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March 30, 2011

Positive Space: No Leftovers

The mansion of Bahji, just outside the City of Akka, Israel. Photo by Everett Ayoubzadeh.

“In the present Western view of space…we tend to see buildings floating in empty space, as if the space between them were an empty sea.”

Christopher Alexander, p. 174, Book One, The Nature of Order

“The definition of positive space is straightforward: every single part of space has positive shape as a center. There are no amorphous meaningless leftovers.”

Christopher Alexander, p. 176, Book One, The Nature of Order

No leftovers, what a concept!

When I first read Alexander’s ‘Positive Space’ pronouncements, I began seeing the world differently. Even though throughout architecture school we were told to see the primacy of space, it seemed that most of the high grades in design studios were going to projects with good, object-like form. I knew space was important, but because I couldn’t tie the idea to a larger more meaningful understanding of the world, it didn’t stick.

But a world without leftovers was a thought I could get my head around. The proposition induces a question of the opposite: what kind of world produces leftovers? Leftover land, cultures, people, thoughts and for architects, leftover space. Many point to the western mind’s propensity to see the world as a mechanism where everything, including nature, is assembled from discrete parts. In this mindset there are ‘parts’ and there is the ‘nothingness’ between and around the parts. It is easy to see how one organizes a building by choosing to assemble certain parts, leaving other parts selectively out of the mix. In other words, the mechanistic worldview gives one the seeming power to exclude, producing leftovers as a matter of course.

What kind of worldview cannot conceive of leftovers? One that sees the universe as already whole, where there are no discrete parts, where everything is connected, a part of everything else, undivided. It is in this world where the property Positive Space is a natural characteristic exhibited by both natural and man-made features. Architecture, in this world, is a set of attributes, unfolded from everything around it. No leftovers.

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