“Gradients must arise in the world when the world is in harmony with itself simply because conditions vary.”Christopher Alexander, p. 205, Book One, The Nature of Order
“Gradients play a very large role throughout nature. Any time that a quantity varies systematically, through space, a gradient is established .”Christopher Alexander p. 275, Book One, The Nature of Order
I find it interesting to look back at photos taken many years ago and recall why a particular setting was attractive enough to capture. In the 70’s we were shooting Kodachrome, expensive to buy and expensive to process, especially on a student budget. Unlike today’s low cost of digital image making, when we took a photo in 1971 we had to be selective. It took me a few rolls of very mediocre slides to learn not to be seduced by my own assumed importance of the subject matter. The Palace of Versailles, Montmartre, etc. were all special places, but that fact in my head didn’t make my photos any better. Things changed when I started seeing what was actually happening in the view finder. At first I saw light, shape, color, and contrast. Upon reflection, a long-term study of Christopher Alexander and a good deal of experience, I began to see more subtle properties emerge. Among them is the idea of ‘gradients’, which is a property expressed as a gradual shift or change occurring across a surface or field. In the natural world, gradients are everywhere, since no place in space is exactly like any other. With practice we can see and feel when gradients abound and when they don’t.
Back to the photo above. Let’s just think about how the selection of plaster allows a beautiful gradient to become realized. The wall in our photograph is most likely constructed with a lime plaster over rough masonry, finished with a lime render and maintained with an occasional lime wash. The chemical properties of lime allow it to gracefully respond to subtle changes in sunlight, humidity, human interaction and rainfall across the wall’s entire surface. The visual gradient of color and value is a manifestation of the actual conditions playing out on the wall, a more accurate expression than if the wall had been painted with acrylic paint. Such a monolithic finish can mask the true nature of a place, rendering it sterile, cartoonish, cold or hard. A building that not only recognizes but also celebrates the ever-changing, dynamic quality of life has a resonance tuned to our ability to appreciate it.
Where gradients occur, a kind of softness arises.