“Who needs 'please' when we've got guns?”
Jack Johnson

Christopher Alexander – Fundamental Property 1: Levels of Scale

n

I spent a couple of hours trying to find alternative images to those in the book. The concrete one was easy to find, the rest not … so I  gave up trying. The images in the book (especially the living ones) are too subtle to easily replace. So I opted to scan a few samples (this chapter, and the next 14 are filled with many more visual examples). I have picked out a bare minimum to support the core idea.

“The first things I noticed when I began to study objects which have life, was that they all contain different scales. … the centers these objects are made of tend to have a beautiful range of sizes, and that these sizes exist at a series of of well-marked levels, with definite jumps between them.

… If you capture any two things, one with more life and one with less, it is very likely that the one with more life will have better levels of scale in it … consider the following pairs of doors  … both … have parts of different sizes … but the door on the right has a variety of sizes which is more dramatically differentiated, more ‘extended’ along the range of scale than the door on the left. It has three sizes of panels, it has a gradation of scale from the bottom to the top.

… In the right-hand door, we experience the levels more deeply …  First, there actually are more levels … [and] the degree to which the centers help each other … the actual life of each center comes about because it is enlivened by the size and position of the next larger center which lies near it, and by the size and position of the next smaller center which lies near it.

In the left hand door the detail is there – but the details isn’t doing anything to create life in the larget centers, and is therefore almost meaningless.

It is also extremely important that to have levels of scale within a structure, the jumps between different scales must not be too great … if we look at the concrete wall in the picture below … the wall [is] a center … we also see small individual centers (bolt or boltholes) … [they] are too far apart in scale to be coherent with each other.

… To intensify a given center, we need to make another center perhaps half or a quarter the size of the first. If the smaller one is less than one-tenth of the larger one it is les likely to help in in its intenstity.

… In the tilework at Meshed, we see this principle carried from the giant tower-like structures through many intermediate levels, all the way down to the tiles themselves. There are distinct wholes, or centers, visible at every level in between the two.

… the small centers intensify the large ones … the large centers also intensify the small ones …”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life

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Japanese Words for “Space”

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Thinking of Christopher Alexander and his Japanese Tea House sequence as I was reading this:

“a space in Japanese culture is understood by how it shapes relationships … a room is always filled with invisible structures, regardless of its occupants

… For example, traditional tea houses have doors that are narrow and low. This forces guests to lower their head and, historically, for samurai to leave their swords outside by the door.

… Building spaces that deepen relationships (wa), generate new knowledge (ba), connect to the world around us (tokoro), and allow moments of quiet and integration (ma) can enrich our experience of the world and that of those around us.”

source

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Drawing Centers

n

As I mentioned before I took some time to draw centers … and it was a fascinating practice. I tried to capture some of it, though to fully experience it I invite you to do it on your own.

Milford Graves (<– link will open in a new tab in case you wish to listen while reading) guided me through this exercise 🙂

This is the source (from the book) I started with:I had already spent time reading about the pattern and following Alexander’s guidance in how to look at it (seeking centers, local symmetry, etc.)  … and I gave it a first try:

I then went at it a second time and paused to scan each step on the way. It starts with a dot on a piece of paper that starts to unfold and increase with life:

I did step 2 already in my first try, but step 3 was a big aha moment for me. In my first try I went directly to the “black hearts” that are attached to the small protrusions, but I did not know how to size them properly so that there would be room for the thickness of the white heart itself. When I looked at the image some more the 4 diagonal lines suddenly popped out … and they made the next steps simple and steady and peaceful:

The diagonals created clear fields from which the hearts appeared. That transition in step 3 became like a switch that came on and stayed on. I found simplicity and clarity in the black spaces. Instead of trying to draw the white spaces that I was seeing by default I switched to seeking the black spaces.

I was being held and guided by the black spaces, yet something in me wanted to “do the hearts” … but I stuck with the black

… until it felt necessary to draw the top heart as it lead into the evolution of the pattern at the top

… and the top part appeared with ease, easier than my first attempt to “draw it” … and closer to the original.

… the rest of the hearts followed naturally and swept down … and then it felt that a base was needed … and the spaces that formed between the base and the heart-flower already started to glow with the horizontally oriented patters of the base … and again black guided:

… two small black triangles … and fill it all in:

I’ve pulled together the source and my two attempts for comparison:

The second attempt was easier and more peaceful and I now know and remember it in a very different way – not so much as an image but rather as a sequence of steps in which centers come into being. I feel that if I spent more time and more iterations with it, I could refine the sequence … a recipe, narrative, story … a pattern that underlies the visual image. I may already be able to draw it again without having to look at the source image.

The second attempt is also closer to the source, better balanced, fuller, more stable. This is especially clear if you look at the top and bottom patterns. In the first attempt I tried to draw the actual white shapes (at the top and bottom) which is very tricky because my eyes registered one thing “the white space” but because it has thickness two lines need to be drawn to create that space. In the second attempt I created the black spaces and the white-spaces were simply left over.

In both attempts I did not get the proportions of the heart-flower correct: the hearts were too big in relation to the actual center.

I decided to go ahead and try the second pattern (for the first time). When I first looked at it, there seemed to be a spacing challenge. Then I realized that the top pattern (which I had already learned) created the overall rhythm … and so I started with it:

and then started traveling down … again following a clear path of black spaces.

… and that’s when those wrong proportions of the heart-flower really surfaced. Step 20 should have brough me way further down. I had to correct, in step 21,  by stretching what should have been squares into longer rectangles.

This is just one example of many, how a slight change in one element resonates strongly through the entire wholeness. Millimeters differences can have a drastic effect on this image which is ~9cm by 7 cm. This also demonstrated the idea of “character” – like in the four images of Matisse – despite variations caused by my perception and drawing, the overall pattern (if I got the centers right) persists.

Here the sequence started to become less clear to me. I feel that I still have not discovered the right sequence of centers for this second pattern … still black spaces guided me well:

… and once again the original for reference

… this felt fundamental … like learning to walk …

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Milford Graves

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this delightful creature came to me via Fred Wilson

I just went swimmig through these two albums:

reminded me of my encounters with Ariel Shibolet in Israel … right around my time with Shahar

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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

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