Thursday, May 28, 2020

The Healing Power of Beauty and Life After Covid

Part 5 in the series, Can Beauty Kill Germs? Trauma, Gratitude, and Memorialization; Attitude and Beauty in the Face of Extreme Odds. 

Anyone looking out from their shelter-in-place and seeing a wall will be touched by O. Henry’s heart-wringing story, The Last Leaf. Set in Greenwich Village during an early-twentieth-century epidemic, the story tells of Johnsy, an ill young woman who believes that, in the progressively barren winter, she will die when the ivy vine outside her window loses its last leaf. 

As the season grows colder the vine gradually sheds its leaves. But one last leaf hangs there long enough for Johnsy to recover her health. It turns out that it had been painted by Johnsy’s old neighbor, the artist Behrman, who longed to produce a masterpiece. Mustering all his artistry for the leaf, Behrman dies of exposure from painting the last leaf. 

Healing from the trauma of this pandemic may be somewhat analogous to healing from wars and dislocation. Despite the ubiquitous computer, and smartphone systems, the prolonged physical distancing may be comparable to isolation encountered in space flight, polar habitation, solo voyaging, and even solitary confinement. It could be that, despite the available technology and medicine, the traumas of solitude and the suspense of “not knowing” are no different from the historical mystery of pestilence and the enigmatic redemption from it known from the Renaissance and Baroque.

Jonathan Jones wrote in the Guardian in February 2012 that those times were “sealed in a kingdom of plague.” Old Masters like Tintoretto (1518–1594) fought the mortal contagion by painting his greatest works under its shadow at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco .in Venice. Hans Holbein (the Younger, 1497–1543) and Titian (1488/90–1576) died of it. Yet the quattro-, cinque-, sei-, and settecento Europeans asserted the glory of life through the treasures and beacons of their incredible civilization.
Life between plague and redemption. Entrance to the Grand Canal in Venice by Canaletto, c. 1730
On the left is the Santa Maria della Salute 
Black Death mass grave, Toulouse. ©Archeodunum SAS, Gourvennec

It is as if the outstandingly beautiful monuments to redemption, salvation, and gratitude erected at the dawn of the age of science reflect the idea of the unity of mind and body. They were built before technology and science emerged and the Romantic era separation of body and soul, sent the body to science and the soul back to religion. But that is our world today. We have a Large Hadron Collider—and ISIS.

We can ask tongue in cheek whether beauty can kill germs, but maybe there is some truth to that. Indeed, plague monuments and votive churches from the 1400s to the 1800s are among the most sophisticated and beautiful structures ever built by mankind. They remind us that our new scientific understanding of well-being and immunology indicates that much of the architecture and urban practices employed before 1920 also contributed to human wellbeing. And while we benefit greatly from the techno-medical-health advances, they remind us that, for environmental design, the classical method is still today an exceptionally effective tool. [1]

On the face of it, we are looking at plain superstition wrapped as religion. The architecture and iconography of the beautiful Cappella della Piazza on the Campo in Siena (plague of 1348, built 1352) progress from medieval gargoyles to mythological Renaissance gryphons, considered guardians of divine power. Nearby, the Fonta Gaia celebrates with Christian-themed carvings 1402-1419 the removal of a statue of Venus, which had graced the fountain since early times, because it was blamed for Siena’s recurring plague. The macabre skulls over the entrance to the churchyard of St Olave’s church in London (1658) literally commemorate trauma, and the alleged burial place of Mary Ramsay, believed to have brought the plague to London in 1665.

Plague memorials on the Campo in Siena and London     (left) Fonta de Gaia     (right) Cappella della Piazza  
St. Olave’s, London. Credit: David Ross and Britain

The Graben
Still steeped in medieval-style superstition, Vienna’s Plague Column in the central Graben square (1687) commemorates the end of the 1679 epidemic with extreme Baroque ornamentation and rich iconography of the Trinity, and of Faith overthrowing the Plague. Lieber Augustin, “Dear Augustin—a troubadour who became a symbol of hope after he survived a night in a plague pit after being tossed into it in a drunken stupor—commemorated that plague in a memorial that was removed by the Nazis for its bronze. 

The original
Lieber Augustin fountain 
Controlling the Levant trade, Venice, which together with its glorious merchandise also imported rats, fleas, and plague, witnessed seventy plague epidemics! Plague churches built there include the Scuola di S Rocco. Veronese lies buried in St Sebastian, which he decorated with plague iconography including the Pool of Bethesda. Palladio (1508–1580) built the great Il Redentore, “The Redeemer” (1577–1592), and Baldassare Longhena (1598–1682) built Santa Maria della Salute, “Saint Mary of Health, (1631–1681), after the plague killed nearly a third of the Venetians.

Karlskirche Interior  
If the deaths of our forebearers were not in vain, the beautiful Baroque work memorializing the horrors and losses they endured must inspire our survival and redemption today. The beauty of the votive churches must serve as a cultural wake up call to consider our cities and environments more aspirationally—and less as problems to solve. Covid reminds us that we need to relearn to seek balances of planning for town and country.
  • To make streets that inspire in people the thoughts and intuitions that help in their healing.
  • To build durably using the shapes and proportions that best suit human biometrics, perception, and comfort, thereby likely helping fortify immune response. 
  • That spirituality—embodied in beauty—is not attainable in the machine aesthetic or by means of machine virtuality. 
  • That beautiful buildings represent the political and cultural institutions of democracy.
  • That cloisters and pointed arches symbolize education and the parliamentary tradition.
  • That the pandemic creates an opportunity to triage our dependence on apps and automation in favor of people-centric community life. 
  • That we should move away from sealed buildings and towards better ventilation and openable windows. 
  • That without the knowledge of well-building, our predecessors would not have the cues for well-being and well-thinking that helped them drive the advances in society, science, and health that are getting us through Covid-19.
Karlskirche Facade
Modernity induces us to see these monuments to salvation and gratitude in a new light. In their construction, the Baroque monuments reeled in the survivors from their trauma to normalcy. These beautiful memorials to survival and redemption are breadcrumbs for us to follow, tips for how to experience what we are going through now, and ideas of what to think next. Looking at the plague monuments we claim them again today as cues to our own consciousness.

In the marvelously rich nexus of mind, body, perception, and place is the collective intelligence of how to build holistic and beautiful environments. Olmsted and Vaux expressed this understanding in their 1860s vision for Bethesda Terrace and Fountain, overlooking the lake and woodland Ramble in Central Park. The experiential apex of the park, Bethesda Fountain includes the only originally commissioned major sculpture for the park. It was designed by Emma Stebbins (1815–1882), the first woman to be publicly commissioned for a major work of art in New York City. 

A great artist, Stebbins’ sensibilities were informed by 500 years of art depicting deliverance from epidemics. Bethesda Fountain celebrates the Croton Aqueduct, which had saved New York City from a cholera epidemic. Linked to the passage in John 5:2–4 on Jesus’ healing at the Pool of Bethesda, the eight-foot bronze winged Angel of the Waters (1873) holds a lily in one hand for purity, while blessing the water below with the other. The putti supporting the top basin below her, represent Peace, Health, Purity, and Temperance.

Bethesda Fountain at Central Park. © Nir Buras
The humanistic attitude that such monuments express speaks to our ongoing cycle of trauma, salvation, gratitude, and memorialization. But the “meta-message” of such beautiful structures is different for every generation. In the harsh light of our sudden mortality, the “cool factor” of Modernism appears very thin. The upshot of Covid-19 should not be “contactless pathways,” “life lived by smartphone,” broad, uninhabited sidewalks, and streets with metal and plastic dividers, as charming as cattle corrals.  

Could it be that people are getting by at this time despite stress-inducing Modernist design and dysfunctional urban intervention? O. Henry may have taken this matter to the maximum, but we know now—and we didn’t know this twenty years ago—that the visual stimuli of traditional and classical architecture are de-facto cues to well-being

We now understand that Modernist designs cause the release of serotonin and that traditional designs that of dopamine. We know now that Post-Covid some dystopias projected by planners and media may be considered not progressive but part of what impeded survival and healing. 

Indeed, beauty may not kill germs like an antibiotic can, but knowing what we know today from biometrics and neuroscience about beauty, it may not be wrong to suggest that its presence may impact human immune systems. Is it also possible that the stress-reducing qualities of traditional design may actually contribute to the community resilience in healing from epidemiological trauma?

[1] The term “well-building” is a technical, Vitruvian classical design term that bears no relation to any for-profit or non-profit organizations, or certifications issued by them, that use that term or others similar to it.

Contributed by © Nir Buras, 200423 v.20 

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Is Living Structure Beauty's Temperature?

Bin Jiang
Faculty of Engineering and Sustainable Development, Division of GIScience
University of Gävle, SE-801 76 Gävle, Sweden

 “All of my life I’ve spent trying to learn how to produce living structure in the world. That means towns, streets, buildings, rooms, gardens, places which are themselves living or alive… depending on who you talk to, they’d say, ‘Well, this stuff Alexander’s been discovering is a lot of nonsense. There is no such thing as objectivity about life or quality.’ ... They are simply mistaken.”

Christopher Alexander (1999)
Living structure is a physical phenomenon and mathematical concept, through which the quality of buildings or artifacts can be judged objectively. Living structure is to beauty what temperature is to warmness. Just like a tree, a living structure has two distinguishing properties: “far more small things than large ones” (so called scaling law) across all scales from the smallest to the largest, and “more or less similar things” (so called Tobler’s law) on each scale. Living structure can be only generated in some step by step fashion by two design principles (differentiation and adaptation) through the 15 structural properties.

Keywords: Living structure, third view of space, wholeness, life, beauty

1. Introduction
If the life’s work of Alexander (2002–2005) – The Nature of Order– had to be summarized in one word, “beauty”, “life” and “wholeness” would be the three top candidates. If allowed two words, it would be “living structure”. What do these terms really refer to? Instead of getting into their detailed meanings, let us use an analogue to clarify them first. If wholeness were compared to temperature, then beauty or life would be like the feeling of warmness or coldness. The higher the temperature, the warmer one feels, and the lower the temperature, the colder one feels. The higher the wholeness, the more beautiful or the more life one feels; the lower the wholeness, the less beautiful or the less life one feels. Therefore, a thing or structure that exhibits a high degree of wholeness is called a living structure. Opposite to living structure is non-living (or dead) structure.

To know whether a thing or space exhibits living structure, one can simply examine whether it possesses “far more smalls than larges” across all scales ranging from the smallest to the largest. For example, at the multiple levels of scale or in a recursive manner – an entire tree, its branches, and its leaves (in terms of the detailed texture) – there are always “far more smalls than larges”. Therefore, a tree is beautiful or alive structurally, regardless of whether it is alive biologically.

A simple shape that lacks of detailed smaller structures is neither beautiful nor alive. This is for the same reason why sans-serif fonts are less beautiful or less alive than serif ones. For example, the font “I” (when shown as a sans-serif) is not a living structure (one vertical line only) without “far more smalls than larges”, whereas the font “I” (when shown as a serif) is a relatively living structure (one vertical line and two little bars) with “far more smalls than larges”. The difference between the non-living and living fonts may be hardly sensed when the two fonts are too small, in particular when the letter’s meaning is focused on. As a matter of fact, serif fonts in general are objectively more beautiful than sans-serif ones.

This article is intended to make it clear why living structure is beauty’s temperature. More specifically, the essence of beauty is structural or objective, lying in the notion of “far more smalls than larges”, which accounts for a majority of our sense of feeling on beauty. There is a clear sign that beauty is beginning to be accepted as an objective concept in the literature of philosophy (Scruton 2009).  Beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder as once held, but exists in living structure. The phenomenon of living structure is universal and pervasive, not only in nature but also in what we made and built across all cultures, ethics, and religions, involving ancient buildings and cities, as well as ancient carpets and other artifacts.

2. Living structure by two examples
Alexander first described the idea of living structures in a corner of an English country garden, where a peach tree grew against a wall:

“The wall runs east to west; the peach tree grows flat against the southern side. The sun shines on the tree and, as it warms the bricks behind the tree, the warm bricks themselves warm the peaches on the tree. It has a slightly dozy quality. The tree, carefully tied to grow flat against the wall; warming the bricks; the peaches growing in the sun; the wild grass growing around the roots of the tree, in the angle where the earth and roots and wall all meet.” (Alexander 1979)

In this living structure of the garden corner, there are many interconnected living centers, such as the wall, the peach tree, the sun, the bricks, the wild grass, the roots of the tree, and even the garden. This is a very good example of Alexander’s miniscule observations on nature and on our surroundings. 

Considering another example of embryogenesis, a growing mouse foot is a living structure that comes from continuous differentiation and adaptation (Figure 1, Alexander 2005). In the course of the step-by-step development of the five days, many of the 15 structural properties (Table 1) can be observed, such as strong centers, thick boundaries, gradients, levels of scale, contrast, local symmetries, and finally, good shape of the whole.

3. Living versus less-living structure
A simple comparison can help to prove that the modernist architecture and design usually fail to create living structure, whereas traditional buildings and designs are usually living structures. Two building façades and all their identified centers are shown as individual polygons (Figure 2). The cathedral façade contains over 500 centers, whereas the modernist one contains only a bit over 50 centers. From these two numbers, we can judge that the left is more living than the right. Secondly, the cathedral façade has six hierarchical levels indicated by the six colors, whereas the modernist façade has only two levels represented by blue and red. In addition, all of the blue pieces on the modernist building façade are exactly the same size, so look boring without any variation. There is little doubt that the left is more beautiful or living than the right.

Let’s further look at the two logos of University College London (UCL) (Figure 3). The new logo ( was adopted in 2005, but it is far less-living than the old one ( The old logo has at least 19 centers, which hold five hierarchical levels (Figure 3a and 3b), whereas the new logo has a maximum of six centers, which can be put at only two hierarchical levels: the five centers as the figure, and the one center as the ground (Figure 3c and 3d). In fact, two of the six centers are a bit too small to recognize when the logo is small enough. It is clear that the old logo is more living or more beautiful than the new one. Even by assessing the three letters U, C, L, we can conclude that the old one is more beautiful or more living than the new one, based on the fact that serif letters in general have more centers – thus more beautiful – than sans-serif ones. To this point, the more-living and less-living logos can really be said to a fact rather than an opinion.

The two examples above demonstrate that living structure meets both the scaling law (Jiang 2015) and Tobler’s law (Tobler 1970), whereas dead structure violates these two laws. For example, the two bad designs – the modernist façade and logo – are considered to be dead structures, for they have only two hierarchical levels (indicated by red and blue). It should be noted that these two bad designs are, by far, not the worst. All those buildings labeled by such names as modernism, postmodernism, and deconstructionism belong to so-called dead structures or disorganized complexity (Jacobs 1961). In this connection. we found no better paper than the one by Salingaros (2014) that illustrates vividly complexity in architecture and design; essentially, living structure is organized complexity, while dead structure is disorganized complexity. Dead structure or disorganized complexity violates scaling law across scales or Tobler’s law on each scale, and is not created by differentiation and adaptation through the 15 structural properties.

4. Summary
Living structure as a physical phenomenon and mathematical concept help people to understand objective or structural nature of beauty. It is a mathematical structure of physical space, which is able to reflect in our minds psychologically: the more living the structure is, the more beautiful one feels. Beauty and ugliness can be clearly defined by scaling law; that is, a structure with a flat hierarchy – with maximum two levels of scale only – is objectively considered to be ugly, whereas a structure with a steep hierarchy – with at least three levels of scale – is objectively considered to be beautiful. By claiming objective or structural beauty, our intention is not to deny idiosyncratic aspects of beauty, which account for only a small proportion of our feeling. This dominance of the objective over the subjective can be compared to any statistical regularity with a majority of agreement, such as an r square value of 0.75 instead of 1.0. In addition to the hierarchy or scaling law, Tobler’s law plays an important role in the objective or structural beauty as well. As one of the two laws of living structure, Tobler’s law – or the notion of “more or less similar” – recurs on each level of scale. The true meaning of “more or less similar” is neither “completely same” nor “completely unique”, but something between the same and the unique. These two complementary laws work together, governing living structures, with the scaling law being primary, and Tobler’s law being secondary.

This paper is a shortened version of the open-access paper (Jiang 2019), originally published by the journal Urban Science (MDPI: This research was funded by the Swedish Research Council FORMAS through the ALEXANDER project with grant number FR-2017/0009.

Alexander C. (1979), The Timeless Way of Building, Oxford University Press: New York.
Alexander C. (1999), The origins of pattern theory: The future of the theory, and the generation of a living world, IEEE Software, 16(5), 71–82.
Alexander C. (2002–2005), The Nature of Order: An essay on the art of building and the nature of the universe, Center for Environmentaln Structure: Berkeley, CA.
Jacobs J. (1961), The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Vintage Books: New York.
Jiang B. (2015), Geospatial analysis requires a different way of thinking: The problem of spatial heterogeneity, GeoJournal, 80(1), 1–13.
Jiang B. (2019), Living structure down to earth and up to heaven: Christopher Alexander, Urban Science, 3(3), 96,
Salingaros N. A. (2014), Complexity in architecture and design, Oz Journal, 36, 18–25.
Scruton R. (2009), Beauty: A very short introduction, Oxford University: New York.
Tobler W. (1970), A computer movie simulating urban growth in the Detroit region, Economic geography, 46(2), 234–240.