The Fifteen Fundamental Properties of Living Structure. 2. Strong Centers

26 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.]

Occasionally the sheer force of a living structure is enough to make the most myopic, grumpy person stagger.

Even each section of this palm, and each section of each section, has a strong centeredness to it. (This is due to the Alternating Repetition and the Gradients -- two properties to be described in coming weeks.) The whole palm shines.

What is it about some things in particular that makes us stand in awe?

In all living structures, their degree of life is created by the strength of the centers of which they are made. The stronger the centers, the greater the degree of life.

This fundamental property, the Strong Centers of living structures, places a different emphasis on the notion of centers than I have presented so far. It says that not only are centers the basic elements of all things, but that in living structure, these centers are strong, they have integrity, power, and wholeness in themselves.

In my post two weeks ago, I illustrated, using post-it notes, the latency of centers generated by the wholeness of a post-it decorated by a pencil-drawn diamond.

The post-it note had a degree of life to it. Not much, but some. The diamond was a weak “strong center”, and the gestures illustrating the latent centers were very weak indeed.

Now, compare the post-it to this photo of tile work at the Alhambra, in Spain.  It is the same process at work, but to a shimmering degree of life.

Photo by John Baez

It is a field of living centers, such that each tile by itself is strong, and each level of scale of the tiles, as one pattern spills into/helps form the next larger one (see Levels of Scale), is therefore also strong, with a radiating, glowing power pervading the whole.

In other words, as always, whether you lean in or stand back, a living structure produces a strong sense of wonder. It has a great intensity even as it bears a certain calmness. It brings good energy to the depths of our hearts.


This is a good time for registering a slightly different approach to these “strong living centers”:

Often — indeed, so often as to be indicative, if we could be aware of it — the presence of living structure also puts us in touch with a kind of sadness. In The Luminous Ground, Alexander calls it The Goal of Tears.  It is one of the most insightful elements in Alexander’s work, his recognizing this presence in all true life. If I were to put it in my own words I would say: True life makes our hearts soft.

Even a post-it note with a diamond drawn on it can start the process, if one lets oneself be touched…

Alexander says of building a column:

It takes a great effort of perception, conscious work, and concentration, to see that the subtle change of the column makes a difference to its sadness, or to its capacity to hold, and reflect sadness.  […] If I pay very careful attention to the feeling which is welling up in me, I do notice tiny differences, small sensations, and I do notice that threat of tears, that harshness in the back of my throat which moves me toward the shape of a column which will ultimately have a more serious meaning, which will enlarge life in that room, which will then, through its austerity, make more likely the experience of joy.  (Book Four: The Luminous Ground [NOLG] ,247)

Somehow the shape of a thing can make us more awake to the mixture of joy and sorrow at the heart of life.  Somehow these things are actually connected.  I have been practicing this kind of concentration as best I can, and this much is true:  I can feel my heart softening and hardening and softening again, constantly, all day. And I am more uplifted by the life all around me than I was before.  I do not force it (I can tell when I am doing that). I just try to let feelings of joy and soft-heartedness rise more easily to the surface, and to let go of those fears of censorship or derision from others which might keep me from being sensitive to what true life is really like.


Now back to strong centers. The wonder, the sense of calm, the sadness, the softness of heart which living structure produces in us is due to the relationship, and strength, of its various elements. In one of my first posts I described the life of a porch, how its life is a result of all the centers which surround it — centers which may or may not be parts one would typically designate by the term “porch.”

The Harriman Porch, Preston County, WV.

Now I might add something else about this porch. In the section on Strong Centers in The Phenomenon of Life, Alexander describes how many contemporary houses are designed and built without anything like a coherent understanding of centers, of what should or might or could be the main center(s) of a house. He suggests that this is informed by a lack of sense of what a family is, or who a family is.

What once were powerful centers — the fire, the marriage bed, the table — no longer have this power, because individually and as families we are not centered… The emotional confusion of the present-day family reveals itself in the lack of power in these centers of the house.

But when a house is organized with clearer centers — with a center that exists in the plan as a focusing field of energy, focusing the energy towards a place — it becomes immediately more potent, even in its ability to harness unknown and undeveloped tendencies of centering in the life people live there together. (NOPL, 155)

In other words, although a house in no way “solves” emotional problems, it certainly does play its part in enhancing or detracting from the richness of life of those who live in it, no less than the life of a city or neighborhood is shaped by its zoning laws (which may or may not encourage the building up of the true life of every part). When we care for the places we live in with primary attention to their life (above cleanliness, style, prejudices about hospitality, and so on), we create strong centers which will be felt and known, to some degree, by everyone who enters.

So back to the porch. I think it is safe to say that the Harriman’s porch, at least in the summer, functions as one of the most powerful living centers of their home. It is a place for rest, for conversation, for Bible study, for playing cards, for eating meals, for swinging in the breeze, for solitude, for love, for birdwatching, for craft making. It is the place where hellos and goodbyes happen, and it itself offers welcome because of the strength of its placement, and the strength of the centers of which it is made. It is a successful place for all of these things because of how it is built.

Of course, when the Harrimans built it they were not thinking in exactly these terms. They just built a good porch. However, one detail I know they were conscious about creating: letting the tin roof be as loud as it could be when it rains. In fact, I believe they chose a tin roof maybe just for the sake of this sound, because they knew they liked it. And so now it is common to rush outside when it rains, in order to enjoy the sound of it!

The life of the porch in a summer rain.

The strength of living centers is in that they are made to fit their particular situation, each and every time. A strong center is one that is just right. I used the word integrity before. Alexander, in the following passage, uses the term substance similarly when discussing the nitty-gritty of building:

Since each center is a field of centers, the larger centers of the building can’t have substantial life unless they are themselves made of smaller living centers. This means that ideally, all the individual elements — even nails, pieces of wood, joints, tiles, sills — should themselves all be living centers. They must themselves have emotional substance and actual substance… (Book Three: A Vision of a Living World [NOVLW], 514)

Here is another detail of Stephen Duff’s kiln shed at the artist studios on University of Oregon campus in Eugene. The concrete bases of his wooden columns are very beautiful, and illustrate well how the strength of a smaller center can support (no pun intended…) the larger center of which it is a part. (For more pictures of Duff’s kiln shed, see Fifteen Properties. 1. Levels of Scale.)

Here are just some of the 253 patterns from Alexander’s A Pattern Language which embody the property of strong centers.

Main Building (485); The Fire (838); Common Areas at the Heart (618); South Facing Outdoors (513); Sunny Place (757); Corner Doors (904); Magic of the City (58); Small Public Squares (310); High Places (315); Something Roughly in the Middle (606); Tree Places (797)., one of Alexander’s websites, offers another description of Strong Centers, as well as many other of the fifteen properties.


This week’s postlude photo of light: Light shaped by pines and smoke is almost an everyday occurrence around here, yet it is always life-giving. I mean that literally: I almost always feel just a little bit more awake, and ever so slightly rejuvenated, when I see light coming through trees, through smoke, like this.

Doug Frank cutting down a dead tree. Lincoln, OR, 2009

Have a good week everybody!


One Response to “The Fifteen Fundamental Properties of Living Structure. 2. Strong Centers”

  1. Jessie van Eerden said

    Mike, I’m struck, not surprisingly, by Alexander’s “Goal of Tears” and by the experience of softening–being open to sadness in structures, as part of their wholeness, being vulnerable especially in the process of *making*.

    I just finished Brenda Ueland’s IF YOU WANT TO WRITE, so I wanted to share some resonant thoughts of hers on this idea of “softening”:

    p 18 “If you read the letters of the painter Van Gogh you will see what his creative impulse was. It was just this: he loved something—the sky, say. He loved human beings. He wanted to show human beings how beautiful the sky was. So he painted it for them. And that was all there was to it.”

    p 50 “I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten,–happy, absorbed and quietly putting one bead on after another.”

    p 116, paraphrased from Tolstoy’s essay “What Is Art?”: “Art is infection. The artist has a feeling and he expresses it and at once this feeling infects other people and they have it too. And the infection must be immediate or it isn’t art.”

    And I think this openness/vulnerability/sensitivity is essential in the most minute details of writing, or of making anything–finding just the right word for the scene of a story, or as you say it beautifully, about making strong living centers: “The strength of living centers is in that they are made to fit their particular situation, each and every time.”

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