According to Alexander
“To produce this life, we must first see how life springs from wholeness, and indeed how life is wholeness.” [Bk I, 55]
“Intuitively we may guess that the beauty of a building [or any other natural or man-made creation], its life…all come from the fact that the it is working as a whole. …wholeness in any part of space is the structure defined by all the various coherent entities that exist in that part of space, and the way these entities are nested in and overlap each other.” [Bk I, 80-81]
These entities he calls centers and defines a center as “…an organized zone of space…[with] internal coherence…[and] relation to its context…” [Bk I, 84]
Centers can be nested within levels or adjacent to each other within the same level, and having a degree of life, collaborate to create wholeness which has life itself.
The importance of understanding the concept of centers and how they interact is that it provides the foundation to understanding how wholeness and life are created by the specific centers in the specific things we are creating. In our role as designers we can consider centers to be the properties that we transform to create better—or worse—designs; designs with more—or less—life. We increase the life of the wholeness by intensifying the centers creating that life. Simply stated, if we cannot discern the centers that make up a local wholeness, we will not be able to apply transformations that intensify them, that create more life whether that transformation is to a building or an interactive app for children.
Are Centers Just Another Name for Design Elements?
In Alexander’s model the answer is no for at least one key reason. To think in terms of entities such as design elements and begin design from that point of view initiates a creative process that proceeds in the opposite direction from that which Alexander proposes. It is what Alexander likens to “the assembly of an erector set”; bolt-together fabrication.
“Merely additive processes (like the assembly of an erector set from fixed components that are arranged and re-arranged) never lead to complex adaptation, or to profound complex structure.” [Bk II, 197]
On the other hand the generative processes Alexander is describing always start with some pre-existing wholeness from which centers emerge in a process of smooth unfolding from the whole to the parts. This creative process moves in the opposite direction from the method of fabrication. It iteratively differentiates parts within the whole rather than adding parts to make a whole. This is a fundamental and critical difference: The differentiating process unfolds change smoothly from what something is to what it becomes.
Some of the emerging centers may be considered design elements or design entities. Others however, may defy description in such terms but are nonetheless critical to our ability to create wholeness and life within wholeness.
It may seem counterintuitive to say we always start creating from some pre-existing wholeness when we begin to create something new, but some reflection will reveal that something, some wholeness always exists from which we begin. We always begin with something. That something is the original wholeness that we will creatively transform. Finding and understanding the wholeness from which we unfold change is a key and critical task.
Wholeness, Centers and Time
There is a difference the way centers unfold in plastic arts like painting sculpture or architecture and performing arts like music and dance. In plastic arts centers unfold and collaborate and can be iteratively intensified during development but once development is ‘complete’ the collaboration remains stable and constant for the most part. In performing arts however, centers continually appear intensify and recede in an ongoing collaborative ensemble with other centers for the duration of the performance.
Alexander basically considers an instance of collaborating centers as somewhat stable regions of space. But when we consider other types of wholeness, those that involve time as well as space such as a piece of music, a dance, a movie, or a child playing with an app we have to consider another design aspect; change. Wholeness involving space/time contains collaborating centers that appear, intensify and recede in intensity through the course of the temporal event. When we consider wholeness in the interactive space, websites and apps, the design problem becomes even more complex because we must consider the contributions to wholeness of multiple pathways through space and time.