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February 23, 2011

Boundaries: Size Matters

Education Porch at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center, Bayside, WI

Thick boundary zones are old fashioned! Or so it would seem based on their utter scarcity in contemporary architecture where thin skins abound. So why would Christopher Alexander name ‘Boundaries’ as one of the 15 Fundamental Properties key to spatial coherence? Well, it seems that the natural world couldn’t really exist without them. Could the sun exist in the near vacuum of space without the massive boundary zone we call the corona? Could a cell nucleus exist without a substantial cell wall to both protect it from the outer environment and connect it to its source of life?

So its not that big of a stretch to think of how ‘Boundaries’ might play a critical role in bringing life to architecture. At the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center near Milwaukee, we became aware that inner city children visiting the original Center had experienced a kind of anxiety when leaving the safe confines of the building to venture out on nature trails. The original Center was a clean, crisp Modernist object in a beautiful natural setting. However, it offered just two states of being, inside or outside. So in designing the new Schlitz Audubon Center, a broad boundary zone was introduced in the form of a porch, large enough in places to allow an entire class of children to pause in a sheltered, semi-outdoor place before being introduced to the unknown natural environment. Anxiety was reduced, and learning and appreciation increased. When it is raining, all the better!

“What seems like one rule, then, is a pervasive structural feature of enormous depth, which is in effect applied dozens or hundreds of times, at different scales throughout the thing.”
Christopher Alexander, p. 162, Book One, The Nature of Order

“They occur essentially because wherever two very different phenomena interact, there is also a “zone of interaction” which is a thing in itself, as important as the things which it separates.”
Christopher Alexander, p. 254, Book One, The Nature of Order

posted by: Tom Kubala
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