Fifteen Fundamental Properties

A visual collection of fundamental properties of wholeness as introduced by architect and design theorist Christopher Alexander

Published on
August 09, 2022

In the first volume[1] of his seminal tetralogy - The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe - Alexander identifies fifteen fundamental properties from which life in objects and buildings emerges - they can be understood as a set of reoccurring characteristics, common geometric features and attributes of objects and buildings which contribute to their wholeness.

A sketch illustration of Levels of Scale created by Camillo Visini
Levels of Scale

Objects and buildings are constructed of constituent elements which differ in their scale. Wholeness emerges from the composition and distribution of individual elements with significantly different relative scales, resulting in a “dynamic scale profile”.

A sketch illustration of Strong Centers created by Camillo Visini
Strong Centers

Objects and buildings feature a hierarchy of centers – distinctive features which attract the spectator’s eye. Wholeness emerges from the placement of strong, meaningful, mutually reinforcing centers. They lend coherence and identity to the whole by tying together – spatially and logically – their surroundings.

A sketch illustration of Thick Boundaries created by Camillo Visini
Thick Boundaries

Objects and buildings incorporate boundaries to partition some areas from others. Wholeness emerges from delineating areas with thick boundaries. Thin boundaries are ineffective, since they are unable to lend cohesion to the individual centers of an area by encapsulating them to form an “implicit center”.

A sketch illustration of Alternating Repetition created by Camillo Visini
Alternating Repetition

Objects and buildings are constructed of repeating elements. Wholeness emerges from the order and rythm in which these repeating elements are arranged. The alternation of these elements break monotony and banality, and, via the contrast of each element to adjacent elements, results in the formation of “latent centers”.

A sketch illustration of Positive Space created by Camillo Visini
Positive Space

Objects and buildings, in striking a balance between figure and ground, evoke both positive and negative space. Wholeness emerges from the conscious shaping of available space with strong centers, thereby casting meaning even in their immediate surroundings – no space is “leftover space”.

A sketch illustration of Good Shape created by Camillo Visini
Good Shape

Objects and buildings can be studied via their shapes and the shapes of their constituent elements. Wholeness emerges from refining the concrete appearance and shape of details (micro-scale), centers (macro-scale), as well as the con­figuration of individual elements in a cohesive hierarchy of shapes (meso-scale).

A sketch illustration of Local Symmetries created by Camillo Visini
Local Symmetries

Objects and buildings exhibit symmetries at the global and/or local level. Wholeness emerges from favoring local symmetries in minor elements – fostering flexibility, specificity and adaptibility – over global symmetries – evoking notions of brutality, rigidity, austerity.

A sketch illustration of Deep Interlock and Ambiguity created by Camillo Visini
Deep Interlock and Ambiguity

Objects and buildings bundle individual elements to form a whole – thereby putting them in relation to one another. Wholeness emerges from reflecting the interfaces of individual elements as ambiguous and transitory boundaries – harmoniously binding and linking, but also apruptly distancing and separating.

A sketch illustration of Contrast created by Camillo Visini

Objects and buildings are constructed from elements with distinguishing features. Wholeness emerges from the juxtaposition of “opposites” – color, shape, spacing, texture, scale, silhouette. Strong contrast allows regions to be integrated into the “mosaic of the whole” – where meaning results precisely from contrast.

A sketch illustration of Gradients created by Camillo Visini

Objects and buildings are made of discrete elements, but as a whole, also exhibit continuous attributes. Wholeness emerges from tying together space in a series of graded centers, each of which relating to the surrounding centers in their relative importance, and allowing one region to transition into another region.

A sketch illustration of Roughness created by Camillo Visini

Objects and buildings are precisely constructed, but also afford – conscious or accidential – imperfections. Wholeness emerges from abandoning regularity. The introduction of “imperfect similarity” and subtle variations gives light to personality and allows conforming to conditions of the external environment.

A sketch illustration of Echoes created by Camillo Visini

Objects and buildings can feature a repetition of similar elements, which are translated or scaled across space. Wholeness emerges from the harmony and familiarity between elements which all seem to belong to the same group, each sharing “internal characteristics” reminiscent of the related elements.

A sketch illustration of The Void created by Camillo Visini
The Void

Objects and buildings consist of parts which are articulated, but also of those which are empty. Wholeness emerges from balancing concentrated structures with emptiness – the quiet void serving both as foundation for and contradiction to the “delirious detail”.

A sketch illustration of Simplicity and Inner Calm created by Camillo Visini
Simplicity and Inner Calm

Objects and buildings feature more or less complex inner and outer structures. Wholeness emerges from geometric simplicity and purity. With the removal of – not superficially but inherently – superflous elements, the integrity and inner calm of the structure is strengthened.

A sketch illustration of Not-Separateness created by Camillo Visini

Objects and buildings connect different elements, but are themselves embedded in their surroundings. Wholeness emerges from coherence between the individual elements, in which each element is contributing to the seamless integrity of the whole – especially with respect to the whole being “one with the world”.


  1. Christopher Alexander. The Phenomenon of Life (2002) ↩︎

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Camillo Visini
Published on
August 09, 2022
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