Workshop on 15 Properties of Christopher Alexander

On Thursday, 16th May 2013, I gave a workshop in Umeå/Sweden on the 15 properties of Christopher Alexander. The workshop was designed as an empirical experiment to teach and test the theories of Christopher Alexander. The very long article outlines the educational setting and the results of the seminar. You will find some photos and two files for download.

Workshop on 15 properties at HumLab in Umeå/Sweden
Workshop on 15 properties at HumLab in Umeå/Sweden

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:

  1. What are the 15 fundamental properties of "living structure" according to Alexander?
  2. Can they transferred into educational settings? And if so: How can the many spatial/geometrical properties translated into the domain of education?
  3. What are the “lesson learned” for educational design?

Part 1:

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.

Part 2:

Delight's Muse
Bookcover of Delight's Muse

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:

• Contrast
• Closeness
• Potentiality for discovery, unknown,
   not everything is predetermined
• Danger?
• Excitement
• Uneven shape
• People
• Many actions
• Calmness
• Curiosity
• Irregularity
• Natural, organic elements

Part 3:

Symbols for 15 properties by Helmut Leitner
Symbols for 15 properties by Helmut Leitner

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.

Part 4:

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.

Part 5:

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.)

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. Wholeness: A field-like structure which unfolds as a function of space & time
    Look out for dynamics in space & time
  5. 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
  6. Recursion/Self-Similarity: Repeating parts in a self-similar way
    Look out for fractals, self-similar patterns, and self-reference


15 properties of
Titel: 15 Properties (673 clicks)
Caption: 15 properties of "living structures" by Christopher Alexander
Filename: 15-properties-intro-without-examples.pdf
Size: 990 kB
Some results of Umeå-Workshop
Titel: Properties of Umea-Workshop (470 clicks)
Caption: Some results of Umeå-Workshop
Filename: properties-umea-workshop.pdf
Size: 115 kB

Von Peter Baumgartner

Seit mehr als 30 Jahren treiben mich die Themen eLearning/Blended Learning und (Hochschul)-Didaktik um. Als Universitätsprofessor hat sich dieses Interesse in 13 Bücher, knapp über 200 Artikel und 20 betreuten Dissertationen niedergeschlagen. Jetzt in der Pension beschäftige ich mich zunehmend auch mit Open Science und Data Science Education.

4 Antworten auf „Workshop on 15 Properties of Christopher Alexander“

Hej Peter, a really great workshop, a lot of new inspirations for thinking differently about education, teaching and learning in different ways! I also got very good feedback from the group ICTML:DigitalDidactics . I struggled a bit because 15 properties are a lot when transfering them to education: perhaps, one idea is to cluster them into 6-9 items, this would be useful for rethinking the design of education, teaching and learning? I also was thinking on how to combine/integrate the properties and the pattern concept: the cluster of properties can serve as a foundation for the description of an „educational pattern“: When writing an educational pattern, the properties are the guidelines for writing the pattern. Even when the two concepts are coming from two different authors, combining, integrating and level them up to a new level for a theoretical approach could be very useful for your idea creating an „eduacational pattern language“. What do you think?

Thanks for the positive feedback 😉

Maybe it would be feasible to cluster several of the 15 properties to get 6-9. But I believe that we would need more empirical data to do so. It seems to me that lacking these data is a crucial thing and filling this gab should be done before we think how to use/adapt/cluster those 15 properties.

Remember, we had some critical discussion if Alexander’s general idea of „fundamental“ properties, if they really are substantial for the whole human race – or even more comprehensive: for the „nature of the universe“ (= subtitle of „The Nature of Order“) – or if all or some of the properties are culture-dependent. In a small discussion group after the workshop we discussed „nature or nurture“ – one of the famous and issues in social sciences/anthropology.

For me it is still too early to work with these 15 properties on an everyday basis. At the moment I’m still trying to understand his mental framework, the outline and the inner structure of his work. In trying to transfer his concepts to pedagogy I’m still probing his concepts and overall framework but I’m not suggesting that one could and should use his properties for education. I agree with Jenny Quillien in her book „Delight’s Muse“ when she states in the preface: „My contention here is that Alexander is ‚on to something‘ …“(p.V). By this quote she is only referring to Alexander’s ideas in architecture and not to education, which is still another question.

Isa, now maybe you can better understand why I planned the workshop as an interactive experiment. Yes, I’m open minded to the ideas of Alexander but I’m also still somewhat sceptical. One important result of the workshop’s inconclusive results for me was, that we need to change the system of critical evaluation from informal experiments to more elaborate empirical tests.

We talked on our Sunday walk about some ideas how this could be done and how Alexander’s properties could be related to my 26 educational dimensions as outlined in my book „Taxonomie von Unterrichtsmethoden“. Before we do not have more general empirical data on these properties I would not go into details like clustering. Even the relationship between the „pattern language approach“ and the 15 properties is – for me at least – not clear at all. Jenny is talking about „old“ (pattern) and „new“ (nature of order) vocabulary. I’m not sure if this is the right way to think of the two different strands of Alexander’s work, as every different word has also (at least slightly) different meanings. So it is not only a simple translation. And the application for eduction is still another open question which has to be answered both theoretically and empirically.

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