Torii ⛩, Chuppahs, Sofre Aghd, the Golden Gate Bridge & making the world more alive
Part 3 on Christopher Alexander's "Nature of Order" & structural aliveness
Today I wanted to talk about torii. They are this emoji → ⛩️ and you can see them all over Japan. Torii represent a “traditional Japanese gate most commonly found at the entrance of or within a Shinto shrine, where it symbolically marks the transition from the mundane to the sacred.”
A long time ago I tweeted about how I wished there were more torii everywhere around me. I could feel how they acted as gates to the sacred and as mindfulness reminders. They feel magical.
Since tweeting I have become steeped in Christopher Alexander’s book “Nature of Order” and I now see torii through a new lens. I believe their power on the world is a great demonstration of Alexander’s concepts of “centers” and how we can make the world more alive; torii show how even simple structures can transform the world.
Quick recap on “structural aliveness": everything has degrees of life that we can alter through our actions
Before I talk about torii, let me give a quick recap of what I mean by “centers” and “aliveness” from Christopher Alexander’s books The Nature of Order. (If you’ve read previous posts on this topic, you can skip this section.)
Alexander’s main contention is that everything has some degree of aliveness - not just living things but everything. From the way that a group of people are arranged, the relations between buildings, the empty spaces of a foyer, the light falling on a book, buildings, people, clothes - all of existence. Moreover, Alexander argues strongly that this feeling of aliveness is “rather strongly shared by everyone,” so most people can agree that some things are more alive than others. In other words, aliveness is not just a subjective opinion.
The degree of life some place or thing has is a function of its overall “wholeness” and a “wholeness” is composed of mutually reinforcing “centers” - so a room’s wholeness is determined by its centers (the table, windows, light, paintings, people, etc). A room is then a center for a house, a house for a street, a street for a neighborhood, etc.
“Centers” can then be “strengthened” by how they interact with each other - the stronger they are, the more alive something is. What this means is that by putting something into the world, it can then enhance other things around it - so for instance, if I put a table in an empty room, suddenly the entire nature and aliveness of that room changes. Add a chair and a painting, and it changes further. Add a plant and it can keep improving.
The arrangement of each piece amidst the others, however, is important. If centers are arranged in different ways, they can change degrees of aliveness. There are 15 “fundamental properties”, in Alexanders’ view, that can be used to make things more alive. They are: (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) Not-separateness.
So TLDR: Centers & the fundamental properties that strengthen them explain how to make everything more full of life. (I’m using the term “structural aliveness” as shorthand.)
(That was a quick recap but if you want more details, here is prior post 1 on degrees of life, and post 2 on centers & the “15 fundamental properties”.)
With that in mind, let’s go back to the torii!
Torii are strong “centers” that make spaces more alive
In the photograph above (from the amaazing twitter account @usalica) you can see a non-descript torii in a forest in Japan. As a mindfulness reminder, torii act as gates that remind you of the sacred in nature - they make you pause and recenter. Moving beyond metaphors though, this gate “just feels” powerful and peaceful. Why is that the case?
There is something about torii that I’ve always struggled to put my finger on. For the longest time I couldn’t articulate why they had this power but now I realize they are an extremely “strong center.” Using Alexander’s language: torii increase the degrees of life in the forest.
What the torii are doing is creating a strong center that then interacts with all the centers around it to increase aliveness. So in this photo, the torii interacts with the trees around it (other centers), with the path below it (another center), and with the rocks, moss and stone lantern as well (even more centers). All of these centers interact in a way that makes this scene full of life.
What does it mean for a torii to be a strong center? Lets map it to Alexander’s 15 fundamental properties. The torii has:
GOOD SHAPE + STRONG CENTER: the way the actual shape of the structure gives it life; the component beams and tips of the torii all work together and complement each other
POSITIVE SPACE: Toriis create a lot of positive space around them. There is space above the torii, to the sides, behind, in front and also below; e.g., compare how many more spaces would be created by placing this torii vs. just placing a pole.
BOUNDARIES: Doors by definition create boundaries - boundaries are one of the most important ways you can create a strong center - in this photograph, the torii creates a new boundary in the forest - just by placing it you transform the spaces behind and in front of it.
NON-SEPARATENESS: Torii are often placed in a way that is “organic” or non-separate from nature. This is another aspect of an alive wholeness. Often torii feel like a natural extension of the landscape and they usually are put in a clearing amidst trees, rocks or ocean.
THE VOID: An empty center in the field often amplifies other centers - in a torii this is the space under the structure.
SIMPLICITY AND INNER CALM: the strength of a center often depends on its simplicity - reducing the number of centers can make the others weigh more
LOCAL SYMMETRIES: local symmetries can increase intensity of a center. In a torii, the local symmetries extend from the base to the top and are quite obvious.
So a torii structure uses (at least) 8 of the 15 fundamental properties - it’s no surprise it then makes the space feel so alive.
While torii are powerful shapes, it’s interesting to see that most of the fundamental properties come from the basic shape of a door. Here is an example of natural doorways by German artist Cornelia Konrads - you can feel feel how alive the space becomes from just making the boundary and using many of the same properties as the torii (from @fedelitaliano76)
As I was reflecting on torii and their centers, the more I started to see similarities all around, and this led me to the chuppah - the jewish canopy under which a couple getting married stands.
Chuppahs and Sofre Aghd
From Wikipedia a chuppah: “is a canopy under which a Jewish couple stand during their wedding ceremony. It consists of a cloth or sheet, sometimes a tallit, stretched or supported over four poles, or sometimes manually held up by attendants to the ceremony. A chuppah symbolizes the home that the couple will build together.”
As with the torii, I think chuppahs are much more than just a metaphor. By creating a chuppah you are transforming space and making it more alive. In a similar way to torii, chuppahs create a strong center. All of the same properties arise as with the torii: the void, the non-separateness, symmetry, boundaries, etc. When the couple joins as well, the centers get amplified further. As you can see with the picture below, by adding flowers, scenery, chairs, candles, guests, and other centers, a normal lawn is transformed into a strong, alive stage for the wedding.
This is also similar to the persian sofre aghd sugar cloth for Persian wedding ceremonies. In this case, the women hold a cloth on top of which sugar is rubbed to symbolize a sweet marriage. However, when seen from a structural aliveness perspective you can see that what they are also doing is creating a boundary, a strong center, a void, symmetry, and more. They are making the space come alive!
The Golden Gate Bridge & Big Hero 6
One of the most impactful ideas from “structural aliveness” is the idea that nature can be enhanced through human action. Adding a chuppah transforms a normal lawn. A torii transforms a forest. Human actions can make nature more alive.
In the same fashion there is something fascinating about the Golden Gate Bridge. Alexander refers to it in his books - the bridge is beautiful in the way that it is a strong center making use of many of the fundamental properties (e.g.,“the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge there is a fine gradation of cell size, member size, and plate thickness, from the top of the tower, to the bottom, to economize on steel, and place the most material where it is needed most by stresses.”)
But could it be that the Golden Gate Bridge makes the Golden Gate (the opening of the bay between Marin and San Francisco) even more alive? Is that possible? In our normal conceptions of nature that would be absurd - human’s only ruin things, right? But under structural aliveness that is not the case. Similar to the torii, structures can enhance nature. By making the Golden Gate Bridge in such a magnificent, life-enhancing way, the city has become even more alive than it was before.
As it happens, I remember that in the movie Big Hero 6, the city in which the story takes places is San Fransokyo. And it turns out the Golden Gate Bridge is literally made out of Torii! We’ve come full circle!
What I love about torii, chuppas, sofre aghd and the Golden Gate Bridge is they all show that humans can make the world more full of life through what we build. Of course, this isn’t always the case: another bridge in the same place as the Golden Gate Bridge would not have the same effect; nor would a parking lot in the forest instead of a torii. There is an art to how to make spaces more alive. However, these examples show that there is a way.
We can make the world more alive - it’s worth re-learning how to do so.
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