On Thursday, 16th May, I gave a workshop on the 15 properties as it was developed by Christopher Alexander in volume one of his magnus opus The Nature of Order. The workshop was held at the HumLab facility of Umeå University (Sweden). The HumLab itself is a very interesting place: Open 24 hours/7 days it is designed as “a meeting place for the humanities, culture and technology”. It offers a variety of advanced technological infrastructure and was therefore especially suitable for the subject of my workshop.
Unfortunately I wasn’t prepared for these advanced technological infrastructure as I didn’t know about it during my preparation for the workshop. Especially that a complete wall was converted to a big screen (see photo) wasn’t planned into my presentation. People in the back had to stand up in order to see the lower part of the screen. And I’m not sure if the black grid – resulting from the borders of the many screens integrated in the wall – didn’t have side effect during the judging exercise of wholeness, where two different pictures had to be compared (see my description later).
The workshop as an interactive experiment
To assess the results of the workshop I will start this article with a formal outline of the workshop design. My idea was not only to present some ideas of Christopher Alexander but also to use the workshop as an experiment. Mainly I wanted to discuss three questions:
- What are the 15 fundamental properties of “living structure” according to Alexander?
- Can they transferred into educational settings? And if so: How can the many spatial/geometrical properties translated into the domain of education?
What are the “lesson learned” for educational design?
After a short introduction I presented the 16 pairs of pictures from chapter two “Degrees of Life” (pp.64 of Vol I of The Nature of Order). In contrast to the presentation in the book where those pictures which – according to Alexander – show a greater degree of life – are presented on the left side, I mixed them up. I presented the pictures without any comment and asked the participants to judge them according to the following text:
Your task is to evaluate the pictures based on the following questions:
- Which picture seems more vivid?
- Which picture reflects your true, inner self better?
- Which picture evokes a holistic feeling in you?
All three questions are legitimate, you may use them simultaneously, but you may ALSO choose the one that makes most sense to you.
The idea of this exercise was originally developed by Christian Kohls in a workshop he had held for my department in 2009. I have to confess that many parts of my preparation was facilitated by Christian as he had sent to me all his wonderful and comprehensive material on pattern!
|No.||Left Picture||V||Right Picture||V||E|
|01||Wasteland in Harlem||05||Shelter from the rain||05||?|
|02||Suburban roads with trees||08||Suburban road with traffic lights||02||Y|
|03||Road which is kinder to the hills||08||Road cut through the hills||02||Y|
|04||Road in the trees||05||Road in the hills||05||?|
|05||Watching a horse ring||07||In the stable||03||N|
|06||Friendly edge to a home||04||Less friendly edge||06||N|
|07||The organic painted car||08||Ordinary pickup track||02||N|
|08||The zone of the windows||03||The zone behind the bed||07||Y|
|09||Parking slot with cars placed irregularly||08||Parking slot with cars placed uniformly||02||Y|
|10||Advertisement from Vogue||04||Teenager at Coney Island||06||Y|
|11||More lucent, life-giving interior||06||Muddled, more dead interior||04||Y|
|12||New fence||03||Old fence||07||Y|
|13||Speedway Boulevard in Tuscon, Arizona||01||Annapolis, Maryland||09||Y|
|14||Downtown Shanghai, misty||06||Downtown Shanghai, repetitive||04||Y|
|15||Bangkok slum house||05||The postmodern house||04*||Y|
|16||7th Century manuscript||07||Auditorium wall in Wurster Hall||03||Y|
- The bold yellow marked text identifies the picture which – according to Alexander – shows a higher degree of life.
- In the column “V” you will find the votes of the participants of the workshop.
- In the column “E” you will find the evaluation: “Y” for “yes; in accordance with Alexander” and “N” for “no; in contradiction with Alexander”.
- The “*” means that in this pair comparison one participant believed that both pictures shows the same degree of life.
The results are not especially convincing: Only 11 of 16 comparisons turned out in the way as Alexander would have predicted. Moreover: some of these “right” decisions were pretty narrow (6:4).
Personally I believe that presentation conditions (the huge screen blurred the pictures for people near the wall, the black border interrupts the visual impression) had some bad effects. But in arguing this way several times turned into a running gag as the participants claimed that I’, looking for excuses in order to defend Alexander’s theory.
– It would be interesting to compare the Umeå results with the outcomes of Christians (Kohls) Workshop in Vienna 2009. But I do not have the data anymore. Anyway: The result is not statistically sound because of the small number of participants. One could think on a more standardised experiment over the internet with a more clearly defined prompting question.
In another experiment I formed three groups and gave each of them one of those paired pictures with the best results in the sense of Alexander: I used number 2, 3 and 13 asked each group to find properties in their picture which could be responsible for more/less degrees of life.
I got this idea from Delight’s Muse on Christopher Alexander’s “The Nature of Order” by Jenny Quillien. After presenting the 15 properties with many excellent visual material Jenny commented that other people – especially Paul Krafel in Seeing Nature: Deliberate Encounters with the Visible World – had also noticed many of the properties Alexander described.
So I hypothesized that maybe other people as well could detect some of those 15 properties. As it turned out the participants did quite well. In only 20 minutes they came up with the following ideas for properties:
After looking independently for qualities of life I presented the 15 properties as Alexander conceived them. We had a coffee break in the middle of my discussing the 15 features.
I used many pictures as examples and as demonstration. In the discussion it turned out that sometimes all or some participants disagreed with the point of view taken by Alexander as visualised in the presented pictures.
As an abbreviation or mnemonics I presented the symbols (logoi) for the 15 properties as used by Alexander (on the right hand side of the slide). As an contrast you will also see on the left side on the slides an adapted version developed by Helmut Leitner, whose (German) book on Mustertheorie is highly recommendable.
You will find the PowerPoint-Presentation as an attachment to this article but without all the picture examples. I couldn’t include them for copyright reasons.
In the last part each of the three groups had to think about the transfer of the properties into education. This was a very busy section which I had unfortunately to break up for time reasons. It hat turned out already in the beginning of the workshop that many participants had to leave for personal/family reason. I had planned the workshop for 4 hours but actually we had only 3 hours at our disposal.
But even in the very short time for this final discussion (20 min instead the 45 min I had planned) the results (see attachments to this article) are very interesting.
Finally I summed up with some slides what to watch out. I had prepared some funky GIF-files demonstrate the dynamics of the following rules and hints. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to show them. (I’m thinking to prepare a special Prezi-presentation where I will use these files because most of them are taken from Wikipedia and therefore Creative Commons licensed.)
- Relationships: Not the thing itself, not a stand-alone perspectives
– what matters is the relatedness to other things.
Look out for relationships and their dynamics
- Patterns of relationships: Not a binary relationship (to-from)
– but a structure, configuration, constellation, situation
Look out for configurations and (interpret) their function in/for the system
- Part – Whole: The whole consists of parts but the behaviour, character and structure of the parts are determined by the whole
Look out for inter-relation, inter-dependence, inter-action & recursion
- Wholeness: A field-like structure which unfolds as a function of space & time
Look out for dynamics in space & time
- Emergence: The relation/interaction of the parts (lower level) generates new behaviour at the higher (system) level
Look out for new qualities of the system level
- Recursion/Self-Similarity: Repeating parts in a self-similar way
Look out for fractals, self-similar patterns, and self-reference