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Positive Space: No Leftovers

By Tom Kabula.
“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.

The person who plotted and those who placed this new pumping house at my family's farm saw it as floating in empty space, suffering from a Western world view.

Contrary to strengthening the space between the buildings upon the farm, it's weakening this space as a center, making it less positive. If it was parallel to the storehouse or "stabbur" upon the courtyard, the space would have become filled with more centeredness.

Now the pumping house is floating in open space, creating no positive space around it, and weakening the positive space that was there before. Thus it becomes the opposite of good architecture: "Architecture, in this world, is a set of attributes, unfolded from everything around it."

In addition the pumping house is situated upon a small mound, while it very well could have been laid into the ground. In this way it's hoovering, not being submissive to its surroundings and the old buildings that are already there, stealing their attention.

All this is disrespectfully!
The POSITIVE-SPACE transformation. This transformation is one of the most important and profound, but it is one of the hardest to define. It may be applied to any center, and helps to shape some of the so called “empty” spaces which fill out the interstices within the original center. The “positiveness” of space comes from a combination of good shape, local symmetries, boundedness and above all from the appropriateness of the space for purposes. This transformation is applied most typically to the latent centers formed in the space between other centers, thus giving these otherwise leftover spaces definite and recognizable form. - Christopher Alexander


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