The following is a seminar response paper by student, Eli Blum. Students were asked to find a place in Aix-en-Provence that they feel embodies Christopher Alexander's "quality without a name" and write about their experience there. The Quality Without a Name
There is a small street heading just west and then north from Place de l’Universite that could be talked about in close relation to the quality without a name. It is called Rue de Jouque. I struggled a bit with this writing prompt, because humans seem to react to the quality without a name in a visceral, personal manner that almost defies language, and yet the quality is impossibly precise and objective. It is huge in the scope of what it projects from a space but also demands a rigorous understanding of those things that it projects. There is an almost paradoxical aspect to the quality as it relates to human interpretation that makes intellectualizing about it deeply unsettling and seemingly superfluous, as well as essential.
The area I examined is bookended by a narrowing continuation of the same street on either end, too narrow for any car. The area itself is essentially a brief widening, into a quasi-square, accommodating the doorways of two residences. Along the outer boundary of the second residence, a sandy orange wall (perhaps 2.5 meters high) extends from the building toward the road and then curves along the road as the space narrows again. It also gently slopes upward in height as it curves. The wall itself helps contain the backyard of a different home set back and angled more perpendicularly to the road itself. Set back as it is from the building allows a large swath of sunlight to enter the area, with much of it settling onto the wall itself. A palm tree’s fronds peak in from the backyard to rest gently atop and above the wall, right at the juncture between the wall and the building jutting back parallel to the road. Berry vines of an uncertain variety drape along the top of the wall, and this has also given birth to a greenish moss along the upper portion of the wall. Also along the upper portion of the wall, the color lightens from the sandy orange that covers the lower two thirds of the walls into more of a rusty pink. Cracks in the plaster meander through portions. A small red motorcycle rests in front.
Color graduates in a thoughtful way that suggests the presence of a maker, but retains the hint of natural progression through time that a place free of inner contradiction might have. The color goes on the wall from a sandy orange, to a rusty pink, to a deeper salmon color on the building perpendicular to it. Particularly because that second color, the rusty light pink, seems brought about by the elements, the colors together bestow life on the place from a source that unites nature and the human.
The curve of the wall that hastens the return to narrowness also relates to the curve of the rain gutter that snakes down the middle of the street. As the rain gutter moves toward the other end of the space away from the wall, it too curves in a way that reflects the wall’s curve. The space almost demands it, in the egoless way of the Quality, creating pattern of curved contour in a space that otherwise exists angularly. The curve of the wall is multi-dimensional and springs upward into the space above the visitor, contrasting with the relative flat, ground level of the gutter. The effect renders the relationship at once more complex and quieter for the eye to pick up. The subtlety of the relationship suggests that the space possessed a small void in demand of contour that would have gone unsatisfied had the curve of the wall existed without the curve of the gutter. In response, the space quietly birthed the necessary element, without the imprint of a heavy hand.
The motorcycle sitting in front of the wall enhanced the place in a specific way. As something of a square, the area projects a bit more of a lingering human feeling, as though life was meant not just pass transitorily. However the size of the area would not reconcile with anything much thicker than a trickle of foot traffic and perhaps one or two small groups of people to linger. As such, the motionless motorbike endowed the area with a vital permanence that suggested human life existing consistently within the place, while still emanating away at times. Much the way Alexander’s image of the cement bags in the truck bed derives its Quality from the uninhibited freeness that posses the men who arrange those bags, the motorcycle contributes to the freeness of the whole. It injects life into the system by the thought of a busy man or woman stopping the bike, leaning it against the wall, and walking the few steps to the front door. He or she lives presently and unencumbered by “idea and image” (Alexander 33) and as a result she contributes something essential to the area as a whole. The motorcycle could easily have been substituted for a wheelbarrow, or a handcart, or an old wooden bicycle, and still projected the same feeling at different historical points. That sensation contributes to the location’s vitality, hinting at the passage of time, and by extension, life.
I realize now that I have waffled between using specifically the wall as my study for the Quality, and using the larger square on the whole, although I think this happened for understandable reasons. The wall has the Quality but gives life to its surrounding environment, in a way that allows the larger place to have the Quality. And this initiates a symbiotic relationship in which the larger place also helps the life of the wall with its ability to possess the Quality. I can see how the Quality has the potential, human indiscretion not withstanding, to exist in a kind of ever-expanding unity that incorporates more and more systems under its auspices.