Tag Archives: Christopher Alexander

“There Is a Myth, Sometimes Widespread, that a Person Need Only Do Inner Work.”

“There is a myth, sometimes widespread, that a person need only do inner work…that a man is entirely responsible for his own problems; and that to cure himself, he need only change himself….The fact is, a person is so formed by his surroundings, that his state of harmony depends entirely on his harmony with his surroundings.”

—Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building

Do you agree or disagree?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, as I write my book Before and After, about habit-formation — to what degree are our habits affected by our surroundings and by other people? In my view, a lot. (To be notified when the book goes on sale, sign up here.)

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I Love Lists. Such as This List about What Gives Objects “Life.”

Every Wednesday is List Day, or Tip Day.

This Wednesday: Do you agree with these 15 fundamental properties of “life” in objects?

In The Phenomenon of Life, vol. 1: The Nature of Order, Christopher Alexander asks, “Can we find any recurrent geometrical structural features whose presence in things correlates with their degree of life?”

He identifies fifteen features that appear again and again in things which have “life”–whether that thing is a sketch by an Impressionist, a wooden door, a Norwegian storehouse, a Japanese tea bowl, the Golden Gate Bridge. Or natural things, like a giraffe’s coat, palm fronds, a spider’s web, Himalayan foothills, muscle fiber.

  1. Levels of scale
  2. Strong centers
  3. Boundaries
  4. Alternating repetition
  5. Positive space
  6. Good shape
  7. Local symmetries
  8. Deep interlock and ambiguity
  9. Contrast
  10. Gradients
  11. Roughness
  12. Echoes
  13. The void
  14. Simplicity and inner calm
  15. Non-separateness.

It’s not always easy to understand, but just looking at all the illustrations is a wonderful exercise. I’m a word person, not a visual person, and this book really did a lot to help me understand how to look at objects.

I love schemes like this, that seek to identify the different elements of very complex wholes. I love taxonomy–and dividing people into different categories–and lists of all sorts.

For instance, just as I love Alexander’s approach, I love this scheme by John Ruskin in The Stones of Venice, about the nature of the Gothic:

“I believe, then, that the characteristic or moral elements of Gothic are the following, placed in the order of their importance:

  1. Savageness
  2. Changefulness
  3. Naturalism.
  4. Grotesqueness.
  5. Rigidity.
  6. Redundance.”

I don’t really know what Ruskin is talking about. But just this set of ideas, put together, makes my mind race.

How about you? Does Alexander’s scheme ring true for you? Do you have similar lists that you love?

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Do You Agree That These “Patterns” Make Places Beautiful and Comfortable?

Every Wednesday is Tip Day, or List Day, or Quiz Day.

This Wednesday: Do you agree that these “patterns” make places beautiful and comfortable?

I’ve written before about Christopher Alexander’s brilliant, strange book, A Pattern Language. Few books have made such an impression on me and the way that I think. The book sets forth an archetypal “language” of 253 patterns that make the design of towns, buildings, and–most interesting to me–homes the most pleasing.

This book doesn’t need to be read from front to back; I often just flip through it and study the parts that resonate with me–and look at the pictures, too, of course.

I’m a very text-centric person, and not very visual, and this book helped me to identify the elements about spaces that I like, or don’t like. I’m able to see the world in a new way, and as a consequence, I’ve been able to do some things differently in my own space, to make it more enjoyable.

Here’s a list of some of the “patterns” that I love most–and I even love the aptness of the phrases used to describe them:

Half-hidden garden–this is an example of something that I love but just can’t put into practice in New York City, alas.

Staircase as stage–ditto.

Cascade of roofs–once I started looking, I realized that many of my favorite buildings had a cascade of roofs.

Sleeping to the east–after my parents moved to a new place, they both remarked, independently, how much they enjoyed having a bedroom that faced east.

A room of one’s own–yes!

Light on two sides of every room–after I moved to New York City, I became acutely aware of the importance of light, and it’s true, having light on two sides of a room makes a huge difference.

Six foot balcony–this pattern explained something that had always puzzled me: why people in New York City apartment buildings seemed so rarely to use their balconies. It turns out that when a balcony is too narrow, people don’t feel comfortable on it. It needs to be at least six feet deep.

Windows overlooking life–our apartment has good light, which I’m so thankful for, but we can’t look down on any street scenes, just the sides of buildings; it’s surprising how much we miss being able to overlook life.

Sitting circle–odd to me how many people place their furniture in ways that don’t make for comfortable conversation.

Ceiling height variety–I was astonished to notice how much more I enjoy places that have ceilings at different heights.

Built-in seats–yes! Window seats, alcoves, banquettes, love these. Especially window seats.

Raised flowers–yes!

Things from your life–in Happier at Home, I “cultivated a shrine” to my passion for children’s literature, as a way to make a special place for certain things from my life (for instance, my old copies of Cricket magazine, my complete set of The Wizard of Oz books, my mother’s old copy of Little Women, my Gryffindor banner that a friend brought me from the Harry Potter Theme Park.

Child caves–so true that children love to play in small, low places. My sister had the “Cozy Club” with a friend, and my younger daughter now plays in an odd little space she has decorated.

Secret place–ah, this is my favorite. Again, as I write about in Happier at Home, I was inspired to create my own secret places in our apartment. I couldn’t stop with just one. As Alexander writes, “Where can the need for concealment be expressed; the need to hide; the need for something precious to be lost, and then revealed?”

How about you? Have you identified some “patterns” in the design of the places you love?

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Pigeon of Discontent:”I Don’t Know How I Want My Home To Look.”

2012 Happiness Challenge: For those of you following the 2012 Happiness Project Challenge, to make 2012 a happier year—and even if you haven’t officially signed up for the challenge—welcome! Each week, I post a video about some Pigeon of Discontent raised by a reader. Because, as much as we try to find the Bluebird of Happiness, we’re also plagued by the Pigeons of Discontent.

This week’s Pigeon of Discontent, suggested by a reader, is: “I don’t know how I want my home I look.”

I Don’t Know How I Want My Home To Look.

 

If you want to read more about this resolution, check out…

7 books that changed the way I see the world.

Quiz: Is your workspace driving you crazy?

How to make yourself happier through “growth.”

How about you? Have you found ways to figure out how you want your home to look, if you’re not a person who naturally has a strong sense of that?

You can post your own Pigeon of Discontent at any time; also, from time to time, I’ll make a special call for suggestions.

If you’re new, jump in right now, sign up here. Studies suggest that by taking action, like signing up for this challenge, will help you keep your resolutions. For the 2012 Challenge, each week I’ll post a video for you to consider, and you can check out the archives of videos here.

“Few Things Have So Much Effect On the Feeling Inside a Room as the Sun Shining Into It.”

“The fact is that very few things have so much effect on the feeling inside a room as the sun shining into it.”
— Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language

I've said it many times, and I'll say it again, I love A Pattern Language.

* Someone once told me, "It's pretty rare to find a blogger who isn't what you'd expect from reading his or her blog," and I've found that to be true in most cases. For instance, Laura Mayes is a delightful person in real life, and her blog Blog Con Queso is delightful, too.

* Join the happiness conversation on Facebook — lots of interesting conversation there. Or follow me on Twitter, @gretchenrubin.