Architectural visionary Christopher Alexander has produced a four-volume “essay” that attempts to cure architecture. The Nature of Order: the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe makes some valuable assertions. Apart from being interested in the “universals” that he thinks ought to apply to buildings, I was playing with the idea of applying his principles to art in general and painting in particular:
— A range of sizes is pleasing and beautiful.
— Good design has areas of focus and weight.
— Outlines focus attention to the centre.
— Repeating elements give order and harmony.
— The background should not detract from the centre.
— Simple forms create an intense, powerful centre.
— Small symmetries are better than overall symmetry.
— Looping, connected elements give unity and grace.
— Unity is achieved with visible opposites.
— Texture and imperfections give uniqueness and life.
— Similarities should repeat throughout a design.
— Empty spaces offer calm and contrast.
— Use only essentials; avoid extraneous elements.
— Designs should be interconnected, not isolated.
— Scale and echo create positive emotions.
A lot of what Alexander says has to do with “getting to the centre” — what painters like to call the “centre of interest.” Funny to think that the treatment of an elevator block in an office-building foyer might relate to the climax area of an easel painting. Both draw you in. Both are a focus and a first impression. Paintings, like buildings, are an environment. They are either successful or unsuccessful. Some of the elements of what he calls “pattern language” may be hard-wired into our brains. Like the middle C at the end of a symphony, we need them. Though our imaginations may freely fly with all combinations possible, according to Alexander we omit these elements at our peril.
Why then do we deviate from these laws? The world is chockablock with weak, wishy-washy buildings, built down to a price. That goes for paintings too. Perhaps the human spirit is as much in love with error as it is with righteousness. Without sin there is no salvation.
PS: “These tools allow anyone, and any group of people, to create beautiful, functional, meaningful places. You can create a living world.” (Christopher Alexander)
Esoterica: Alexander, who lives in California, is the architect of hundreds of structures and landscape environments. His numerous books and papers have influenced computer science, information systems, organizations, office furniture design, domestic interiors, even Oriental carpet studies. His philosophy of nature and life has our universe as a coherent whole, encompassing feelings as well as inanimate matter. Studying Alexander invites curiosity about the gaping space between theory and practice. Like many a “Renaissance Man,” Alexander also paints.
This letter was originally published as “Pattern language” on September 24, 2004.
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“In short, no pattern is an isolated entity. Each pattern can exist in the world only to the extent that is supported by other patterns: the larger patterns in which it is embedded, the patterns of the same size that surround it, and the smaller patterns which are embedded in it.” (Christopher Alexander)