Living Centers Revisited: Post-it Notes and The Culture of Building

12 June 2010

[Note: This post has been substantially trimmed.  I was simply not happy with the middle section!]

In an earlier post (using an especially vivacious homestead in West Virginia as an example) I introduced Christopher Alexander’s concept of “centers.” I described how, in a living world, every aspect of space, on every level, can be understood as having “living structure”, and how the nature of living structure, the way it comes together on every scale, generates a sense of wonder and contentment and energy in us when we are present to it.

A “center” in this context is nothing other than a way of identifying a certain element of living structure as such, at whatever scale. It is a portion of definable space with a measure of life to it. There are weak centers (which have little or no life to them) and strong centers (which are full of life). So it makes sense to say, a living world consists of centers consisting of smaller centers consisting of still smaller centers and so on, all of which are full of life. The life in the smaller centers enhances the life of the larger centers, generating a quality of structural wholeness — even as it is this wholeness which, somewhat mysteriously, calls the smaller centers into being in the first place.

This paradox is easy to illustrate. I can do so by conjoining a pair of examples from The Nature of Order (NOPL, 305, 81-82), using the post-it notes here on my desk. One post-it is blank, and the other has a small diamond drawn in the middle. Which of them has more life to it? Which produces a greater sense of wholeness in us?

Of the two post-it notes, it is evident the one on the right, with the small diamond, has more life to it — it is more personal, and it generates a deeper liking from us than the other. Not just any mark brings more life to a post-it. If I add a third post-it note, with a squiggle on it, it is not as personal, and does not generate the same feeling; in fact, it perhaps generates even less life than the blank post-it.

The post-it with the diamond on it is not only the most personal; it is also the most structurally whole. It has the most complex network of living centers (simple as it is).

The presence of the diamond creates a series of latent centers which were not there in the same way on the blank post-it, and which are not created by the squiggle. Below I have indicated just some of the latent centers which were created, or enhanced, by the presence of the diamond.  These latent centers did not exist in the same way on the blank post it (although many were there, in weaker form, by virtue of the post-it being square; in a blob shaped post-it there is very little opportunity for enhanced structural wholeness, because the wholeness of a blob is obviously very weak).

Any one of these centers by itself does not have the same feeling or life as when it is a part of the larger whole:

However, it does have a certain degree of life, and produces its own latent centers…

…but this only suggests to what extent any given center is always a functioning aspect of the whole (or larger center) of which it is an integral part, and by which it was, as it were, “called” into being.

And what applies to the few square inches of a post-it note can be applied to neighborhoods and the entire built environment.  What is built and how it is built, in each instance, has <i>some</i> effect on the larger whole of which it is a part — enhancing if it is sensitive to a previously unattended/latent center, and more or less degenerative to the extent that it ignores the structural whole, or lessens the life already present.

In other words, neighborhoods and cities can (and I think must) be understood in terms of their living structure and structural wholeness as well — in these or other terms which are very similar in spirit.

Mural in Hunting Park, Philadelphia. Designed and built (with neighborhood help) by Michaelanne Harriman of Orange Korner Arts. Click on image to visit the OKA facebook page.

Our conceptions of how we relate to our neighbors, and how we all function as builders of our shared and personal environments, will become revitalized (maybe even vivacious…) when we think of all aspects of these entities/relationships in terms of centers — that is, in terms of their relative degrees of structural life. Structural life in this context can, I would argue, be understood socially, economically, demographically, environmentally, in addition to the more obvious physical and architectural senses. As Howard Davis, Professor of Architecture at the University of Oregon, wrote in his book The Culture of Building:

In a healthy building culture, buildings of meaning and value are being made by people who are themselves improving their lives through making those buildings. […] The health of a building culture lies partly in its ability to produce artifacts of long-term human value, or to maintain building knowledge that has such value. […] But in a building culture where the artifact and the type [of building design] both have transient value, the artifact does not contribute to the health of the culture. (The Culture of Building, 13-14)

Any building culture, he says, has as a characteristic that “it links all buildings together” — both the cathedral and the bicycle shed: “It is the inherent conservatism of building knowledge and technique, combined with the diffusion of knowledge and technique over time and geographical space, that leads to the continuities and variety in the world of building” (8).

It is invaluable, therefore, to understand the knowledge and techniques which are shaping our world on a daily basis, and to learn and practice those which enhance the life of our neighborhoods and cities at every scale. Davis points to Alexander as a primary example of someone who has committed his life to precisely this work, and whose concepts of “patterns” and “centers and [his stressing of] archetypal relationships that cut across history and culture…explain how the built world may be understood as a continuous structure…and how this structure is connected to human purposes” (10, my italics).

In order to evaluate our culture(s) of building and shaping our world, a certain humility is necessary regarding what can and does touch us. What applies to the post-it note applies, in principle, to all of life and all of space. It takes some humility and some vulnerability to let ourselves be touched by a pencil mark on a post-it note — to recognize that it touches our hearts, however slightly. By recognizing this astounding fact — it is absolutely astounding, if you think about it — we allow ourselves into a world where life might be discovered in any corner, and where we can begin, anywhere, to take our part in nurturing it where it only latent.


Here is a favorite meditation from a Sufi mystic of the thirteenth century, Ruzbihan Baqli.  It can be found in Carl W. Ernst’s translation of Baqli’s writings, entitled The Unveiling of Secrets. Diary of a Sufi Master (Parvardigar Press, 1997).

61. The Vastness of the Heart

I saw him on the streets of the hidden with something in his hand. I said, “My God, what is this?”  He said, “Your heart.” I said,”Has my heart such a station that it lies in your hand?” He gazed at my heart, and it was like something folded up, so he spread it out.  And my heart covered the space from the throne to the earth. I said, “This is my heart?” He said, “This is your heart, and it is the vastest thing in existence.”  He took it, as it was still in his hand, to the angelic regions, and I went with him, until I reached the treasury of the hidden of the hidden. I said, “Where are you taking it?” And he said, “To the world of eternity, so that I may look in it, and create the wonders of reality in it, and forever manifest myself in it with the attribute of divinity.”


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