The Fifteen Fundamental Properties of Living Structure. 1. Levels of Scale

19 June 2010

[The fullest available description of the fifteen fundamental properties of living structure can be found in the four volumes of The Nature of Order — particularly Book One, The Phenomenon of Life (NOPL) . The argument is that living structure, wherever it appears, is composed of fundamental structural features — roughly fifteen of them, at least. Living structure, according to the argument, is in fact unlikely to be discovered lacking too many of these fifteen properties. They are consistently present. The discovery of these properties is the result of decades of attentive observation by architect, builder, and author Christopher Alexander.

The aim of these observations — to better understand the nature of things around us, the order of life, in order to participate in its construction — is not one that should be discarded. Instead, we can cultivate it. One way available to anyone is to simply notice with clear-eyed joy those things that give one life, no matter how small they are, and to welcome the idea that the life they give is real.]

When it doesn’t rain, the earth cracks.

When a tree grows, it grows into trunk, branches, stems, leaves, veins of leaves.

When the earth crumples it forms mountain ranges, peaks, ridges, foothills, and so on — with corresponding crevices, steep valleys, wider river valleys, gentle pockets.

A beautiful bridge is supported by a scale of pillars varying in length into a gorge, and these pillars have flutes to make them grand. A distant mountain enhances the life of a thriving city — and (to some extent) vice versa.

The Aurora Bridge, Seattle, WA

The universe has galaxies, solar systems within galaxies, planets within solar systems, moons around the planets.

A human embryo forms torso, arms and legs, hands and feet, fingers and toes, the joints connecting all of these, the wrinkles at the joints.

All of these have as an essential structural property the existence of Levels of Scale — from a human embryo to the soil of a drought. The functions are diverse, but the property is the same.

Levels of scale on a Ponderosa Pine in bloom.

Nearly all living structure can be characterized by the presence of “a beautiful range of sizes…[existing] at a series of well-marked levels, with definite jumps between them” which “follow naturally from the way [the given] system brings itself to order” (NOPL, 145, 246). Just about every system has a need for organizing at various levels according to each level’s needs, given the range of size and the functions being performed at the different levels by the different parts.

For instance, a tree has a trunk, limbs, branches, and twigs to carry the load of the leaves and distribute sap. There is a hierarchy because a limb of any one size can serve only a comparable volume and cannot therefore reach each part of this volume, except by breaking down into smaller elements, which can, more economically, reach smaller volumes of the tree. (NOPL, 246)

We recognize similar structural patterns in lung development, river formation, electric discharges, and the cracks in drying earth. What is the reason for this? This similarity of pattern despite diversity of function is the kind of phenomenon which Alexander’s hypothesis seeks to understand.

The hypothesis is that it is the “wholeness” of the given environmental reality which brings latent centers to life, and which each living center enhances. The wholeness always preserves the centers that are already strong, and, for some reason, it always strengthens and enhances latent centers in remarkably similar ways — among which, the property of levels of scale is nearly ubiquitous.

A beautiful building necessitates attention to levels of scale. Without the ability to judge the wholeness of the building in terms of proportion and scale, a building cannot become very beautiful, and will not succeed as a place where people like to be. In a conversation with Stephen Duff, professor of architecture at University of Oregon, he told me it takes at least five years of experience looking at buildings and rooms with this sense of proportion in mind, before a person can accurately judge the appropriate scale for a given situation.

Kiln shed at the art studios at the University of Oregon, in Eugene. Designed and built by Stephen Duff and his students; completed 2010.

The levels of scale are beautiful, from the cross-hatched open walls up to the truss work, down to the wonderfully shaped wind-braces which frame the smallest level of scale -- the lattice work of the ceiling.

What this means is that not just any level of scale is appropriate, or will function well in a given structure, to bring that structure to life. None of the fifteen properties, in fact, are ingredients you can merely add to something you are creating to make it work. Always, attention to the task at hand is paramount. What solution does this problem call for? What will be just right, right here, to enhance the life and structural wholeness of this center?

Alexander suggests that a certain predefined range of jumps in scale is always roughly present in any living structure:

[A] center becomes most intense in its life when others near it have a definite size relation to it at a scale which is perhaps half its size, or twice its size — but not enormously bigger, or enormously smaller. To intensify a given center, we need to make another center perhaps half or quarter the size of the first. if the smaller one is less than one-tenth of the larger one, it is less likely to help it in its intensity. (148-9)

This is the kind of statement that can only be tested by experience. So do two things at once: Pay attention to what makes your heart glad, and then take a peek: what are the levels of scale in this thing that makes you glad? Use your imagination: if the pillars on this bridge were smooth, round cylinders from top to bottom, would it be as beautiful? If the flutes were only a half-inch wide, what would that feel like? These are the kinds of experiments we can do to learn what makes living structure feel alive.

There are, in Alexander’s A Pattern Language (1977) — a book which identified 253 archetypal patterns in human-built living structure around the world — several patterns which testify to the importance of levels of scale. At the level of individual buildings, these include Small Panes, Half-inch Trim, Alcoves, Bed Alcove, and Ceiling Height Variety (APL, 1108, 1112, 828, 868, 876). At the level of towns/cities/neighborhoods, there are the patterns Independent Regions, Community of 7000, Identifiable Neighborhood, and Hierarchy of Open Space (APL, 10, 70, 80, 557).  [Note: These links take you to a helpful site which summarizes the structural conflict and resolution of each of the 253 patterns.  A description of the site can be found on my Links page.]

Finally, at LivingNeighborhoods.org, a site Alexander and Co. have designed for helping the development of neighborhoods, you can find another description of Levels of Scale and several other of the fifteen fundamental properties, with particular application to the enhancement of neighborhoods.

~*~***~*~

As postludes for each of the fifteen properties I will use a photo of mine that I believe captures in some fashion the simple beauty of light.

I love the workings of light.  It is quintessentially indescribable.  It transcends all other living structures, in my humble opinion.  For instance, even just riding a bus, on a sunny day is like making a journey in an ever-changing arcade of light.

Light in Back of Bus, San Francisco, 2009.

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2 Responses to “The Fifteen Fundamental Properties of Living Structure. 1. Levels of Scale”

  1. lyndi said

    Mike – I’m reading Michael Pollan’s A Place of My Own right now, so I feel like I’m just starting to get an introduction to some of these names and ideas. It’s all rather fascinating, isn’t it – which is what I unsuccessfully tried to explain to my boyfriend’s grandmother when she suggested that it sounded boring.

  2. Hey Lyndi. Well, you can’t convert everyone. 🙂 Let me know what you liked best about Pollan’s book — I’ve only glanced at it, myself.

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