I Love Lists. Such as This List about What Gives Objects “Life.”

Every Wednesday is List Day, or Tip Day.

This Wednesday: Do you agree with these 15 fundamental properties of “life” in objects?

In The Phenomenon of Life, vol. 1: The Nature of Order, Christopher Alexander asks, “Can we find any recurrent geometrical structural features whose presence in things correlates with their degree of life?”

He identifies fifteen features that appear again and again in things which have “life”–whether that thing is a sketch by an Impressionist, a wooden door, a Norwegian storehouse, a Japanese tea bowl, the Golden Gate Bridge. Or natural things, like a giraffe’s coat, palm fronds, a spider’s web, Himalayan foothills, muscle fiber.

  1. Levels of scale
  2. Strong centers
  3. Boundaries
  4. Alternating repetition
  5. Positive space
  6. Good shape
  7. Local symmetries
  8. Deep interlock and ambiguity
  9. Contrast
  10. Gradients
  11. Roughness
  12. Echoes
  13. The void
  14. Simplicity and inner calm
  15. Non-separateness.

It’s not always easy to understand, but just looking at all the illustrations is a wonderful exercise. I’m a word person, not a visual person, and this book really did a lot to help me understand how to look at objects.

I love schemes like this, that seek to identify the different elements of very complex wholes. I love taxonomy–and dividing people into different categories–and lists of all sorts.

For instance, just as I love Alexander’s approach, I love this scheme by John Ruskin in The Stones of Venice, about the nature of the Gothic:

“I believe, then, that the characteristic or moral elements of Gothic are the following, placed in the order of their importance:

  1. Savageness
  2. Changefulness
  3. Naturalism.
  4. Grotesqueness.
  5. Rigidity.
  6. Redundance.”

I don’t really know what Ruskin is talking about. But just this set of ideas, put together, makes my mind race.

How about you? Does Alexander’s scheme ring true for you? Do you have similar lists that you love?

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  • peninith

    I was thinking yesterday about your four qualities list (upholder, obliger, questioner, rebel) and realizing that the “Sorting Hat” and four houses at Hogwarts Academy was another one of those kinds of systems that was fun to imagine my way into–Hufflepuff, Slytherin, Ravenclaw and Gryffindor also a way of looking at how one deals with the world, responds to trials, and sees through a value system. Whether a list or a set of categories really can ‘sort’ people, personalities or things completely, such filters really do give you a good way to look for aspects you might otherwise ignore.

    • gretchenrubin

      I need a Sorting Hat for the four Rubin tendencies! Love that image!

  • Mary Jones

    If you’re a word person, you’ll love the Beaufort wind scale (http://pad39a.com/gene/wind.html). Nice, concise list with beautiful words. You can read about the development of this scale in “Defining the Wind” by Scott Huler

    • gretchenrubin

      LOVE this. Thanks so much for pointing it out.

  • In looking at Alexander’s list, it struck me that it can be used to describe people, too. I have boundaries and strong centers (things I value/believe) and deep interlock and ambiguity (okay, I’m not quite sure what ‘deep interlock’ is, but ambiguity seems to fit) and occasionally roughness and occasionally inner calm … and as a wife and mom, “non-separateness” certainly rings true. This list is probably an apt description of most of us women, really — some days certain items are stronger than others, but it’s fair to say that we all possess most of these elements. (Admittedly, I’d have to increase my exercise regimen for “good shape” to truly fit as a descriptor.)

    I’m not going to claim the items on Ruskin’s list, though. 🙂

  • peninith

    About John Ruskin- when I was in college (about a million years ago) my senior seminar was devoted to John Ruskin’s book ‘The Stones of Venice,’ in which he laid out these qualities of excellence as he saw them in Medieval art and architecture. He valued the natural forms and ‘wildness’ he saw depicted in so many tapestries and so much stone work on cathedrals. I recall that one of the things he valued greatly was that medieval stone masons worked meticulously to complete sculptures even when the piece would be backed into a corner so that no one would ever see the completed work. His writing inspired William Morris, the late Victorian artist and publisher who made beautiful books, wallpaper, tapestry and fabric designs that are still in use today. Ruskin was also the art critic whose praise and encouragement effectively ‘made’ William Turner famous.

  • Lists and simple descriptive categories help organize my thoughts: Zig Ziglar’s wheel of life, any list that sorts out personalities, dividing knitters (or anyone who makes things) into process or product type knitters. I think in lists, and often describe myself as “List Lady” when I comment on my favorite blogs.

    I think we enjoy lists and categories because they make the complex understandable, provide a measuring stick and allow us to organize chaos. (perhaps I should have called that “List Lady’s Reasons We Love Lists and Categories”)

  • BKF

    Gretchen, I thought you might like this list by Henry Miller “Commandments” on writing (for himself as he wrote Tropic of Cancer.) ttp://www.listsofnote.com/2012/01/henry-millers-11-commandments.html There are some other fun lists on this site too (Thelonius Monk’s advice, Johnny Cash to do list, etc)

    • gretchenrubin

      Ah, I posted this a while back! Off to check out the site.

  • Jeanne

    Mr. Alexander’s work is pretty heavy, but he’s definitely on to something. I remember reading a long time ago about the patterns in nature, and one of them was “the meander.” A river delta is a good example. Nature simply following the path of least resistance, forming a random pattern. I was shocked to find out that the Victorian style of architecture was about copying nature. All that fru-fru was trying to show the abundance and variety of the natural world. Just posted on my Pinterest page a photo of the Mark Twain house in Hartford, Connecticut, one of the best examples of stick style architecture in the country. To my understanding, each of the gables of the house is unique, and though if forms a beautiful and cohesive whole, almost none of the elements match exactly. I may be thinking of another house, but this lack of matching was a big part of all the homes of the Victorian period.