“Stupidity is an attempt to iron out all differences, and not to use or value them creatively.”
Bill Mollison

Permaculture: A Designers' Manual

Christopher Alexander – Recursive Centers


“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


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


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


“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


“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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