An Introduction to Centers
The phenomenon of life, in human constructions as well as in nature, can be understood in terms of the dynamic interplay of spaces and life-giving values. The crucial thing to keep in mind is that life exists only in space and that it is the interplay of centers that brings the space to life.
What is the nature of a center?
The sequences available on this web site all rely on the concept of a center. We believe that to achieve a deeply satisfying result in any task of making, or designing, or planning, you must work with what we call centers. The phenomenon of life, in human constructions as well as in nature, can be understood in terms of the dynamic interplay of spaces and life-giving values. This is true in a Matisse painting, in a teacup, and it will be true in your office or in a public park.
The idea of a center is simple and obvious. You can grasp it in a moment. Think of a center as a zone of space that has significance or value.
In this teacup, we see various centers. The bowl of the cup is its most important center; the space inside it. The handle is a center. The hole in the handle, is a center. The rim of the cup, because it has a slight flair and there has more punch or life is a center. The concept of centers has surprising depths. Full analysis of these depths is explored in length in The Nature of Order.
The crucial thing to keep in mind is that life exists only in space and that it is the interplay of centers that brings the space to life.
Sometimes the space which forms a center has a solid object at its core, like your desk. In other cases, it is what we think of as "empty" space, like the "empty" space above your desk. In both cases it is the space which makes the center.
Often the space near an object—such as the area in space formed by the light below a table lamp—is more important than the solid object itself. By placing chairs in your office where you will speak with people, you create a strong center in the space between the chairs where your eyes meet.
Your office will be made of these centers. You must attend to all these centers. Your goal is to bring these centers into a strong harmony.
In making anything well, what happens is always a process in which centers are being formed.
Here are some important points about understanding centers:
First, in any particular place, indoors or outdoors, There are natural, existing centers. In a room, natural centers are created by windows, doors, and wall shapes—in any room even before physical objects are added to it. In a terrain, the naturally occurring centers are created by dips in the land, by naturally occurring boundaries, by distant focal points, and so on. In all cases, the naturally occurring centers must be respected.
Second, there are culture-borne, or problem-borne generic types of centers, like "door", "doorway", "garden", "path"—these are widely recognized patterns, which you may think about and work with. These, as much as physical objects, are resources, and may be introduced into a real situation, to make a design, or to improve the environment. Some of these patterns have been identified and are visible in A Pattern Language. These are centers created by you, or your family, or your clients, or a community, when you begin to understand what you need to do in a given situation.
Third, there are new centers, real ones, which you create in the design and making of your office.
For a thing to become good, these centers it is made of need to have as much life, or life-force, as possible. As you put your design together, the thing will come out good, and will have life, to the extent that you are able to make the overall pattern and configuration of these different centers work together. The new centers need to reinforce and intensify the pattern of the existing or "natural" centers. That is the clue to life-giving design.
Remember that all centers are made of space. In all that follows—in planning, designing, building, making—everything you do, has to do with focusing on these different kinds of centers, becoming aware of them, and then creating them and shaping them to make something beautiful and practical.
What is the Nature of a Pattern?
Just as there are centers in a real place, so there are also "generic" centers or patterns, which we carry in our minds as ideal or desirable or practically useful types of centers. From the mental image of the pattern, we can build a real one in a real situation, which is adapted to the special conditions of an actual situation.
A glimpse of a favorite study, perhaps a memory, carefully reconstructed, reminds us of qualities, often missing from a more rapidly constructed workplace. With hard work, we can ask ourselves where the magic of that place comes from, and then reconstruct the essentials, as a pattern.
Suppose I am trying to visualize a perfect place for drawing. I remember an ideal place, where I once very much enjoyed drawing. It was a large high table, with a very big window to the right, with lots of panes, and my brushes to the left away from the window.
This "thing" that I remember, the thing which exists in my mind, may be thought of as a pattern. But it is also, nearly always, a pattern of a possible kind of center. The elements that make this center are the following: the table, the window, and the brushes. But the essential thing, is the space on the table, between the window and the table and the brushes, which makes this space a center. It is a center that lets me draw as nicely as possible.
Every pattern that defines a center always has the same format. There is a center (which is always a space) created by some elements which surround it. This structure is fundamental. The space is the heart of the thing. Then, there is a crust or boundary around this center, which forms it. The crust or boundary is always made of solid elements. In the case of the drawing-place example, the boundary is made of a window, a table, and a place where brushes and paints are on the left of the table.
It should be mentioned that each part of what you do when you are working, is essentially a center. For example, if you spend a lot of time talking one-on-one with a single client (attorney-client relationship), then it is the space that the two of you form together that is the principal center. It may consist of two chairs, perhaps a table or a desk, perhaps associated stuff you need to talk about. In any case, the efficiency of the way you can talk with your client, depends on the extent to which this center is a concentrated focus, and really works as a strong center.
The same is true of the computer in your office. If it is important, then your workstation, the chair, the keyboard, the discs within easy reach, a surface for the mouse—all this forms a center. Once again, the center is comfortable and efficient, to the extent this center really is a strong, harmonious center. The levels of chair, screen, keyboard, mouse, each with its best height, may be the essence of what makes it comfortable.
In your list of activities, it is probably the top three or four that play the key role in the way your office needs to work for you, and will therefore create the essence of your office.
One point is very important in your ideal, key centers. There is one main center, the first one, and a number of secondary centers—the remaining ones. However, you should be aware that even though there usually is one center that you experience as the "main" center for your office, still, your work changes from day to day, and you may make the rounds in your office. One day the so-called main center may indeed be your main focus of activity. Another day a second one may play the main role. Another day it may be a third one. You need to visualize all these centers as part of a small group of centers, which give you your arena for work—and among which one is, often, but not always, the "main center".
The list of key centers which you have defined should give an accurate and general picture of the way your own office really needs to be. It should be a complete map of the essential character of your work habits, and your ideal office.
On Marrying the two kinds of centers, A Quotation from The Nature of Order, Book 3
Thus there are two key systems of centers together governing the plan which had to be made.
First, there is the system of centers (patterns) which are defined by the pattern language. These major centers are the building blocks of the new project. In the case of Eishin, they included, for instance, the entrance gate, the entrance street, the Tanoji Center, the home base street, the main square, the back streets, the judo hall.
Second, there is the system of naturally occurring centers which exists in the land. This system is created by the land forms, by the roads, by directions of access, by natural low spots, natural high spots and by existing trees.
It must be emphasized that both systems of centers exist, at the time one starts the site plan. The first system is generic. It exists in our minds and in the day-to-day experience of the people who are going to have the new school. The second system exists in the land, on the particular site where the project is to be built. Each of the two systems of centers is real.
In every project, at the stage before the site plan exists, we have these two different systems of centers. The process of site-planning is the process of, somehow, finding a way to make these two systems of centers become one—a way in which the system of centers defined by the pattern language can be placed, so that it enhances, preserves, and extends, the system of centers which is already in the land. In this specific case, and in general, the crux of the problem of making the site plan lies in the task of reconciling the two systems of centers—that means, finding a new structure which unfolds from the existing wholeness, and which then embodies the centers of the pattern language within the system of centers that exist on the site.
To restate the same idea in terms of centers, it was hard to find an arrangement of the key centers in the pattern language which preserved their relations to one another, and which also coincided with the key existing centers of the site.
In this particular instance it was very hard.
Yet when finally done, a living structure emerged, in which the two systems of centers were reconciled.