“The less you do, the stranger it all seems.”
Dallas Clayton

Christopher Alexander – Centers

“We may consider any configuration in the world, a building, a street, a room full of people, a forest. Each has its wholeness. By that I mean that there are visible within that thing, a huge number of entities, at different scales … and that the totality of these entities with the way they are nested constitute the wholeness of the thing. We may think of these entities as parts (as they may sometimes seem to us) or as local wholes or sub-wholes. But, as I have illustrated in the case of the sheet of paper and the dot, these parts and entities are rarely pre-existing. They are more often themselves created by the wholeness. This apparent paradox is a fundamental issue in the nature of wholeness: the wholeness is made of parts, the parts are created by the wholeness. To understand wholeness we must have a conception in which ‘parts’ and wholes work in this holistic way.

… I have learned to call them … ‘centers.’ What this means is that each one of these entities has, as its defining mark, the fact that it appears to exist as a local center within a larger whole.

There is a mathematical reason for thinking of the coherent entities in the world as centers not as wholes. If I want to be accurate about a whole it is natural for me to ask where that whole starts and stops. Suppose, for example, I am talking about a fishpond, and want to call it a whole. To be accurate about it in a mathematical theory, I want to be able to draw a precious boundary around this whole, and say for each point in space whether it is part of this set of points or not. But this is very hard to do. Obviously the water is part of the fishpond. What about the concrete it is made of ..? the air which is just about the pond? … the pipes bringing in the water? These are uncomfortable questions … The pond does exist. Our trouble is that we don’t know how to define it exactly. But the trouble comes from referring to it as a ‘whole.’ That kind of terminology seems to make it necessary for me to draw an exact boundary … That is the mistake.

When I call a pond a center, the situation changes … the fuzziness of edges becomes less problematic. The reason is that the pond, as an entity, is focused towards its center. It creates a field of centeredness. But, obviously, this effect falls off … the organization of the pond is caused by a field effect in which the various elements work together to produce this phenomenon of a center. This is true physically … and it is also true mentally in my perception of that pond … The same is true for window, door, walls, or arch. None of them can be exactly bounded. They are all entities which have a fuzzy edge, and whose existence lies in the fact that they exist as centers in the portion of the world which they inhabit.

… if I call it a center, it already tells me something extra … it makes me aware of the larger pattern of things, and the way this particular element … fits into that pattern.

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life

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