“Upon death, we take with us only what we have given.”
Charles Eisenstein

Sacred Economics

Christopher Alexander – The Fifteen Properties in Nature

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I chose to do a brief summary of this section, giving preference to the wholeness of the theme of the properties in nature (over giving more attention to each property). It was a journey, first reading through it, not knowing how/what to extract. By the time I read through, certain excerpts popped out of the latter properties and gave shape to this whole summary. All the images are inspired by the text though collected from the vastness of the internet (so inspired by and similar, but not the same as those in the book).

“If we are to use the theory of centers – and the concept of life – as the basis of all architecture, it would be reassuring to know that wholeness, together with the properties which bring centers to life, is a necessary feature of material reality, not merely a psychological aspect of things which arises during perception of works of art.

… According to a ‘cognitive’ interpretation, the centers could merely exist in the mind’s eye … and the fifteen properties … could also exist merely as artifacts of cognition …

… I shall argue that nature too is understandable in terms of wholeness … I shall try to show that the structure of centers I call wholeness goes deeper than mere cognition, is linked to the functional and practical behavior of the natural world … and is as much at the foundation of physics and biology as it is of architecture.

1: Levels of Scale

… in any system where there is good functional order it is necessary that there be functional coherence at different levels, hence necessary that there are recognizable hierarchies in the organization of these functional systems.

electrical discharge

 

mud cracks

2: Strong Centers

Many natural processes have centers of action. The action, or development, of force-field radiates outwards from some system of centers … In physics we hae the fact that electric, magnetic, gravitational, and nuclear forces are created by spatially symmetrical fields, thus often creating centrally and bilaterally symmetrical structures.

 

common spotted orchid

 

coral

3: Boundaries

In nature, we see many systems with powerful, thick boundaries. The thick boundaries evolve as a result of the need for functional separations and transitions between different systems. They occur essentially because wherever two very different phenomena interact, there is also a ‘zone of interaction’ which is a thin in itself, as important as the things which it separates.

the sun’s corona

 

Rio Negro joins the Amazon

4: Alternating Repetition

In nature most of the repetitions which occur are alternating … Repetition itself of course occurs simply because there are only a limited number of archetypal forms available, and the same ones repeat over and over again, whenever the same conditions occur … In most of these cases of natural repetition, the repeating units do alternate with a second structure, which also repeats … The defining feature for alternating repetition lies in the fact that the secondary centers are coherent in their own right, are not left over.

fern leaf

 

muscle fiber

5: Positive Space

In the majority of naturally developed wholes, the wholes and the spaces between wholes form an unbroken continuum. This arises because wholes from ‘from the inside’ according to their specific functional organization … the positiveness of the space – what we might also call the convexity and compactness of the centers which form – is the outward manifestation of internal coherence in the physical system.

crazing in porcelain glaze

 

soap bubbles

6: Good Shape

Good shape is a geometrical figure – often curved – which has in it some major center that is intensified by various minor centers.

Tulip leaf

 

Chladni figures

7: Local Symmetries

In general these symmetries occur in nature because there is no reason for asymmetry; an asymmetry only occurs when it is forced … In addition, the existence of local symmetries in nature corresponds to the existence of minimum energy and least-action principles. In the majority of these cases, it is also the presence of layer upon layer of subsymmetry at smaller scales which is important.

crystal growth

 

Dwarf Dogwood

8: Deep Interlock and Ambiguity

Deep interlock comes about in many natural systems because neighboring systems interact most easily along extended or enlarged surfaces, where the surface area is large compared with the volume … Ambiguity, a similar phenomenon, comes about when a subsystem belongs to two different overlapping larger systems. One of the most important and dramatic example … exists in the case of the molecule … the molecule is given its structure by the overlap of the electrons in the outer electron shells of the component atoms … the stability of the molecule … is determined by the depth of overlap or interpenetration of the electron shells.

cross section of a cerebellum

 

magnetic domain

 

a giraffe’s coat

9: Contrast

Many – perhaps all – natural systems obtain their organization and energy from the interaction of opposites … It would be extremely hard to show, from first principles, why contrast must arise, necessarily, as a property of any naturally occurring system, and one wonders whether the matter is not merely cognitive. We read contrast; our cognition depends on it; therefore we think its important. And yet, the fundamental contrast of dark and light, positive and negative, can hardly be an artifact of our cognition.

Purple Emperor butterfly

10: Gradients

… Any time that a quantity varies systematically, through space, a gradient is established … The idea of regular gradient-like variation is fundamental to the whole integral and differential calculus, and it is the fact that these mathematical tools are closely mirrored in many phenomena of nature that is essentially responsible to the success mathematical physics has had.

Spider Web

 

Nautilus Shell

11: Roughness

An irregular world struggling to be regular always achieves a certain level of regularity which is interrupted by unusual configurations created by the very forces that produce the regularity as they act against a framework of three-dimensional constraints inherent in space … Roughness, far from being caused by inaccuracy … occurs where there is a partial misfit between a very well defined order and the space or configuration where it occurs. This forces an apparent irregularity, not for its own sake but to create a greater regularity.

A raft of bubbles, representing crystal dislocations, shows that roughness is inevitable in crystal growth under natural conditions

 

zebra stripes

12: Echoes

In all natural systems, deep-lying fundamental processes ultimately give geometric forms to the static structure of the system. These processes repeat certain typical angles and proportions over and over again, and it is the statistical character of these angles and proportions which determines the morphological character of the system and its parts – even within parts which seem superficially different.

x-ray of a lily

 

Everest – North Ridge

13: The Void

The void corresponds to the fact that differentiation of minor systems almost always occur in relation to the ‘quiet’ of some larger and more stable system. Thus smaller structures tend to appear around the edge of larger and more homogeneous structures.

eye of storm

 

Void in river valley

14: Simplicity and Inner Calm

Simplicity and inner calm is the Occam’s razor of any natural system: each configuration occurring in nature is the simplest one consistent with its conditions.

ginko leaf x-ray

15: Not-Separateness

Not-separateness corresponds to the fact that there is no perfect isolation of any system , and that each part of every system is always part of the larger system in the world around it and is connected to them deeply in its behavior.

edge of a lake

Summary

From the examples in this chapter, we see that the fifteen properties appear again and again throughout nature. They occur and recur at every scale … Virtually always, the specific structure of centers in a given case can be explained as a result of forces and processes which are mechanical in the conventional sense … However, such mechanical explanations do not explain why the properties themselves keep showing up.

… The reason that a human blood cell has a thick boundary is that it ‘needs’ a processing zone, where inputs to the cell are filtered and distributed before reaching the nucleus … The reason that the Rio Tapajos has an immense boundary when it enters the water of the Amazon is that the silt deposits which come down the river are hurled out into the water of the larger river, creating a chain of islands along both sides of the stream, for nearly one hundred miles … the reason that the sun has a thick boundary – the corona … is a temperature gradient from the hot interior of the sun to the cold of outer space … It does not seem possible to dismiss the appearance of thick boundaries as meaningless or as a coincidence. One guesses that there must be some higher order explanation …

… One wonders, then, if there might be a more general language for talking about function than the one we are used to …”

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

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Christopher Alexander – The Family of Living Systems

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“Together, the fifteen properties identify the character of living systems…

The things and systems in the world which are most dead – the most image-laden buildings and artifacts, the most sterile housing projects, the most damaged ecological systems, the most poisoned streams – will have these properties to the least degree.

Thus, although these properties define a vast family of possible placed and objects amd systems, all the member of this family have life in some degree … the fifteen properties define the enormous family of systems, among all possible systems, which have life in them.

The fact that it is possible to characterize this family at all is surprising. The family which is so defined is very complex morphologically…

… It is not too much to say that any building which has life in it, must be a recognizable member of this family. Any doorknow whichhas life, any window, any garden path, which has life in it, must be a recognizable member of this family.”

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

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Christopher Alexander – Fundamental Property 15: Not-Separateness

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… this one touched me personally. As I collected  it I sensed a poignant self-critical voice rising up “this so describes, separate from the world” … but I didn’t like or resonate with the “egocentric” implication. As the initial impact passed, I came to realize that “no, this does not describe me” … that my feeling separate is not just about me but about the surroundings in which I reside. There are settings that make me feel separate, but there are settings that make me feel integrated. Granted, there seems to be in my life more of the former than the latter … but that very difference is a testament to non-separateness … there is no “me” without a context.

… I wonder how Christopher Alexander felt when he was trying to work true to his approach in a professional environment that resisted living structures … and what it was like for him to fight for the right to teach this to students … did he experience being separate in these hostile environments?

“… What not-separateness means, quite simply, is that we experience a living whole as being at one with the world, and not separate from it …

In a center which is deeply coherent there is a lack of separation … between that center and the other centers which surround it, so that the various centers melt into one another and become inseparable …

… when a thing lacks life, is not whole, we experience it as being separate from the world and from itself. It stands out … This house is utterly isolated. It is intended to stand out. And it does stand out as an awkward triumph of egocentricity. It fails, thoroughly, to be not-separate.

The “X” house, New York. Not-separateness entirely missing: separate and ego-filled

This is, finally, perhaps the most important property of all. In my experiments with shapes and buildings, I have discovered that the other fourteen ways in which centers come to life will make a center which is compact, beautiful, determined, subtle – but which, without this fifteenth property, can still often somehow be strangely separate, cut off from what lies around it, lonely, awkward in its loneliness, too brittle, too sharp, perhaps too well delineated – above all too egocentric, because it shouts ‘look at me, look at me, look at how beautiful I am.’

Those unusual things which have the power to heal, the depth and inner light of real wholeness, are never like this. They are never separate, always connected. With them, usually, you cannot really tell where one thins breaks off and the next begins, because the thing is smokily drawn into the world around it, and softly draws this world into itself. It connects. It asserts the continuity of space, the continuity of all of us …

Not-separateness in an ancient English wheat barn

… The correct connection to the world will only be made if you are conscious, willing, that the thing you make be indistinguishable from its surroundings, that, truly, you cannot tell where one ends and the next begins, and you do not even want to be able to do so.

The sophisticated version of this rule, which comes about when we apply the rule recursively to its own products … which ties the whole together inside itself, which never allows one part to be too proud, to stand out too sharp against the next, but assures that each part melts into its neighbors, just as the whole melts into its neighbors, too.

A path which is connected to the earth

… This quality, geometrically, depends especially on the state of the boundary. In things which have not-separateness, there is often a fragmented boundary, an incomplete edge, which destroys the hard line … Often, too, there is a gradient at the boundary, a soft edge caused by a gradient in which scale decreases … this is why things get smaller at the edge – it destroys the hard edge. Finally, the actual boundary is sometimes rather careless, deliberately placed to avoid any simple complete sharp cutting off of the thing from its surroundings … “

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

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Yoga Practice Reflection – Sping 2018

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It’s been a while since I’ve posted a practice review. I am not much inclined to doing so. I am in a period of relative silence, not inclined to talking too much (especially if not asked to). So this is mostly note-taking for myself.

This is what my current practice looks like this (this is a short-hand anotation that presumes familiarity with this style of practice):

It’s built around the same skeleten is has been for ~3 years. A couple of new ideas were introduced last year when I met with Paul face-to-face. It has been through continuous unfolding.

Last year was a hectic year and felt very disruptful to my practice: my trip to Hawaii, my yearly allergy, Iulia injuring herself, my attempt to be involved in Ceptr/Holochain … and other “life happenings”. Whenin fall, I felt settled into practice I felt like I had a long journey of recovery ahead of me. I chose to skip my yearly visit to Israel to meet my teachers, preferring to enter a prolonged period of undisturbed practice. Sometime in early January I felt that I “caught up with myself” – that I reconnected with an experience of stable containment and vitality.

Gradually I felt I was able to inhabit a full practice (as described above) and it too has been continuously unfolding. In the initial phase (first half of winter) I felt a return to presence-in-body. Then I felt a return to a beath-development cycle. When I felt vitality returning I re-introduced back-bends. I then gradually extended seated forward bends to include stays in maha-mudra (initially staying for 2 breaths, then 4) until maha-mudra became its own place.

The last piece added to the puzzle was the seated-twist. Though I already had a relationship with it last year, I felt that I did not have the vitality to hold it, that it drained me. When I finally felt welcome to bring it in, the meeting was soft and welcoming.

During this time I also did a 1-on-1 training with Paul around chanting. I’ve been familiar with chanting from my years of training with Paul, but I never studied it officially. Now I have, and I feel drawn in. I feel softness and spaciousness at the notion of softening my grip on my physical body and acquainting myself with my vibrational body. In chanting Paul has invited me to focus less on the meaning of the words and more on an experience of sustained vibration generated through subtle aspects of sounded-sanskrit.

The practice is now about two hours long. It occupies the first part of my day (unless life diverts my attention elsewhere).

Pranayama

When I met Paul 14 months ago I received 4 practice variations:

  1. 10.0.10.0 x8br pratiloma ujjayi
    12.0.12.0 x8br pratiloma ujjayi
    15.0.15.0 x8br pratiloma ujjayi
    8.0.8.0 x8br pratiloma ujjayi
    4.0.4.0 x4br ujjayi
  2. 10.0.10.0 x8br pratiloma ujjayi
    12.0.12.0 x8br pratiloma ujjayi
    12.4.12.4 x8br pratiloma ujjayi
    8.0.8.0 x8br pratiloma ujjayi
    4.0.4.0 x4br ujjayi
  3. 8.0.12.0 x8br pratiloma ujjayi
    12.0.12.0 x8br pratiloma ujjayi
    12.4.12.4 x8br pratiloma ujjayi
    8.0.8.0 x8br pratiloma ujjayi
    4.0.4.0 x4br ujjayi
  4. 12.0.12.0 x16br pratiloma ujjayi
    6.0.6.0 x8br pratiloma ujjayi
    4.0.4.0 x4br ujjayi

I explored almost the entire set last winter/early spring. After settling back into practice I started over. I started with variant 3 and then moved to variant 2. By mid-January I felt that I was ready to move onto variant 1, but then experienced blockage coming and going mostly in my right nostril. I was able to hold variant 2, but not to move on. I feel I’ve learned something about my blocked nasal passages (its subtle and I may try to go into more detail in a separate post). I am now transitioning to variant 1. It is my default practice, though on days where I feel blocked, I may still revert to variant 2.

I feel that I have an increased breathing capacity (that I could softly transition also to variant 4), but that the nasal blockage is holding me back.

 

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Christopher Alexander – Fundamental Property 14: Simplicity and Inner Calm

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“Wholeness, life, has a way of being always simple …

It has to do with a certain slowness, majesty, quietness, which I think of as inner calm. It is present in this Shaker cabinet … but is almost totally missing from the peculir stylized Italian chairs from the 1920’s.

The quality comes about when everything unnecessary is removed. All centers that are not actively supporting other centers are stripped out, cut out, excised. What is left, when boiled away, is the structuer in a state of inner calm. It is essential that the great beauty and intricacy of ornament go only just far enough to bring this calm into being, and not so far that it destroys it …

Simplicity and inner calm is not only to be produced by simplicity … the wild Norwegian dragon … has inner calm even though it is so complex … So it is not true that outward simplicity creates inner calm; it is only inner simplicity, true simplicity of heart, which creates it.”

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

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Christopher Alexander – Fundamental Property 13: The Void

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The rug pictured below is “similar” (not identical) to the one shown in the book … I chose it for its void quality over some of the other finer qualities in the sample shown in the book.

“In the most profound centers which have perfect wholeness, there is at the heart a void which is like water, infinite in depth, surrounded by and contrasted with the clutter of the stuff and fabric all around it …

In the Ghiordes prayer rug … this takes the form of the deep blue emptiness at the center. It connects with the infinite void, and also the the center of oneself.

… the altar in a church … it is the silence, at the heart

To understand the quality of the void clearly, a contrast between two examples is helpful once again: the plan of the mosque of Baybard in Cairo, contrasted with the plan of a typical American office building  of the 1970s. In the center of the mosque we experience the void. In the office building, there is merely an endless clutter and buzz. Nothing is still …

the Cairo Mosque of Baybars

 

Typical office building

This emptiness is needed, in some form, by every center … It is the quiet that draws the center’s energy of itself, gives it the basis of its strength …

A living structure can’t be all detail. The buzz finally diffuses itself, and destroys its own structure.”

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

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Living in Darkness

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A … I don’t quite know how to describe it … softly meandering … through … it all???? … tale of circles, light, dark, change, war, peace, love, pain, death … and deep surrender … and Jennifer.

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Christopher Alexander – Fundamental Property 12: Echoes

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” … there is a deep underlying similarity – a family resemblance – among the elements, so deep that everything seems to be related, and yet one doesn’t quite know why, or what causes it. That is what I mean by ‘echoes.’ Echoes, as far as I can tell, depend o the angles, and families of angles, which are prevalent in the design.

… This family resemblance can be illustrated most easily by a negative example: the building by Michelangelo … is, of all the building I know, the most hopeless hodgepodge. It is a salad of motifs and elements. Squares, circles, broken circles, triangles, are pasted together in a riot of disharmony …

… in the Himalayan monastery all the parts – stones, caps, doors, and steps – are heavily square with a line and a shallow angle … In Thyangboche, the monastery in the foothills of Everest, we feel in some profound and subtle way that this building is part of the mountains: part of the Himalayas themselves. The angles of the roofs, the way the small roof sits on the larger roof, the ‘peak’ on the largest roof, the band below the roof edge – all reflect or echo one another, and echo the structural feeling of the mountains themselves.

… in the houses from Alberabello all the motifs are cone-like …

… If something has been made without some echoes of this type, the chances are that ertain deep requirements have been ignored, and the variety of non-echoing forms will cause various functional failures …”

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

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Christopher Alexander – Fundamental Property 11: Roughness

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This is one of the patterns that resonate deeply with me. It makes me feel at ease, relaxed, it gives me permission to do what I feel needs to be done without having to know in advance how everything will come together. It invites me to trust my choices and to trust that tending to well to what is before me now is the best thing I can do “in the grand scheme of things.”

“Things which have real life always have a certain ease, a morphological roughness. This is not an accidental property. It is not a residue of technically inferior culture, or the result of hand-craft or inaccuracy. It is an essential structural feature without which a thing cannot be whole.

The Persian bowl … is covered by mall designs (sinekli) made of two blows and two strokes … They are rough, in the sense that the size of the individual brush strokes, their exact spacing, and the exact shape and length of stroke all vary from one to the next …

It is intuitively clear that this subtle variation is partly responsible for the charm and harmony of this bowl … we probably attribute this charm to the fact that the bowl is handmade … trace of human hand … we know therefore that it is personal, full of human error.

This interpretation is fallacious., and has entirely the wrong emphasis. The reason that this roughness in the design contributes so greatly to the wholeness of the bowl is that a perfect triangular grid of the kind used here, cannot be made to fill a spherical surface properly …

Indeed, throughout the design the subtle variation of the brush strokes and their spacing, are done in such a way … each one is placed, by eye, just exactly where it needs to be … When the painter painted the strokes, he could do this almost without thinking … it is this which makes the bowl so perfect …

Often the border of ancient carpet is ‘irregular’ where it goes round the corner, that is the design breaks, and the corner seems ‘patched together.’ This does not happen through carelessness or inaccuracy. On the contrary, it happens because the weaver is paying close attention to the the positive and negative, to the alternating repetition of the border, to the good shape of each compartment …  To keep all of them just right along the length of the border, some loose and makeshift composition must be done at the corner.

If the weaver wanted to calculate or plot our a so called ‘perfect’ solution to the corner … these would all be determined mechanistically by outside considerations, i.e., by the grid of the border … The corner design would then dominate the design in a way which would destroy the weaver’s ability to do what is just right at each point. The life of the design would be destroyed.

… The seemingly rough arrangement is more precise because it comes from a much more careful guarding of the essential centers in the design.

… Roughness can never be consciously or deliberately created. Then it is merely contrived. To make a thing live, its roughness must be the product of endlessness, the product of no will … Roughness is always the product of abandon – it is created whenever a person is truly free, and doing only what is essential

… Roughness does not seek to superimpose an arbitrary order over a design, but instead lets the larger order be relaxed, modified according to the demands and constraints which happen locally in different parts of the design.”

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

 

 

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Some good clay advice: stop for just a moment

n

Beautiful work and heart. Hearing about narratives in his works made me look inside and wonder what would my narratives be? I (still) cannot see them … I felt naked.

via Iulia 🙂

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Christopher Alexander – Fundamental Property 10: Gradients

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“… Gradients must arise in the world when the world is in harmony with itself simply because conditions vary. Qualities vary, so centers which are adapted to them respond by varying in size, spacing, intensity and character. Daylight varies from the top floor of an urban building to the bottom floor: both windows and ceiling heights will probably have to vary to adapt to these conditions …

… These gradients will also form centers because the field-like character which is needed to make every strong center is precisely that oriented, changing conditions which ‘points’ towards the center of the center …

Buildings and artifacts without gradients are more mechanical. They have less life to them, because there is no slow variation which reveals the inner wholeness …

… although gradients are commonplace in nature … and in much traditional folk art, they are nearly non-existent in much of the modern environment. That is, I think, because the naive forms of standardization, mass production … and regulation of sizes … all work against the formation of gradients, and almost do not allow them to occur.

… In the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge there is a fine gradation of cell size, member size, ad plate thickness, from the top of the tower, to the bottom, to economize on steel, and place the most material where it is needed most by stresses.”

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

see also: Paul Krafel: Gradients and Edges

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Christopher Alexander – Fundamental Property 9: Contrast

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“… Life cannot occur without differentiation. Unity can only be created from distinctness. This means that every center is made from discernible opposites, and intensified when the not-center, against which it is opposed, is clarified, and itself becomes a center … in order for the thing to be truly whole, the contrast has to be pronounced … the most important contrasts do not merely show variety of form … but represent true opposites, which essentially annihilate each other when they are superimposed … awareness of silence created by a hand-clap …

In the case of the Shaker classroom … the two bands of wood above shoulder level, because of contrast, form a definite center which would not be there or felt strongly – if the wood were pale … The center which is so formed helps the room to become one, unified …

In the glaring lobby staircase … the contrast – between dark stair and bright window – does not unify … It is not contrast created in order to help centers become alive. IT is either a mistake, or an eye-catching device.

I use this rule to help people understand the fifteen properties: ‘Draw diagrams … sketch something, which has the property in it. But it is not enough to catch the property as you believe it is defined. To succeed, you must make a thing which has the property, and which gains deeper feeling because of the presence of the property. Only when you have managed that, can you be sure that the meaning of the property has not eluded you.’ … only when you … make the thing have deeper feeling, can you say you have grasped the property.

… contrast is also practically necessary: the shop in the neighborhood is different from the houses next to it. The front door is different from the back door … The light i the bedroom is different from the light in the passage. In case after case evidence suggests that the sharp extended and visible differences between things which are different allows each center to make its proper nature. It permits more intensive attention to individual functions. And it creates a feeling of distinction which relaxes people, because it acknowledges and permits different dimensions of experience.”

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

I’ve done a bit of editing to demonstrate the simulation for the Shaker Schoolroom:

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Christopher Alexander – Fundamental Property 8: Deep Interlock and Ambiguity

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Images selected by me inspired by the ones shown in the book.

“In a surprisingly large number of cases, living structures contain some form of interlock: situations where centers are ‘hooked’ into their surroundings. This has the effect of making it difficult to disentangle the center from its surroundings.

… a similar unification is accomplished through the creation of spatial ambiguity … a common example … is the house with a gallery or arcade round it … the space in the gallery belongs to the outside world and yet simultaneously belongs to the building.”

Profound interlock in Inca stonework

Dovetail as an example of deep interlock

Tile-work and brick in the 16th centur Tabriz Mosque

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

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Christopher Alexander – Fundamental Property 7: Local Symmetries

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“… Where a living center forms, it is often necessary to have some local symmetry.

… Living things, though often symmetrical, rarely have perfect symmetry. Indeed, perfect symmetry is often a mark of death in things, rather than life. I believe the lack of clarity on the subject has arisen because of a failure to distinguish overall symmetry from local symmetries.

… The Rorschach ink-blot, for instance, is a rather weak whole; it has relatively little life as a structure; its centers are poorly developed. The one large symmetry it has, by itself, gets you very little.

… over simplified symmetry in a building is mot often naive and even brutal … Albert Speer’s design for Zeppelinfeld … is [an] example …

In general, a large symmetry of the simplified neoclassicist type rarely contributes to the life of a thing, because in any complex whole in the world, there are nearly always complex, asymmetrical forces at work – matter of location, and context, and function – which require that symmetry be broken.

We see this clearly in the Alhambra … a marvel of living wholeness. It has no overall symmetry at all, but an amazing number of minor symmetries, which hold within limited pieces of the design, leaving the whole to be organic, flexible, adapted to the site.

… the real binding force which symmetry contributes to the formation of life is … in the binding together and local symmetry of smaller centers within the whole.

… an experiment I did … at Harvard Center for Cognitive Studies … I compared a number of black and white paper strips, and measured their coherence as felt, experienced, perceived, remembered, by different subjects.

… The experiments were performed with 35 black-and-white strips seen on a neutral gray background. Each strip was 7 squares long, and was composed of 3 black squares and 4 white squares, arranged in different arrangements …

First, we established that the relative coherence of the different patterns … is not an idiosyncratic subjective feature of the patterns seen differently by different people. It is an objective measure of cognitive processing, roughly the same for everyone.

Second, we were then able to identify the structural feature of these patterns which caused this perceived ‘coherence.’ It turned out that [it] … depends on the number of local symmetries present in the pattern. However since most of the symmetries are hidden, this feature is far from obvious …

… For three of four years after completing the experiment, I worked almost continuously to find some structural feature of the 35 black and white patterns which would explain the rank order of coherence of the different patterns …

… it was quite unclear how to unite the idea of symmetry with the idea of large lumps. It was this that finally gave me the key, when I realized that both overall symmetries and large lumps actually contain more local symmetries inside them.

.. the strips which are most coherent experimentally also have the highest number of subsymmetries to within a high degree of correlation … The number of local symmetries the pattern contains essentially predicts how ‘good’ it is.

… It is as if the symmetrical segments act as a kind of glue … which holds the space together. The more glue there is, the more the space is one, solid, unified, coherent. And … for the glue to be effective, it seems that many of the symmetrical segments must overlap.

… the local symmetries … though hidden from view … essentially control the way the pattern is seen and the way it works.”

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

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Christopher Alexander – Fundamental Property 6: Good Shape

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Reading this section while thinking about creating the excerpt made me tense. I feel this property is tricky because it is so obvious and yet also so subtle and hard to pin down. When I create these excerpts I choose to share parts which feel clear and resonate for me (in the hope that my sense of clarity adds something to the being-ness of excerpt). This one was sticky. It was challenging for me (the first time around, the second time easier) and I expect it may be challenging for you. It demands that we look examine our likes (and dislikes). It is confrontational in that it dares to suggest that we’ve learned to like futuristic chairs; that they are empirically bad; and that if we want to learn to make living structures we are going to have to acknowledge this, reflect on these likes and we are going to have to unlearn them, to see past them, to restore a deeper, more subtle form of seeing. It is a tough ask.

The Copenhagen Police Headquarters was the only image specific enough to seek out and find on my own, the others felt too subtle and I could not find substitutes that felt good enough for me, so I scanned them from the book.

“When I began looking for living structures … I became aware of a special quality that I began to think of as good shape, but could not very easily explain it, or define it …

It took me a long time to see that good shape itself is also related to the centers … a shape we see as good it a shape which it itself, as a shape, made up from multiple coherent centers …

It it easiest to understand good shape as a recursive rule … the elements of any good shape are always good shapes themselves …

… the simplest and most elementary good shapes are from elementary figures … the good shape, no matter how complex, is built up from the simplest elementary figures. The teapot stand can be seen to be built up from the illustrated simple shapes, each of which has good shape …

On the other hand, the amorphous mass of the futuristic chair cannot be understood as being composed of elementary shapes at all.

… what seems like complex centers are made of simple centers which are also alive – and it is these centers above all which give the complex ones their life …

… The good shape is an attribute of the whole configuration, not of the parts; but it comes about when the whole is made of parts that are themselves whole in this rather simple geometric sense …

All in all, in my experience, in the build-up of a good shape the following elements are the most common: square, line, segment, arrowhead hook, triangle, row of dots, circle, rosette, diamond, S-shape, half-circle, star, steps, cross, waves, spiral …

All of this is subtle when we try to apply it. Take the circle, for instance … [it] has great problems. The space next to it is not easily made positive, not easily made into centers – and the circle, when used in a design can easily then not be good shape at all. We see such an example in the courtyard of the Copenhagen Police Headquarters: a ridiculous plan, which is trivial because the space next to the circle is formless, and therefore meaningless.

The high degree of sophistication needed to make a circle have good shape is seen in the fabulous Ottoman velvet … where the two systems of circles are drawn slightly distorted so that the moon shapes, the space between the circles, and the small circles and large circles all work as centers.

Although it may seem surprising to someone raised in the mechanist-functionalist tradition, good shape … is not only making things more beautiful; it also makes them work more profoundly, more effectively.

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

 

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Christopher Alexander – Fundamental Property 5: Positive Space

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“What I call positive space occurs when every bit of space swells outward, it substantial in itself, is ever the leftover from an adjacent space. We may see it like a ripening corn, each kernel swelling until it meets the others …

An almost archetypal example of this positive and coherent state of space may be seen in the 17th century Nolli plan of Rome. In this plan each bit of every street is positive, the building masses are positive, the public interiors are positive. There is virtually no part of the whole which does not have definite and positive shape. This has come about, I think, because of these spaces … has been shaped over time by people who cared about it, and it has therefore taken a definite, cared for shape with meaning and purpose …

In the present Western view … we tend to see buildings floating in empty space … the buildings … have their own definite physical shape – but the space which they are floating in is shapeless, making the buildings almost meaningless in their isolation. This has a devastating effect: it makes our social space itself – the glue and playground of our common public world – incoherent, almost non-existent …

Here in the famous Kizaemon tea bowl, now preserved in Japan … its beauty lies in the fact that not only does the bowl have a beautiful shape in itself, but that also the space next to the bowl has a beautiful shape. One might even say that the beauty of the bowl is created by the fact that the space next to it is beautiful.

… In Matisse’s cut-out blue nude, every part of the space is positive …

The definition of positive space is straightforward: every single part of space has positive shape as a center. There are no amorphous meaningless leftovers. every shape is a strong center, and every space is made up in such a way that it only has strong centers in its space, nothing else besides.”

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

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Christopher Alexander – Fundamental Property 4: Repetition

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Once again, except for the dull office building facade (scanned from the book), the images are selected by me.

“… Centers intensify other centers by repeating. The rhythm of the repeating centers, slowly, like the beat of a drum, intensifies the field effect.

… Most things are made from repetition at some level: repetition of atoms, molecules, waves, cells, volumes, roofs, trusses, windows, bricks, columns, tiles, entrances and so on. But the repetition which occurs in things which have life is a very special kind of repetition … where the rhythm of the centers that repeat is underlined, and intensified, by an alternating rhythm interlocked with the first and where a second system of centers also repeats, in parallel. The second system of centers then intensifies the first system, by providing a kind of counterpoint, or opposing beat.

… Somehow the sense of order in a thing comes from the fact that elements are repeated … often the calmest life arises when a thing, like a basket, is made entirely out of one kind of smaller element repeating.

… repetition tends to be inexact; it is then the subtle variation which comes with the repetition that is satisfying and life giving. This happens because the elements are not identical, but modified each according to its position in the whole …

But there is a deeper aspect of the repetition. This concerns the fundamental character of the repetition and the way that elements are repeated: there is profound and satisfying repetition of living centers, and there is banal repetition of elements …

… the facade of a modern office building … Here the alternation is brutal, banal … what repeats is one dimensional: there is no alternation to speak of, no living centers … no vital secondary centers …

… in Brunelleschi’s Foundling Hospital, the round medallions alternate within the columns and column bays. We see the columns repeating … the arches repeating … space of bays repeating … triangular space between adjacent arches repeating … ceramic roundels in these triangles repeating … Each of these things … is a profoundly formed and living center. The result is beautifully harmonious and has life.

… it seems that what is really happening is not repetition, but oscillation … In the Ottoman velvet … the oscillation … has reached tremendous and profound subtlety.. The waves with the ‘lips’ oscillate. The triple circles oscillate. The space between circles and lips oscillates. The overall effect is a profound unity.

… The life comes about only when the alternating wholes are beautifully and subtly proportioned and differentiated.”

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

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Christopher Alexander – Fundamental Property 3: Boundaries

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My attempt to find suitable images to use in these excerpts is a demanding practice. This time I separated the task of looking for images from writing the excerpt itself. At first I felt that these images were easier to find than those for the previous posts. But then when I came to assemble the excerpt and looked at the examples in the book, I again saw differences. Though the example I have chosen to include in the excerpt are valid, they are usually not as good as the ones in the book. Noticing these differences is a profound learning experience for me.

” … living centers are often – nearly always – formed and strengthened by boundaries …The Norwegian storehouse is replete with boundaries at every scale …

The purpose of a boundary which surrounds a center is two-fold. First, it focuses attention on the center and thus helps to produce the center. It does this by forming the field of force which creates and intensifies the center which is bounded. Second, it unites the center which is being bounded with the world beyond the boundary. For this to happen, the boundary must at the same time be distinct from the center being bounded, must keep this center distinct and separate from the world beyond it, and yet also have the capacity of uniting that center with the world beyond the boundary. In both ways, the center that is bounded becomes more intense.

… the boundary needs to be of the same order of magnitude as the center which is being bounded. If the boundary is very much smaller than the thing being bounded, it can’t do much to hold in or form the center … An effective boundary for the river Seine consists of roads, walls, paths quays, trees, something almost as massive as the river itself. It general it it necessary to think of boundaries as very large.

When taken seriously this rule has a very big effect on the way things are organized … the lips as the boundary of the mouth are similar in size to the mouth; an arcade … the same order of size as the building … marsh as boundary of a lake … capital and base as boundary of the column …

The door as a center is intensified by placing a beautiful frame of centers around that door. The smaller centers in the boundary are also intensified, reciprocally, by the larger center which they surround

… to establish the interlock and connection, coupled with separation … the boundary itself is also formed of centers … in the [Persian] manuscript … the boundary is formed out of large centers, sometimes almost as large as the field, but made in such a way that they unite the thing bounded with the world beyond … Essentially they form centers, or systems of alternating centers, which look both ways …

… Taken by itself, the boundary rule seems simple. But the rule does not merely refer to the outer boundary of the thing. If we apply the rule repeatedly, it says that every part, at every level, has a boundary which is a thing in its own right. This includes the boundaries themselves. They too have boundaries, each of which is a thing in its own right. What seems like one rule, then, is a pervasive structural feature of enormous depth, which is in effect applied dozens or hundreds of times, at different scales throughout the thing.

… it is possible for a thing to follow this rule and still lack an outer boundary around the whole, because that outer boundary (present or not) is merely one of ninety-nine other boundaries which do exist within the whole, at different scales … The limited idea of a main boundary by itself completely fails to convey the shimmering sense that is created when a hing has boundaries within boundaries, which are boundaries of boundaries, and that all together permeate its structure.

The castle of Gwalior: the whole building front is made of boundaries, and boundaries of boundaries.”

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

This additional example came up in my searching … I keep staring at it and getting lost in it … almost transported into a dream-like state:

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Christopher Alexander – Fundamental Property 2: Strong Centers

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For this excerpt I was able to find compatible images, so the images you see are not the ones shown in the book.

“… I began to  notice that, next to the property of levels of scale, possibly the most important feature of a thing which is alive is that we find that the various wholes which exist at different levels appear not merely as centers or ‘wholes” or ‘blobs,’ but actually as strong centers.

… As we look at the mosque of Kariouan … we see many mutually reinforcing centers. The great courtyard, the large dome, the smaller dome, the individual battlements, the steps, the entrance, the individual arches, even the segments on the roof … the sequence of three domes, each one higher than the other, leading up to the main dome as a pinnacle. The entire structure builds up to the main dome …

 

… The imperial inner city of Beijing … is a layered system of nested domains which lead, one by one, to the inner city, and then to the inner sanctum of the inner city … the deep center arises at the heart of the inner city, because of the field effect generated by the nesting.

… In contemporary buildings, it is often hard to create this hierarchy of centers, perhaps above all because – in practical terms – we don’t know what to put at the center … What function could there be at the center that is important enough to  make the building have a series of levels …? … What were once powerful centers – the fire, the marriage bed, the table – no longer have this power, because individually and as families are not centered in ourselves. The emotional confusion of the present-day family reveals itself in the lack of power in these centers of the house.

But when a house is organized with clearer centers … it becomes immediately more potent, even in its ability to harness unknown and undeveloped tendencies of centering in the life people live there together.

… The tip of each roof in the trulli at Alberobello is a strong center which is formed, not merely by the little knob, but by the way the whole roof of focused towards the tip, the way the tip if painted white, and the way this then culminates as a core of a center that is formed.”

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

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Damien Rice (Soirée de Poche)

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he seems to be in a delicate place and resonating wish so much power and clarity.

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