The Fifteen Fundamental Properties of Living Structure. 6. Good Shape

31 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.]

The cactus has good shape in each of its parts.

When we admire the beauty of any one living structure in particular, what we are often most struck by, after perhaps the color, is the pervasive nature of its Good Shape. Even though we might not think to say it, and almost certainly would not stop to analyze the presence of this quality as a fundamental property of beautiful living structure generally, good shape captivates and calms us. In addition, it is perhaps the most readily accessible way for us to acknowledge that the things we all really like share certain common properties. Good shape is almost always present in living structure.

To revisit a favorite little structure of mine, built by Stephen Duff and his students at the University of Oregon in Eugene:

The kiln shed is replete with Good Shape -- most stunningly in the curved ceiling trusses...

...but also in the columns, the bases of the columns, and even in the gutter which collects the rain water!

Nothing seems to me as obviously of the essence of living structure (besides color, or “inner light” as Alexander calls it), and nothing so clearly brings immediate and indescribable pleasure, as good shape. It can be powerful, delicate, simple, or complex, but it always reassures and pleases and invigorates the heart.

Good shape in a magnolia blossom.

Good shape in a crashing tidal wave.

A Great-Horned Owl has very good shape.

Good shape in curled leaves.

Nonetheless, Alexander finds it very difficult to describe, and therefore takes some time doing so, listing in the following passage those particular characteristics which make for good shape, and frequent elements found in structures which possess good shape:

1. High degree of internal symmetries.
2. Bilateral symmetry (almost always).
3. A well-marked center (not necessarily at the geometric middle).
4. The spaces it creates next to it are also positive (positive space).
5. It is very strongly distinct from what surrounds it.
6. It is relatively compact (i.e. not very different in overall outline from something between 1:1 or 1:2 — exceptions may go as high as 1:4, but almost never higher).
7. It has closure, a feeling of being closed and complete.

All in all, in my experience, in the build-up of a good shape the following elements are the most common: square, line segment, arrowhead, hook, triangle, row of dots, circle, rosette, diamond, S-shape, half circle, star, steps, cross, wave, spiral, tree, octagon. (The Nature of Order, Book One: The Phenomenon of Life, 183)

It is a recursive rule. Things with good shape are made up of elements that also have good shape, and in human artifacts in particular the good shapes are made of certain basic building blocks without which good shape is almost impossible to create.

This teapot stand is Alexander's example of an artifact with good shape, and the elementary good shapes of which it is made.

Good shape in an old lumber yard building. Medford, OR.

Good shape makes for a good stein!

Simple and powerful good shape in a row of concrete silos. Somewhere in the midwest...

Nature may perhaps be broken down into similar basic shapes as well; certainly its shapes fit the parameters Alexander has numbered.

Every single thing in this shot of the ground has good shape in an inexplicable way. Yet it is abundantly true, and it means something to acknowledge it!

The world is filled with an infinite variety of living structures which have good shape.  The fundamental properties and the elemental shapes are relatively few, but they produce, inexhaustibly, the beauty of which the world is made.  To recognize this, I believe, is to recognize the simply overflowing available number of life-enhancing consolations of which the stuff all around us is actually made.  (To read more about this idea of life-enhancing consolations, read this post.)

When light enters a room at the right time of day, or at the right angle, with the right intensity, it can feel like a substantial physical presence in its own right, like a piece of furniture.  This is how it commonly greets me in the morning, stepping into our kitchen…

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