“Ordinarily, if an average man comes face to face with the nagual the shock would be so great that he would die. The goal of a warrior’s training is not to teach him to hex or to charm, but to prepare his tonal not to crap out ... You call it explaining. I call it a sterile and boring insistence of the tonal to have everything under it’s control. Whenever it doesn’t succeed, there is a moment of bafflement and then the tonal opens itself to death. What a prick! It would rather kill itself than relinquish control. And yet there is very little we can do to change that condition.”
Carlos Castaneda

Tales of Power

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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Christopher Alexander – Fundamental Property 1: Levels of Scale

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I spent a couple of hours trying to find alternative images to those in the book. The concrete one was easy to find, the rest not … so I  gave up trying. The images in the book (especially the living ones) are too subtle to easily replace. So I opted to scan a few samples (this chapter, and the next 14 are filled with many more visual examples). I have picked out a bare minimum to support the core idea.

“The first things I noticed when I began to study objects which have life, was that they all contain different scales. … the centers these objects are made of tend to have a beautiful range of sizes, and that these sizes exist at a series of of well-marked levels, with definite jumps between them.

… If you capture any two things, one with more life and one with less, it is very likely that the one with more life will have better levels of scale in it … consider the following pairs of doors  … both … have parts of different sizes … but the door on the right has a variety of sizes which is more dramatically differentiated, more ‘extended’ along the range of scale than the door on the left. It has three sizes of panels, it has a gradation of scale from the bottom to the top.

… In the right-hand door, we experience the levels more deeply …  First, there actually are more levels … [and] the degree to which the centers help each other … the actual life of each center comes about because it is enlivened by the size and position of the next larger center which lies near it, and by the size and position of the next smaller center which lies near it.

In the left hand door the detail is there – but the details isn’t doing anything to create life in the larget centers, and is therefore almost meaningless.

It is also extremely important that to have levels of scale within a structure, the jumps between different scales must not be too great … if we look at the concrete wall in the picture below … the wall [is] a center … we also see small individual centers (bolt or boltholes) … [they] are too far apart in scale to be coherent with each other.

… To intensify a given center, we need to make another center perhaps half or a quarter the size of the first. If the smaller one is less than one-tenth of the larger one it is les likely to help in in its intenstity.

… In the tilework at Meshed, we see this principle carried from the giant tower-like structures through many intermediate levels, all the way down to the tiles themselves. There are distinct wholes, or centers, visible at every level in between the two.

… the small centers intensify the large ones … the large centers also intensify the small ones …”

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

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Japanese Words for “Space”

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Thinking of Christopher Alexander and his Japanese Tea House sequence as I was reading this:

“a space in Japanese culture is understood by how it shapes relationships … a room is always filled with invisible structures, regardless of its occupants

… For example, traditional tea houses have doors that are narrow and low. This forces guests to lower their head and, historically, for samurai to leave their swords outside by the door.

… Building spaces that deepen relationships (wa), generate new knowledge (ba), connect to the world around us (tokoro), and allow moments of quiet and integration (ma) can enrich our experience of the world and that of those around us.”

source

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Drawing Centers

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As I mentioned before I took some time to draw centers … and it was a fascinating practice. I tried to capture some of it, though to fully experience it I invite you to do it on your own.

Milford Graves (<– link will open in a new tab in case you wish to listen while reading) guided me through this exercise 🙂

This is the source (from the book) I started with:I had already spent time reading about the pattern and following Alexander’s guidance in how to look at it (seeking centers, local symmetry, etc.)  … and I gave it a first try:

I then went at it a second time and paused to scan each step on the way. It starts with a dot on a piece of paper that starts to unfold and increase with life:

I did step 2 already in my first try, but step 3 was a big aha moment for me. In my first try I went directly to the “black hearts” that are attached to the small protrusions, but I did not know how to size them properly so that there would be room for the thickness of the white heart itself. When I looked at the image some more the 4 diagonal lines suddenly popped out … and they made the next steps simple and steady and peaceful:

The diagonals created clear fields from which the hearts appeared. That transition in step 3 became like a switch that came on and stayed on. I found simplicity and clarity in the black spaces. Instead of trying to draw the white spaces that I was seeing by default I switched to seeking the black spaces.

I was being held and guided by the black spaces, yet something in me wanted to “do the hearts” … but I stuck with the black

… until it felt necessary to draw the top heart as it lead into the evolution of the pattern at the top

… and the top part appeared with ease, easier than my first attempt to “draw it” … and closer to the original.

… the rest of the hearts followed naturally and swept down … and then it felt that a base was needed … and the spaces that formed between the base and the heart-flower already started to glow with the horizontally oriented patters of the base … and again black guided:

… two small black triangles … and fill it all in:

I’ve pulled together the source and my two attempts for comparison:

The second attempt was easier and more peaceful and I now know and remember it in a very different way – not so much as an image but rather as a sequence of steps in which centers come into being. I feel that if I spent more time and more iterations with it, I could refine the sequence … a recipe, narrative, story … a pattern that underlies the visual image. I may already be able to draw it again without having to look at the source image.

The second attempt is also closer to the source, better balanced, fuller, more stable. This is especially clear if you look at the top and bottom patterns. In the first attempt I tried to draw the actual white shapes (at the top and bottom) which is very tricky because my eyes registered one thing “the white space” but because it has thickness two lines need to be drawn to create that space. In the second attempt I created the black spaces and the white-spaces were simply left over.

In both attempts I did not get the proportions of the heart-flower correct: the hearts were too big in relation to the actual center.

I decided to go ahead and try the second pattern (for the first time). When I first looked at it, there seemed to be a spacing challenge. Then I realized that the top pattern (which I had already learned) created the overall rhythm … and so I started with it:

and then started traveling down … again following a clear path of black spaces.

… and that’s when those wrong proportions of the heart-flower really surfaced. Step 20 should have brough me way further down. I had to correct, in step 21,  by stretching what should have been squares into longer rectangles.

This is just one example of many, how a slight change in one element resonates strongly through the entire wholeness. Millimeters differences can have a drastic effect on this image which is ~9cm by 7 cm. This also demonstrated the idea of “character” – like in the four images of Matisse – despite variations caused by my perception and drawing, the overall pattern (if I got the centers right) persists.

Here the sequence started to become less clear to me. I feel that I still have not discovered the right sequence of centers for this second pattern … still black spaces guided me well:

… and once again the original for reference

… this felt fundamental … like learning to walk …

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Milford Graves

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this delightful creature came to me via Fred Wilson

I just went swimmig through these two albums:

reminded me of my encounters with Ariel Shibolet in Israel … right around my time with Shahar

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Christopher Alexander – 15 Fundamental Properties

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There is a bit of an anxiety in me as I arrive at this excerpt. It is rooted in knowing that in publishing it I am making a kind of commitment about the next 15 excerpts. And since this is my second reading, I know how daunting a task this can be. So I am curious how this is going to unfold.

“… I began to notice that objects and buildings which have life all have certain identifiable structural characteristics. The same geometric features keep showing up in them, again and again. Initially I began writing these characteristics down informally, and I began to ‘keep watch’ on them.

What I did was straightforward and empirical. I simply looked at thousands and thousands of example, comparing those which had more life with those that had less life. Whenever I looked at two examples, I could determine which one had greater ‘life’ or greater wholeness, by asking which of them generated a greater wholeness in me. Thus I did not impose on myself the modesty of judgement typical in a pluralistic society …

I asked myself this question: Can we find any structural features which tend to be present in the examples which have more life. and tend to be missing in the ones which have less life?

… This is what I did. For twenty years, I spent two or three hours a day looking at pairs of things – building, tiles, stones, windows, carpets, figures, carvings of flowers, paths, seats, furniture, streets, paintings, fountains, doorways, arches …

I managed to identify fifteen structural features which appear again and again in things which do have life. These are:

  1. Levels of scale
  2. Strong centers
  3. Boundaries
  4. Alternating repetition
  5. Positive space
  6. Good shape
  7. Local symmetries
  8. Deep interlock and ambiguity
  9. Contrast
  10. Gradients
  11. Roughness
  12. Echoes
  13. The void
  14. Simplicity and inner calm
  15. Not-separateness

At first, I observed  these features without understanding what they were. That is, I understood each of them … as something which was present, often or very often, in a living system – to such an extent that one might almost say that each one was a predictor of whether a thing would have life or not … [but] I did not understand why …

I came to understand that they work, they make things have life, because they are the ways in which centers can help each other in space.

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

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Christopher Alexander – Centers & Life … and Robert Pirsig

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This excerpt has, for me, a unique flavor. It is brief. I originally intended to skip it, but decided to come back to it. It will probably come across as abstract. I did not find a way to capture the essence of the next few sections which contain examples that illustrate the point Alexander is trying to make (which is why I was leaning towards skipping it).

This point is also special for me because in it (details below) Alexander references the work of Robert Pirsig. This is the only work that I’ve encountered that acknowledges Pirsig’s work which has inspired me so much.

“Armed with the ideas that each center is a multi-levelled field-like phenomenon made of other centers, let us now come back to the idea that each center has its degree of life[*footnote referencing Pirsig].

… I want to now extend this idea and apply it separately and individually to every distinct center in the wholeness of a thing …

… the degree of life of each center in a given wholeness depends on the degree of life of all the other centers in the wholeness.”

Robert Pirsig footnote:

“The idea that every center has its life make the ‘life’ of the centers teh ultimate primitive of this theory. This is perhaps comparable to Robert Pirsig’s idea that Quality, not Substance, is the ultimate primitive. As Pirsig puts it, ‘Quality is supposed to be just a vague fringe word that tells what we think about objects … The idea that quality can create objects seems very wrong … but the idea that values create objects gets less and less weird as you get used to it.’ … I am saying something similar about that which animates the living centers.”

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

The following section includes an image (though not this one) of this space in the Alhambra:

… followed by a detailed inquiry into the pattern that is un the lower half of the picture – the texture beneath the arched openings. I attempted to play around with recreating in sketching one of the elements that make up the pattern and was blown away by 1) allowing myself to sketch, shifting my attention away from precision and towards centers and 2) the seeing and subtlety that are required to recreate it, even when it already exists before my eyes as a reference. It is amazing how very small variations project so strongly into the wholeness that is created. The more time I spent with it the more I realized how much more there it to see … my “success” or “failure” was not so much a function of my drawing abilities (close to none) but of my ability to perceive.

I am now playing with sketching a more elaborate pattern from one of a Turkish rug mentioned in one of the next sections.

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Christopher Alexander – Recursive Centers

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“What exactly is a center? …

The crux of the matter is this: a center is a kind of entity which can only be defined in terms of other centers. The idea of a center cannot be defined in terms of any other primitive entities except centers.

We are used to a view where we try to explain one kind of entity by showing it to be constructed of other different kinds of entities. An organism is made of cells, an atom of electrons, and so on … If we ask what the centers are made of, we come up against a brick wall. Here we have a question so fundamental that it cannot be explained or understood, as a composite of any other more fundamental kind of entity … centers are only made of other centers.

… In mathematics, such a concept is called recursive. Grasping this idea, and grasping the fact that this bit of understanding is a positive step forward, and not problematic is key to understanding wholeness.

… What then is a center? A center is not a primitive element. Centers are already composite. Yet they are the most primitive element available. They are bits of wholeness which appear as structures within the wholeness … It is … a field of organized force in an object or part of an object which makes that object or part exhibit centrality.

… This circularity … is the essential feature of the situation.”

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

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Christopher Alexander – Living Structure created by Centers

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Once again, the illustration is my attemp to replicate an illustration from the book.

“mutual helping among the centers … causes … life

… the terrace is made of structural bays – each made by four columns – each roughly square … Each of these bays it itself a center … The columns are centers too. And on each column, on each of its corners, there is a chamfer. The chamfer is once again a center in its own right.

Each of the four-column bays is helped to be alive by these tiny chamfers on the columns at the corners of the bay … each bay becomes more of a center, and is more alive, because of the chamfer. Suppose, for example, that the column had been square, without the little octagonal chamfer on the corners. Then … each column would slightly eat into the space of the bay, thus disturbing the wholeness of the bay. Instead, the four chamfers help, geometrically, to increase the unity and wholeness of the space in the bay … chamfers … two or three inches across, strengthen and intensify the structural bay …13 feet across.

… this helping relation … does not occur automatically … the columns could have been given a shape which does not help … “

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

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Christopher Alexander – Wholeness as a Fundamental Structure

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At one point after ending my career, I reflected back on my systems analysis experience and realized that I could do an excellent, full coverage, detailes analysis of a domain, have software built to the specifications in my analysis … and still the software would not get the job done. I experiences some relief and resolution around that when I shifted to product design where an emphasis was placed on narrative and story-telling in software design  … and now this from Alexander:

“In any given region of space, some subregions have higher intensity as centers, other have less. Many subregions have weak intensity or none at al. The overall configuration of the nested centers, together with their relative intensities, comprise a single structure. I define this structure as ‘the’ wholeness of that region.

This structure exists everywhere in the world …

..A crucial feature of the wholeness is that it is neutral: it simply exists … the relative harmony or ‘life’ of a given building may be understood directly from the internal cohesion of the structure. Thus, the relative life or beauty or goodness of a given part of the world may be understood, I shall argue, without reference to opinion, prejudice or philosophy, merely as a consequence of the wholeness which exists.

… This structure catches the overall character in a way which is almost mysterious, but goes to the heart of many things not easily explained. This happens because it is an overall field-like structure, a global, overall effect. It is distinct, completely distinct, from the elements or ‘parts’ which appear in that wholeness; it is unusual in our experience, yet catches what we have often thought of as the artistic intuition about the whole.

… Matisse … talks about the fact the the character of a human face is something which is deep in the person, deep in the face, and may not be captured by the local features in the normal sense at all. To make his point, he shows four drawings he made of his own face … The features, in the normal sense, are different in each drawing … And yet, in each of the four faces, we see the unmistakable face and character of Henri Matisse. As Matisse says, the character … is something deeper than features: it is an inner thing which exists over and above the features, and is not even dependent on these features.

… this ‘character’ is the wholeness … the wholeness is a global thing – easy to feel, perhaps, but hard to define … Drawing the features correctly does not necessarily achieve a resemblance … If you want to draw a person, you have to draw the wholeness. Nothing else will get the likeness.

In portraiture, as in architecture, it is the wholeness which is the real thing that lies beneath the surface, and determines everything.

… even the behavior of subatomic particles … wholeness is a truly pervasive structure, which acts at all scales.

… And the wholeness always exists in soe form, whether that place is good or bad, lifeless or alive. But we shall see next that the degree of life which exists at the place ad time also comes from the wholeness. The neutral wholeness spawns characteristics which are far from neutral – characteristics which indeed go to the very origin of right and wrong.

… this neutral wholeness ,,, is the natural origin of life. Life comes from it. Life comes from the particular details of he ways the centers in the wholeness cohere to form a unity, the way they interact, and interlock, and influence each other. The academic and difficult task of grasping the nature of this wholeness will pay us back by giving us the origin of life.”

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

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Christopher Alexander – Seeing Wholeness

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“Learning to see … wholeness … not muddled or contaminated by words and concepts, is extremely difficult, but it is possible to learn …

When we see wholeness as it is, we recognize that [its] seeming parts … are merely arbitrary fragments which our minds have been directed to, because we happen to have words for them. If we open our eyes wide, and look at the scene without cognitive prejudice, we see something quite different …

Although one may be misled into thinking about design, the features which design seems to deal with are minor, have less importance. The centers – the coherent entities which form the whole – are life affirming, massive in their effect, and tremendously concrete, so that minor changes in a design could not sway them, or upset them, or change them.

… What does it mean to see all this from the point of view of wholeness? I notice the sunny part of the garden itself as a space. The place where the roses are climbing near the kitchen catches my eye. The path to the front door, and the steps from the back porch, and the door itself … of the house … all work as a unit, as a continuous center about 40 feet log. The sunshine and the roof edge, with the rafters repeating under the eve, together form a pattern of light and shadow which leads my eye, and forms a boundary of the house against the sky …

All this is much more like a pulsating unity than the ‘conceptual’ or intellectual image of the house. In our conceptual picture of the house we have things called street, garden, roof, front door, and so on. But the centers or entities which hit my eye when I take it all in as a whole are slightly different …

The difference is deeply functional, not just a matter of visual perception. The centers we see when we look at the thing in its wholeness are the ones which are responsible for its real behavior.

… the centers …. control the real behavior of the thing, the life which develops there, the real human events which happen, and the feelings people have about living there. The house-garden complex seen in its wholeness is truer perceptually and more accurate functionally than any analytic vision of the house or lot or garden taken by themselves.”

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

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Christopher Alexander – Wholeness is Subtle and Fluid

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“The wholeness in any given part of space is highly fluid, and easily affected by very small changes of geometry. Indeed wholeness changes continuously through time … [and] changes in the configuration in it and around it.

… wholeness … is induced in the whole. It cannot easily be predicted from the parts, and it is useless to think of it as a relationship ‘among the parts’ …

… we must learn to avoid the danger of trying to see centers made up of parts … The key aspect of this belief is the idea that the parts come ‘before’ the whole … the parts exist as elements of some kind, which are then brought into relationship with one another, or combined, and a center is ‘created’ out of these parts and their combinations as a result.

I believe accurate understanding of wholeness is quite different … The center is not made from parts. Rather, it would be more true to say that most of the parts are created by the wholeness … This is analogous to the way a whirlpool is created in a stream. The stream whirls, and the centers we see as the whirling (vortex, stream-lines, etc.) are created by the larger configuration of banks, rocks and so forth. So, within this whirling, we observe a whirlpool which has formed.

… centers … are induced within the wholeness, and come from the wholeness. And because of this, the parts are adapted and modified, in shape and size, by their positions within the whole.

… The flower is not made from petals. The petals are made from their role and position in the flower.”

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

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Christopher Alexander – Centers

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“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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Christopher Alexander – The Idea of Wholeness

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The pictures embedded in this excerpt (and their locations in it) were drawn (and placed) by me in an attempt to replicate those that are presented in the book (and should therefore not be considered as belonging to the original work).

“Intuitively we may guess that the beauty of a building, its life, and its capacity to support life all come from the fact that it is working as a whole. A view of the building as a whole means that we see it as part of an extended and undivided continuum. It is not an isolated fragment in itself, but part of the world which includes the gardens, walls, trees, streets beyond its boundaries, and other buildings beyond those. And it contains many wholes within it – also unbounded and continuous in their connections.

… wholeness has been widely discussed by many writers in the 20th century: it is one of the main themes of contemporary thought …

… local parts exist chiefly in relation to the whole, and their behavior and character and structure are also determined by the larger whole in which they exist and which they create.

… no one has yet formulated a way of understanding just what this wholeness is …

The general idea is that the wholeness in any part of space is the structure defined by all the various coherent entities that exist in that part of space, and the way these entities are nested in and overlap each other.

To come to grips with this idea, I start by considering a very simple structure, and examining it from the point of view of its wholeness. On the right is a sketch of a blank sheet of paper. Then I place one dot on it. Although the dot is tiny, its impact on the sheet of paper is very great.

… As a whole, an entirely new configuration has come into being, and this configuration extends across the sheet of paper as a whole.

Any reasonable description of wholeness must capture this subtle and pervasive effect. But how does it work?

What is the configuration which exists after I place the dot? It may be described like this: around the dot there is a kind of halo

… Also, on each side of the dot … rectangles of  white space become  visible, as further ‘latent’ entities

There are four of these rectangles, and where they cross four other rectangles are formed in the four corners of the sheet … These corner rectangles are formed by the overlap of the other rectangles, but are also induced by the presence of the dot. In addition there are rays visible: four white rays going out from the dot parallel to the sides and forming a cross

and four other rays going from the dot to the four corners. These four rays are not all equally strong. Their relative strength depends on where the dot is on the paper.

… Therefore, including the main entity of the sheet itself, there are at least twenty entities created in the space of the paper by the dot.

… The basic idea of the wholeness, ad I define it, is that these stronger zones or entities, together, define the structure which we recognize as the wholeness of the sheet of paper with the dot.

The entities that come into existence in a configuration are not merely cognitive. They have a real mathematical existence, and are actually occurring features of the space itself … And they have different degrees of strength.

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

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Christopher Alexander – An Enormous Fact

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The following excerpt mentions and relates to two images that are presented in the book and are helpful in relating to the excerpt. After some searching I found these two images which I feel carry a spirit similar the images shown in the book:

“I was lecturing to architecture students … and put on the screen the Bangkok slum house and the post-modern octagonal tower … I asked the students to choose which of the two, for them, seemed to have more life.

For some people the answer was obvious. For others, it was at first not a comfortable question. Some asked ‘What do you mean? … What is your definition of life?” … I made it clear I was not asking them to make a factual judgement, but just to decide which of the two, according to their own feeling, appeared to have more life …

Eighty-nine said that the Bangkok slum house has more life.
Twenty-one chose to say that the question didn’t make sense to them, or that they couldn’t make a choice.
No one said that the octagonal tower has more life.

To repeat, out of those 110 people, not a single one of them wanted to say (or was willing to say) that the postmodern building had more life than the Bangkok house. This shows an extraordinarily high level of agreement.

… Several of the architecture students among the twenty-one who said they could not judge the issue later came to me and told me that they had felt that the slum had more life, but did not feel comfortable saying so.

… I believe that these students were embarrassed by a conflict between the value they were being taught in architecture school, and a truth they perceived and could not deny.

… Indeed, I think there is no doubt that the students – many of them anyway – found the question disturbing, almost as if a secret, a hidden truth, were being dragged from them in spite of themselves.

… Simple though it is, the question has the power to bring perverted values into doubt.

… It would almost appear, then, that the present fashion in architecture is so hollow that its adherents need to prop it up by refusing to see the life in things, or by refusing to apply this criterion to decide what is good, bad, better.

…students sometime become uncomfortable when facing this question, because the moment it is asked, they already sense that most people will answer it the same way …

… if this life i things really exists as I am claiming, that fact along has enormous ramifications, it implies that many things in our society and way of life may have to change. Fear or a natural reluctance to consider these changes makes us intellectually timid, and less open to the fact itself.

… If typical examples of good design by 20th-century standards have less life than a slum in Bangkok … [then] any architect who wishes to defend modern and postmodern architecture will almost have to say, ‘This questions doesn’t make sense,’ just to defend his profession and his own self-worth as a professional.

Of course, the question ‘Which one makes you feel that it is more alive?’ is at root simply empirical. But that is exactly why it is so disturbing. Whatever the question means, it seems to probe an area of though which may have devastating results for the image-based style of architecture current toward the end of the 20th century.

… It is strange that a phenomenon of such power and of such generality – if true – should be missing from our general way of understanding the world. … We seem to have a fundamental observation – so far unexplained – that among pairs of events, bits of space, places, and particles of existence, we can usually judge that one has a greater degree of life and the other less, at least according to our feeling. And we have the observation that our experience of this life in things is roughly consistent from person to person.

… It is had to see how society could form a proper conception of its own existence without being cognizant of this fact. Yet, for the last hundred years, modern society has existed almost without this knowledge – and has even built institutions, organizations, and procedures on the basis of conceptions which are absolutely at odds with it.

… hypothesis: What we call ‘life’ is a general condition which exists, to some degree or other, in every part of space: brick, stone, grass, river, painting, building, daffodil, human being, forest, city. And further: The key to this ideas is that every part of space … has some degree of life, and that this degree of life is well defined, objectively existing, and measurable.”

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

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Power and Love

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“Power without love is reckless and abusive and love without power is sentimental and anemic.”

Martin Luther King via Adam Kahane

 

…  ha-tha yoga

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