In The Phenomenon of Life, vol. 1: The Nature of Order, Christopher Alexander asks, “Can we find any recurrent geometrical structural features whose presence in things correlates with their degree of life?”
He identifies fifteen features that appear again and again in things which have “life”–whether that thing is a sketch by an Impressionist, a wooden door, a Norwegian storehouse, a Japanese tea bowl, the Golden Gate Bridge. Or natural things, like a giraffe’s coat, palm fronds, a spider’s web, Himalayan foothills, muscle fiber.
The 15 features are:
- Levels of scale
- Strong centers
- Alternating repetition
- Positive space
- Good shape
- Local symmetries
- Deep interlock and ambiguity
- The void
- Simplicity and inner calm
It’s not always easy to understand, but just looking at all the illustrations is a wonderful exercise. I’m a word person, not a visual person, and this book really did a lot to help me understand how to look at objects.
I love schemes like this, that seek to identify the different elements of very complex wholes. I love taxonomy–and dividing people into different categories–and lists of all sorts.
For instance, just as I love Alexander’s approach, I love this scheme by John Ruskin in The Stones of Venice, about the nature of the Gothic:
“I believe, then, that the characteristic or moral elements of Gothic are the following, placed in the order of their importance:
I don’t really know what Ruskin is talking about. But just this set of ideas, put together, makes my mind race.
How about you? Does Alexander’s scheme ring true for you? Do you have similar lists that you love?