Centers are the building blocks of Wholeness.

Entities appear in the world because different parts of space have different levels of coherence.

[An entity] appears to exist as a local center within a larger whole. It is a phenomenon of centeredness in space.

We may think of these entities as parts, or as local wholes or sub-wholes, which are rarely pre-existing, but more often themselves created by the wholeness.

What are the differences between explicitly added entities, like the dot on the piece of paper, and the emerging entities, like the rectangles, lines, and rays?

Alexander does mention “pre-existing” elements that signify elements like the easily visible dots, and he contrasts them with the diagonal that is emerging after adding the second dot in a certain way, which is a center that does not pre-exist, but is induced by the whole, or “breaks out” naturally from the whole. These are most likely what he will later call [[ strong centers ]]. He later talks about subtle or hidden centers and calls them latent centers. He also makes a point about it is easier to “see” centers we have words (categories) for, and that centers do not just appear in the filled regions of matter, but also in the void of empty space.

What makes a center “centered” is that it somehow functions as an organized field of force in space. It has a structure of centrality, it communicates centrality, it creates a spatial feeling of centrality.

To be more realistic, we need to imagine space as filled with such centers, all helping each other, all created by other centers, but all field-like, all radiating centeredness. How might we imagine this structure? We may imagine, in this space, an overall field in which, at each point there is an intensity — the life of that field at that point — together with vectors describing the impact of these centers on one another.

Centers mark something as what it is, which make it memorable, remarkable.

Coherent centers define character, and create arrangement.

The main coherent centers which exist in a place determine what it is like there, what kind of life it has. The centers are the most fundamental things we notice in what is happening. They affect us most.

It is what we perceive that affects us most, and makes it memorable. Suddenly, ornament makes a lot more sense to me.

It straddles conceptual boundaries.

The difference is deeply functional, not just a matter of visual perception. The centers we see when we look at the thing in its wholeness are the ones which are responsible for its real behavior.

It’s not just what we perceive visually. This seems to be the core connection to “user experience”.

The centers we notice when we see the situation in its wholeness are not only more dominant to the eye. They control the real behavior of the thing, the life which develops there, the real human events which happen, and the feelings people have about living there.

It starts to make sense why this is easier to describe as “feeling” it instead of “seeing” it.

Centers are always made of other centers. A center is not a point, not a perceived center of gravity. It is rather a field of organized force in an object or part of an object which makes that object or part exhibit centrality. This field-like centrality is fundamental to the idea of wholeness.

[T]he wholeness is made of parts; the parts are created by the wholeness. To understand wholeness we must have a conception in which “parts” and wholes work in this holistic way.

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Origin of the word “center”


  • does not refer to a point, but
  • identifies an organized zone of space
    • a distinct set of points in space, which exhibits centeredness because of
      • its organization,
      • internal coherence, and
      • its relation to its context
    • forms a local zone of relative centeredness with respect to the other parts of space
  • always refers to a physical set, a distinct physical system, which
    • occupies a certain volume in space, and
    • has a special marked coherence
  • Even social or cultural centers are ultimately spatial
    • they occur in space and have a spatial locus

Entities, which were so important as the building blocks of nature, were not truly bounded entities but were in fact non-bounded centers: Centers of influence, centers of action, centers of other centers — centers of some kind, appearing in the seething mass of the wholeness.

“Whole” appears as an isolated object, a feeling of boundedness. “Center” points towards relationships to other, surrounding objects, a feeling of relatedness.

Centers avoid a problem with categorization: the urge of rigid thinking to find exact boundaries for what belongs into the whole and what doesn’t, applying a binary container schema, where elements are either inside or outside.

In software we tend to think too much in bounded, isolated wholes. Perhaps, we should think more in interconnected centers?

Connection to embodied schemas (kinesthetic image schemas)

Alexander refers to fuzzy sets, but isn’t happy about that reference. I’m sure he’d be interested in the center-periphery image schema (and perhaps prototype theory).

These three kinesthetic image schemas seem extremely relevant to Alexander’s theory:

  • container(-boundary)
  • center-periphery
  • whole-part-configuration

#book/The Nature of Order/1 The Phenomenon of Life/3 Wholeness and the theory of centers#

#book/The Nature of Order/1 The Phenomenon of Life/4 How life comes from wholeness#

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