The Kubala Washatko Architects, Inc.
W61 N617 Mequon Ave, Cedarburg, WI 53012 | p: 262.377.6039
← back to Blog Index
January 4, 2012


Wall on an Italian Street. Image by Tom Kubala, 1971.

“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.

4 Responses to Gradients

  1. Brian Carlson says:

    I am hoping for a gradient in thought… a slow shift world-wide from the paradigm of violence this world suffers broadly. I think the Arab Spring represents such a gradient….people tired of totalitarian states whether they are run by despots or religious figures. But I do not see the gradient in my own country. We labor under thinly considered ideas of freedom, fail to identify the true agendas of our administrations and the powers that be, and rely, again and again on brute force, devastating technology and the notion that the strong are those who control superior military force. I do not see the young people thinking through the macho bytes spun out by those who make executive decisions for this country. I do not see outrage, broadly held convictions that will not accept policies of war and terror.

    Thanks for your thoughts on gradients.

  2. I totally ‘get’ the gradient idea though you and Alexander have such great words to express what I’ve been seeing and feeling all along, so thanks for that. But I also have to be amazed that you have been going through old photos! Slides even! Very impressive! Makes me curious about what’s in my photo corner of the storage space. Do I really want to see? 🙂

  3. Tom Kubala says:

    I see your work replete with beautiful gradients. Your surfaces come alive as they gradate from one edge to another…the nature of watery surfaces.
    Old photos tell me quite a bit about how I saw back then. Sometimes I can see that I haven’t made the progress I probably should have, but regrets never got anyone anywhere.

  4. Susan Schiller says:

    As an artist, designer and history lover, I have always loved the characteristics of the old European buildings. The layers of lime and how the environment enhances their beauty is amazing. I had the opportunity to travel to England and France a few years ago while in Design school to study architecture, and was completely in awe of the buidings. I especially loved the little cottages in the countryside, as they seem so organic with their thatched roofs and seemed to be a part of the rolling landscape. Your comments brought all those buildings back to my memory.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *