This research studies the phenomenon of the crystallization of stuff. The common description of the configuration of stuff in a room, one of order (tidy) and chaos (messy), fails to explain that artifacts create functional connections and concentrate around activities in a structured way. This form of organization, that is recognizable in various scale levels, emerges spontaneously in the system, without the conscious intention of ordering.
Following the growing insight in different disciplines that a theory of complexity can more adequately describe real-world phenomena than the classical causal-mechanistic model, a theory is proposed in which a third state, one of self-organization, is added to the order-chaos dichotomy. Stuff systems are considered complex systems, whose global patterns and properties unfold in time, generated through local interactions between the parts. When projecting models that describe complex system dynamics on stuff systems, much of what we observe in a house can be explained, such as the rise of order parameters structuring the parts, life cycles of accumulation, growth, restructuring and renewal, and interdependencies across scales.
The problem here, is that the constant reconfiguration of stuff can only be explained through interaction with human beings, but does not solely follow a path of top-down design. A theory is proposed that links the self-organization of stuff to action identification theory. This theory from psychology explores the cognitive construct of the action (“what one thinks one is doing”) as an order parameter filtering incoming information and thus structuring behavior. This action identity is both constructing and constructed by the action, and thus follows a process of self-organization. As the arrangement of stuff is the creation of action possibility, and these action possibilities (or affordances) are also what is perceived, stuff-configuration is a phenomenon of the same kind. Action identification and affordance creation act in parallel and can be considered a doubly complex system.
Action identification theory holds that action is in principle maintained in accordance to the prepotent identity, unless higher levels – more abstract and encompassing multiple lower levels – become accessible. This can be triggered both internally (by thoughts) and externally (by stuff in sight). Affordances are thus created through an oscillation between both searching and stumbling upon, something that can be recognized in the patterns observed in a house.
When the most characteristic scale of self-organizing stuff, the stuff cell, is dissected, the form is found to be ordered by a central working field that corresponds with the prepotent action identity. The physical form of a stuff cell thus develops in similar leveled (panarchic) steps, constantly self-organizing into more abstract and encompassing working fields.
To conclude with, three promising paths of thinking are discussed that can link the self-organization of stuff to its surroundings and therefore to design. The first suggests that the recognition of complex system dynamics across the scales of stuff, services, structure and skin, aided by explanatory models and a relevant vocabulary, gives the possibility to perform targeted interventions. The second introduces the use of patterns both as a tool of analysis and as a way to generate complex imaginary stuff configurations during the design process, in order to make explicit decisions. Lastly, stuff cells are discussed in relation to conditions, where a similarly self-reinforcing process is recognizable. Especially the parameter of publicness is one both defining and defined by the organization of stuff, and therefore can be understood as not only dynamic, but creating complex patterns over time.