“It takes all the time and all the energy we have to conquer the idiocy in us.”
Carlos Castaneda

The Second Ring of Power

Christopher Alexander – 15 Fundamental Properties

n

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

Posted in Design, outside | You are welcome to add your comment

Christopher Alexander – Centers & Life … and Robert Pirsig

n

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.

Posted in Expanding, inside, Nature of Order, Nature Of Order Book 1 | Tagged , , | You are welcome to add your comment

Christopher Alexander – Recursive Centers

n

“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

Posted in Community, Design, Expanding, inside, Nature of Order, Nature Of Order Book 1, outside | Tagged | You are welcome to add your comment

Christopher Alexander – Living Structure created by Centers

n

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

Posted in AltEco, Design, outside | You are welcome to read 1 comment and to add yours

Christopher Alexander – Wholeness as a Fundamental Structure

n

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

Posted in AltEco, Design, Expanding, inside, Nature of Order, Nature Of Order Book 1, outside | Tagged | You are welcome to read 1 comment and to add yours