need for water features that people can put their feet into and children can play in.
Other patterns say something about society, such as the need for places for young people to hang out and for old people to hang out that overlap and bring them together. And the need for fittness centres to be combined with hospitals so that health and sick centres are not separated.
There is one pattern called The Marrige Bed. It says that the bed of a couple should not be bought from Ikea and plonked into the biggest bedroom, but rather the bed itself should be made by the couple and the room shaped around it.
Windows should not be drawn on the plan, but rather placed during construction so that the view is ‘just right’. Rooms should have some built-in seats, because they feel good.
There are also practical patterns that deal with details but I can’t think of them now.
I think there is a website with a list of the patterns but they wont mean anything without the content. The book is expensive but its worth it. And there is always the library.
The third book is called the Oregon Experiment, which documents the architect’s application of the pattern language in designing and building a universtity campus. I haven’t read that either. But its more about the process he went though, and I think if you have the second book then you will just create your own process.
In a posting above Matt said that Alexander’s background was in Game theory or something. As a system it may be applied to other fields but I don’t think that adds or subtracts anything from the potential of using the pattern language to create more humane environments. The book is all about architecture, but its written for everyone, and its quite radically against the orthodoxies of the construction industry.
To be honest you will have to buy it to believe it.