The following is an excerpt from Structured and De-structured Space (pdf). That paper introduces two kinds of compositional space I call structured and unstructured. Those are explained here. A third kind of compositional space, de-structured, is described in a subsequent post. (This post has been edited since it was initially posted.)
Sometimes a building or place gives us a feeling of wholesome lovability: the sense that its makers care about us. Sometimes a building seems aloof or unlovable, and this taints our opinion of its makers. We know that architects often sincerely believe they are providing wholesome, lovable, and caring places – even when they leave ordinary people cold. Perhaps this dichotomy is because architects and the people they design for follow two different goals. When these two sets of goals are better understood, perhaps they can both be more successful in their way.
Le Corbusier’s Five Points of Architecture opposed some of the most essential elements of traditional and classical architecture directly: a solid base; spatially defined rooms; a façade that evokes structural support; windows that can frame a standing person; and a sheltering roof. It is easy to assume that this frontal attack on traditional verities was just a function of opposition to whatever traditional architecture happened to hold dear: a petulant “Nuh-Uh!” response to tradition. But this ignores the fact that many architects sincerely thought they were doing people a favor by making a more natural architecture. When this new architecture is successful, it can be very successful. For example Fallingwater gives many people a natural, comfortable, outdoorsy feeling.
It seems clear that these two sets of design qualities are not simply in opposition to each other. Rather, one is for human-made things that make us feel healthy and at ease. The other should not be demonized, but should be understood and used as an evocation of the sort of pastoral natural human habitat our ancestors wanted to live in. That is, modernism is not simply a negation of well-loved traditional design. It is an attempt to bring certain idyllic qualities into the human-made. Perhaps by understanding this mission more fully, architects and designers can achieve it without inadvertently alienating the ordinary people they hope to reach.
We can call one of these compositional spaces “structured space,” because it refers to things people mark as human. This is the kind of compositional space that has marked human-made objects since our ancestors strung alternating beads on their jewelry. It indicates that something is made with human judgment, and isn’t just deposited by nature. “Structured,” here, means that not only that it structures design compositionally in design terms, but that it is structured in a linguistic way. That is, not only does it imply an orderly composition, but it also refers to the deep structure of linguistics. Something that is structured, then, follows conventions so that it has meanings not only in itself, but in relation to other things. A house or a door or a wall or a pot looks like other houses, doors, walls, pictures, and pots. Moreover, the house might adopt a motif from a pot, or the pot might adopt a motif from the house, and so on. The concept behind deep structure is that there is a certain necessary grammar to communication. In order to communicate at all, the design has to draw on a shared language. Thus, by convention as well as by sheer practicality, a roof suggests shelter, and beautiful posts at either side of a door suggest dignified entry as well as physical support. The deep structure of structured space may be inspired by the old (animist) idea of trying to put a soul into things. Certainly, structured space has many characteristics in common with animal and human faces: symmetry, precision, balance, and so on. Perhaps our facility for compositional structure developed from our perception of faces.
The other kind of compositional space is different: “unstructured space.” This is the kind of compositional space emulating habitats in which people feel comfortable. It doesn’t include the animals in that habitat. As Denis Dutton has noted, (Dutton, 2009) these places have drinking water, open land, trees we can climb, shade, and an open aspect. This unstructured space used to make our prey and predators visible and was suitable for foraging, grazing, and eventually cultivation. Unlike structured space, unstructured space does not require evidence of human care. It is all the more idyllic, in fact, for just happening to be bountiful.
Unstructured space is descended from bountiful, comfortable nature. It does not include craggy peaks, impenetrable forests, or harrowing waterfalls. Those are usually considered “sublime” in art-historical terms. Rather, unstructured space is at the mean: not too hot or cold; quenching thirst – not dry or swampy; verdant but not claustrophobically so; open but with shelter; supplied with plenty of tasty wildlife and plants but not scary bears or big cats, and etc. It is livable, even idyllic nature. It also doesn’t include animals and flowers themselves. We seem to shift into an entirely different perceptual space when we see these. For this reason, we can best think of unstructured space as the space that makes things stand out. It is a sort of background. However, we must use caution, because it is also the space in which human care is made invisible. For example, good minimalism requires a great deal of artfulness to pull off – but it hides that care so that it seems matter-of-fact.
“LOUISIANA MARSH,” BY BRIAN GAUTREAU. LICENSED UNDER CREATIVE COMMONS CC BY-SA 2.0 VIA FLICKR
We can make the man-made things feel beautiful or wholesome without a scientific or deep philosophical foundation as to why. Our ability is almost instinctual, and we seem hard-wired for it. In the West, traditional architects offered pattern books and rules of composition to help people embody these qualities in buildings and landscapes. Different cultures have routinely made things that have these properties by applying their own comprehensible rules to deep human judgment. Christopher Alexander enumerated the resulting qualities as the “fifteen fundamental properties of wholeness.”(Alexander, 2002)
Alexander, C. (2002). The Phenomenon of Life. Berkeley: Center for Environmental Structure. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=E1zcMgEACAAJ
Dutton, D. (2009). The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, & Human Evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=jqb6WrXS68kC