“We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are.”
Anais Nin

Christopher Alexander – Fundamental Property 6: Good Shape

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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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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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