“The shadows in the early morning don’t tell much. The shadows rest at that time. So it’s useless to gaze very early in the day. Around six in the morning the shadows wake up, and they are best around five in the afternoon. Then they are fully awake.”
Carlos Castaneda

The Second Ring of Power

Christopher Alexander – Fundamental Property 6: Good Shape

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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