29 March 2011

Slicing strawberries

The creative process often—and ideally, I think—evolves in an organic way. I always enjoy getting caught up in this process, when a single idea or word or image leads me along an unexpected path. This happened recently with a series of photos that ended up echoing the colors of the Italian flag. The green, white and red theme might seem to be consciously (or even subconsciously) responding to the fact that Florence has been decked out in the patriotic trio as Italy marks the 150th anniversary of its unification this March, but in fact the inspiration came from a long‧time desire to write about strawberries.

It all began a few years ago, when I photographed a bowl of strawberries intended to accompany an Arzigogolare entry inspired by a passage in architect Christopher Alexander’s A Timeless Way of Building. But other topics kept coming up, so it remained at the back of my mind, unwritten. Still, each time winter gives way to spring, when containers of strawberries appear at the produce stands, the wish to share the excerpt from Alexander’s book returns.

Besides architecture, Alexander’s educational background also includes physics, chemistry and mathematics. He has worked as a professor, researcher, builder and writer, and is probably best known for A Pattern Language, a book proposing 253 interconnected patterns that can be used to create a more personal, human quality of life in the spaces we inhabit. They begin at the regional level and progress to that of towns, neighborhoods, building complexes and homes. In the 'Piazza della Repubblica' chapter of The Piazzas of Florence, I touched briefly on how the patterns I regularly encounter in Florence contribute to the enjoyment of living here ...Small Public Squares, High Places, Connected Buildings, Four-Story Limit, Corner Groceries, Individually Owned Shops, Windows Overlooking Life and others.

While A Pattern Language offers readers the nuts and bolts of designing/building towns and buildings which are alive, A Timeless Way of Building conveys the theory behind the pattern language. Across 549 pages, Alexander introduces and explores what he calls ‘the quality without a name’, which he believes is essential to good design. The book’s organic, slowly unfolding, presentation mirrors the nature of the quality itself, which can only evolve over time, in the most natural way possible. The premise is that implementing the patterns will allow this quality to exist, thus leading to an ultimately more livable environment.

Perhaps it seems counter-intuitive that something as technical or fabricated as a pattern would create more natural, human spaces, but they are endlessly adaptable—and of course nature is full of patterns. The pattern language is really about that which we instinctively find comforting...structures designed to follow social spaces (not the other way around), rooms with windows on at least two walls, ceiling heights that vary according to a room’s level of intimacy, south facing outdoor spaces (or north if you live in the southern hemisphere), a sunny counter in the kitchen, cozy pools of light (as opposed to uniform fluorescent lighting), an entrance transition that aids the mental transition into the realm of home. Alexander believes these patterns are intuitive, only that we have lost touch with them.

I agree with much of Alexander’s philosophy (and could easily continue this train of thought), but that is perhaps enough arzigogolando about this for the moment. Time to return to the strawberries...and the passage I wanted to share. In the last chapter of A Timeless Way of Building, after discussing the benefits of taking cues from nature, Alexander concludes that, “To act as nature does is the most ordinary thing in the world. It is as ordinary as the act of slicing strawberries.” He then tells this story:

One of the most moving moments in my life, was also one of the most ordinary.  I was with a friend in Denmark. We were having strawberries for tea, and I noticed that she sliced the strawberries very very fine, almost like paper. Of course, it took longer than usual, and I asked her why she did it. When you eat a strawberry, she said, the taste of it comes from the open surfaces you touch. The more surfaces there are, the more it tastes. The finer I slice the strawberries, the more surfaces there are.

He goes on to say that his friend’s whole life was like that—ordinary, yet each thing done fully—and that her strawberry observations taught him more about building than ten years of practice had. It may seem like a leap if you aren’t familiar with the book (or aren’t on the same page with him), but I find it easy to understand why Alexander considers this such an ‘Aha’ moment...this choosing of qualitative over quantitative factors can so deeply and positively affect the different areas of our lives. Yet, so much of the world is moving ever faster and further from the rhythms of nature, with the bottom line taking precedence at the expense of quality. Although the slower-than-average pace of my personal clock often meets with criticism, I continue to value the importance of taking the time to slice our strawberries finely, both literally and metaphorically. And I suppose I still hold hope that this inclination will somehow reconcile with the ever present need to ‘keep up’.


In the end, I didn’t post one of the original strawberry photos I’d meant to accompany Alexander’s story—they’re buried somewhere on my old computer, so it seemed easier to photograph the berries I had on hand. I enjoyed the process of composing the new shots, and experimenting with the styling. The ultimate choice of a white china cup placed on a plain sheet of Fabriano drawing paper resulted in a very different kind of image than I had taken a couple of springs ago. As I had noted in The Beauty of a Shadow, shadows can inspire all sorts of reflections, so once I settled on the plain white background I was delighted to discover the symmetrical shadows wiggling on either side of the handle-less cup. The reflected ‘halo’ caused by the sunlight, which only appeared after removing the saucer that had initially been part of the composition, was another nice surprise.

The outcome of the strawberry images influenced other photos too. I had planned to record the vibrant orange, yellow, red and purple blooms of the ranunculus plants that I’d found at this month’s flea market in Piazza Santo Spirito, but ended up deciding to focus on the red ranunculus (thus repeating the simplicity of the strawberry composition and capturing green, white and red as the central colors).

Again, I found an unexpected element as I composed the photo—the shadows of the buds, flowers and stems interested me as much as the flowers themselves. And I was reminded of the joy of the creative process—how, by simply committing to the process, you often find yourself enjoying an inspired journey of sorts.

The relative starkness of the green, white and red photos that I’ve mentioned (examples of which can be seen at the top of this entry & above) is a departure from the multicolored layers and patterns I usually favor. I decided to follow this new direction and try concentrating on white, so next I photographed the white-on-white tissue paper pompoms that my daughter and I had made as practice for my sister’s upcoming wedding. Their concentrically layered forms seemed conducive to interacting with light, and resulted in a nice interplay of shadows. Each set I took revealed different effects of light and shadow, and I found myself wishing I could superimpose the many variations to create a single image. (A project for another day perhaps.)

Now that warm weather is here to stay, strawberries have become abundantly available (though their specialness hasn’t diminished). Florence has embraced the new season, with that one hour gladly sacrificed last weekend in exchange for evenings that feel luxuriously long. In the mornings, the streets echo with teachers urging, ‘Andiamo, ragazzi, andiamo!’ (Let’s go, kids, let’s go!), as they herd spirited groups of school children on field trips. Many apartment and shop windows have been patriotically decorated this month, but spring colors and signs of Easter are starting to bring fresh life to the city now.
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