“... everyone who comes into contact with a child is a teacher who incessantly describes the world to him, until the moment when the child is capable of perceiving the world as it is described. According to Don Juan, we have no memory of that portentous moment, simply because none of us could possibly have had any point of reference to compare it to anything else. From that moment on, however, the child is a member. He knows the description of the world; and his membership becomes full fledged, I suppose, when he is capable of making all the proper perceptual interpretations which, by conforming to that description, validate it ...”
Carlos Castaneda

Journey to Ixtlan

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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