What Makes for Lively Centers?

In this blog I dig a bit deeper into what makes good, lively centers.

Let me introduce another property of lively centers: alternating repetition. Consider this photo I took of blooming plum trees in Kyoto.

The photo doesn’t do the scene justice. The flowering trees went on and on and on.

And on.

Forking off the thick trunks were ever thinner arching mossy green and dark branches covered with blossoms. Those blossoms seemed to float between branches forming a sea of pink. I could get lost in those trees.

Looking out over that landscape I felt peaceful, relaxed, and calm.

Earlier, walking the streets of Kyoto I snapped this photo (imagining the sign was inviting me to get with it, “chill out”, be calm and come inside to purchase whatever they were offering).

That sign made me laugh. It contrasts the difference between strong centers that reach out and grab me with the rather flat-affect of everyday more mundane centers. The sign made me curious, but not enough to go inside the shop.

Good alternating repetition doesn’t mean the same thing over and over again. It involves smaller sub-patterns of repeating structures. In preparing for our workshop on Alexander’s properties, I looked for an example of alternating repetition in my personal life. I jog. So it was easy to find alternating repetition in my running routine (Joe Yoder found it in his dancing).

I jog several times a week. I don’t do the same routine everyday. Once a week, typically on Thursdays, I do tempo training with my running coach. She makes me run harder than I’d like to normally do for either a specific distance or time, then has me run easily for a bit to recover. I repeat this hard run-easy jog recovery cycle 3 or 4 times a session. Other days I do my normal easy 3+ mile runs (outside when the weather permits) through town. On the weekends I do a longer run of an hour or more at a comfortable pace. I repeat this cycle each week, with variations due to the running season (winter is slower/less running than summertime) or whether I am recovering from an injury or getting back to running after traveling or recovering from a race.

Another property of strong centers is local symmetry. The photo of these shrines (again, taken in Kyoto) illustrates this.

The shapes of the rooflines, windows, and pedestals are similar, not identical. Slight variations make them more interesting.

Here is the welcoming Port wine and strawberry arrangement that my husband and I found in our Doro valley hotel room in Portugal.

Symmetrical. But berries are closer together on the right hand plate. The napkin folds differ. Perfect symmetry is less pleasing (at least to me) than near symmetry. Alexander claims that a hand-hewn quality strengthens centers (he calls this property “roughness”).

When I discover a strong system of centers I get an emotional kick. And there it is. You discover Alexander’s properties when you engage with the things in your life and form personal connections (rather than letting the scene just float by). Finding Alexander’s properties involves a bit of luck, developing a discriminating eye, and being on the alert for positive connections between what you are experiencing and/or making.

Making strong, lively centers is another matter altogether. Yet how hard can it be? Well…that is a topic for another blog post or two.

Discovering Lively Centers

Two weeks ago, Joe Yoder and I conducted a workshop on Discovering Alexander’s Properties in Your Life at AsianPLoP, the patterns conference held in Tokyo.

I’m still reeling from the many feelings that were stirred up as I prepared for this workshop. Inspired by the beauty we found in Kyoto, I included several photographs I took of that very beautiful place. Each property was illustrated with some image that resonated strongly resonated with us (whether taken in Kyoto or not, each photo had a strong personal connection).

Before I tell more about the workshop, I want to give a gentle introduction to Christopher Alexander’s ideas on properties of things that have life. Fundamental to Alexander’s ideas is the notion of “centers” arranged in space. According to Alexander, things that have life exhibit one or more of fifteen essential properties, which include, among other things, strong centers and boundaries.

Alexander’s notion of a “center” is simple to grasp—it is a coherent entity that exists in space. Individual centers are important (and they exist at different levels of scale), but more profound is how centers are arranged in space to form a more integral whole. Alexander writes,

“The system of these centers pays a vital role in determining what happens in the world. The system as a whole—that is to say, its pattern— is the thing which we generally think of when we speak about something as a whole. Although the system of centers is fluid, and changes from time to time as the configuration and arrangement and conditions all change. Still, at any given moment, these centers form a definite pattern. This pattern of all the centers appearing in a given part of space—constitutes the wholeness of that part of space. It is this structure, which is responsible for its degree of life.”

Here’s a photo I took in Hawaii for a talk I gave several years ago on the Nature of Order at another patterns conference. It illustrates the notion of a strong center:

I like this photo because it shows that the center of individual orchid flowers are accentuated and strengthened by the brown spots and five petals that form a star shape that surround. Not only is there a “center” to each flower (the stamen surrounding the pistil); there are several “centers” that surround that innermost center.

And here is the photo we showed at our Asian PLoP workshop to illustrate strong centers found on the roof line of an Imperial Palace building in Kyoto:

I leave it to you to find all the centers in this photo. The center cap on the top of the roofline accentuates the gold flower underneath. Underneath that is another circular center. Below that a symmetrical scroll. And there are centers (gold flowers) arranged along the roofline. Centers, when arranged in a pleasing fashion, complement and strengthen each other.

Centers are strengthened by boundaries that surround, enclose, separate, and connect them. Here’s a photo I took in Yellowstone Park of a crusty boundary at the edge of a bubbling hot springs:

The boundary between the hot spring and the land surrounding is fluid and ever changing (witnessed by the salty stains left from evaporation at the water’s edge).

The wood slats wrapped around this tree at the Imperial Palace in Kyoto, protect it from the wooden brace and form a boundary between the tree and the support:

After, explaining and illustrating Alexander’s fifteen properties, we asked attendees to form groups to brainstorm and discuss Alexandrian properties that they found in their own lives. One group focused on Alexandrian properties they found in the Tokyo metro and railway system; another on the properties of bento boxes; and a third on properties in education and learning. I was surprised by the diversity (and how profound some of the examples were, even though at first blush they seemed straightforward and simple).
But that is the topic of my next blog post.

To close this post I want to share two photos that whimsically illustrate “life” my camera eye unexpectedly caught in Kyoto. This first photo is obvious:

The second takes a little bit of searching to find the “owl-like” creature:

Is Kyoto a magical place? I think so. It was amazing to discover human-like or animal-like images in photos of trees. I had no idea that those shapes were there until I looked at my photographs. My eye must have been unconsciously drawn to those shapes (but truly, I didn’t see them until I looked at the photos). Even more startling to me is the liveliness of inanimate things—whether a hand crafted software module or a carefully placed garden pathway—that is more subtle and also profound. When we find strong centers surrounded by other strong centers in designed things, there is a pleasing sense of discovery and wonder.