The Fifteen Fundamental Properties of Living Structure. 5. Positive Space

24 July 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.]

Positive space in the blossoms and leaves of a rhododendron.

Living structures can be characterized, in their varying degrees of life, by the extent to which each part of the structure is positive. When everything in a structure “swells outward” or “is substantial in itself” that structure will be full of life. Another way of saying it is to say that, in living structure, nothing is left over, everything contributes to its wholeness and life.

At a fisherman's terminal, every bit of space is made positive by necessity.

Positive space in grass.

Positive space in a workshop.

Positive space in the cliffs of Table Rock. And in the forest around its base. And in the river and its shores, the relationship between river and land.

In beautiful towns and in cities that feel alive, the positive and negative spaces are all positive in the sense intended here. Everything is positive. Both the buildings and the spaces between the buildings are given substance and integrity so that they enhance each other. There is, then, no such thing as “empty” space in a living world.

For example, here is a zoomed-in image of the famous Nolli plan of Rome (Alexander uses this example as well):

(click to view in full at

And here is the bark on a tree:

The positive space in each is unmistakable. Dwelling on the plan of Rome:

In this plan each bit of every street is positive; the building masses are positive; the public interiors are positive. There is virtually no part of the whole which does not have definite and positive shape. It is a packing of definite entities, each of which is definite and substantial in its own right. This comes about, I think, because each of these places — whether street, square, or block of buildings — has been shaped over time by people who cared about it, and it has therefore taken a definite, cared-for shape with meaning and purpose. Each of these entities has been formed by the slow deliberate strengthening of centers. (NOPL, 174)

Only in a truly lifeless materialism have we been able to come to believe in Empty Space, and it makes us feel hollow. Our belief about matter, even in an age of environmental concern, is that deep down, at its most basic, it is inert and valueless in itself — and our understanding of space is even weaker.

Building with only the building itself in mind, we build out of this underlying belief in the emptiness of space, and the buildings are abandoned almost from conception. Convenience stores, office buildings, banks, restaurants, and even our homes are commonly built out of this devalued understanding of space. A box store is emblematic: a huge box on thousands of square meters of asphalt. Nothing is positive, neither the building, nor the space around the building which the building shapes. There is not even a hint of a vision of what a living world looks like.

It is nearly impossible to believe in a reality made of positive living space in the shadow of a building like this.

Target store, nearby in Medford, OR, almost totally lacking in positive space

On the other hand, the natural world reveals to what profound a degree positive space can develop:

Intense positive space. Mount Rainier and its environs.

It may seem unfair to compare a Target store to Mount Rainier, but I don’t believe it is. Life can be recognized as life at no matter what scale you look. For example, there is beautiful life in the positive space of this tree exploding with blossoms:

And there is subtle positive space in the shape of this personal, handmade tumbler, and in the playful curves on its surface:

Positive space in a ceramic tumbler made by my own mom, Jane van Eerden.

And too, I believe, there is positive space and a degree of true life in the port of Seattle loading docks (Rainier is in the distance):

The flowering tree, the handmade tumbler, and even the cranes at Seattle’s port share a resemblance of living structure with the majesty of Mount Rainier which buildings like the Target store simply do not have. The reason for this lack of life is that they are designed and built for no particular place, but for ubiquitous placement. They are the same everywhere.

The ruthlessness of this culture of building is proven in a place like Morgantown, West Virginia, where the top of a small mountains was leveled to make room for the unalterable plans of a collection of box stores — just as the mountains are leveled for coal in other parts of that region.

Whenever something is designed for no particular place, without sensitivity to the life already present in the space which it will (re)shape, there is an inherent loss of life. The larger the “something” the more profound the loss of life.

Mountaintop removal exemplifies the loss of life inherent when the property of positive space is not recognized. (photo courtesy of

The property of positive space demands that everything be made beautiful, robust, and fitting.

Positive space, I would argue, is the property of living structure that most depends on, and most encourages, a vision of the world as truly filled with the spirit of life. [Of the properties I have described so far, Strong Centers points to a similar conviction.]

It is not merely an aesthetic principle, but, as with all the other properties, it is the result of careful observation of what makes for living structure, and a considered hypothesis of how it is possible at all.

Most importantly, it is an explicit statement of the inherent value of all of space, whether it is “empty” — or full of “stuff”.

We will continue to create environments that generate feelings of emptiness so long as we do not see that each square inch is deserving of care.

More than that, when we believe the world is full of true life and that our making can be a part of this life, we will care for it — without much anxiety, but with an abundance of joy and inner calm.

The way a good uncle cares for his newborn nephew, for instance.

Or the way a craftsman cares for every joint.


This week’s photo(s) of light, of the light created by the trout pond (created by the people at Lincoln) behind the Linton house:


3 Responses to “The Fifteen Fundamental Properties of Living Structure. 5. Positive Space”

  1. Jessie van Eerden said

    Such a moving post to me.
    The bit on Targets, et al, reminds me of what Li-Young Lee says in his interviews in BREAKING THE ALABASTER JAR about cathedrals/space & poems/silence:

    “I’m trying to use words to inflect the silence so that the silence becomes more palpable…It’s like when sculptors use…stone in order for us to experience space. You know the gothic cathedrals? When you walk into them, it’s space you experience. The verticality of space, but they achieve it by using rock. Otherwise, you can’t point to it. It’s transparent. So I would say that art uncovers space, silence. So we’re using words to make the silence palpable. Sitting there not talking isn’t quite it. … Wallace Stevens says [in “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”], ‘I don’t know what I love more, the beauty of inflection or the innuendo.’ The sound of the blackbird calling or just after. So maybe it’s the thing that happens just after you read the line of poems or the entire poem, there’s a kind of pregnant silence that opens.”

    And I’m also struck by the idea of beautiful, life-giving building being connected to respect for the life inherent in a place (before you even build or add to it). I think about this in relation to teaching — this from Henri Nouwen on hospitality and teaching — along the same lines….

    “A good host is the one who believes that his guest is carrying a promise he wants to reveal to anyone who shows genuine interest. It is so easy to impress students with books they have not read, with terms they have not heard, or with situations with which they are unfamiliar. It is much more difficult to be a receiver who can help the students to distinguish carefully between the wheat and the weeds in their own lives and to show the beauty of the gifts they are carrying with them.” (REACHING OUT, 87)


  2. Lucas Harriman said

    Mike, could you say a little more about how Alexander’s (and your own) conceptualization of positive space departs from the way we typically use the term, as a counterpoint to the surrounding negative space? I find the oscillation that happens in certain patterns between the positive and negative spaces particularly engaging. A great example would be your own concrete window #4: “Tulip Poplar,” where the four poplar leaves “leave” the shape of a cross in their absence. What is causing this sort of illusion of oscillation, and does it relate to some of the other images you include in the post? It seems to rely on a careful attention not only to what is added (the structure of the building) but also to that which is diminished (quantitatively, not qualitatively — the skyline, for example)? Thoughtful stuff, especially when the notion of “wholeness” is always in the background …

    • Good to hear from you, Luke!

      The idea of the property of Positive Space is that ALL space in living structure will be inherently positive — which is to say, living as a center in its own right. And as living centers enhance one another, it is easy to see how in something that plays successfully with what we call “positive and negative space” that successful play will bear the property of Positive Space, and be a lively and enchanting artifact.

      Alexander’s notion of Positive Space should not be contrasted with “negative space” (which is really nothing but a way of naming the space that has been crafted “secondarily” or that appears to be “coming alongside” or “hiding” in the presence of what we took to be “positive”: for the craftsman or craftswoman who creates such a play, the recognition of the positivity of both aspects is always assumed).

      Instead it should be contrasted with the entirely unnecessary and degenerative concept of “Empty Space” which I would argue is a kind of “anti-property”, something which eats away at the very possibility of understanding creation as inherently valuable.

      My concrete window screens are maybe not good examples, except of attempts. But yes, I do believe, in the case of windows, that often (not always) the crafted interruption of the light, or of the view, by lattice, screen, or foliage, actually enhances the quality of the light, or of the view.

      In fact, Alexander calls it the “Zen View” in his book A Pattern Language, when he recommends (based on the evidence in many buildings around the world which share this pattern) that often putting just a very small and beautiful window facing the direction of a particularly stunning external object (like a distant mountain, for instance) creates a feeling for the mountain and the space from which one is seeing it that is far more profound than a huge bay of windows. This is a sensitivity to the way beauty and its contemplation works which is almost if not completely foreign to the way that we build (and envision generally) the world, and our relationship to it, today.

      Thanks so much for the stimulating question!


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