Architectural education still lives largely in the mid-20th century, where the studio model is both wonderful, limited and alive and well. Students have a choice of two pedagogies: either they receive an arts education or they follow the regimen of a glorified business school to become a technocrat. Artificial intelligence (AI) may well eliminate architecture as a career for those not versed in the things only humans can do: synthesize, channel, invent, make. Beyond imitation. Architecture may become inhuman as a result of its changing nature.
Christopher Alexander, architect, educator, and author of “A Pattern Language” and “A Timeless Way of Building,” has spent more than 50 years revealing humanity in design and creation. Starting with architecture, where AI is used as a tool rather than an engine by architects.
That legacy eventually evolved into an academic crystallization of Alexander’s extraordinary theory and practice, the Building Beauty program in Sorrento, Italy. This spring, the University of Hartford awarded full academic credit for the pedagogy and coursework of this three-year-old program. I organized the HOME competition as part of the Building Beauty program, and Alexander’s impact was revealed to me.
Five central designers/implementers are at the heart of Building Beauty. Their perspectives reveal why, how, and what the program is:
Maggie Moore Alexander
Building beauty President
Sergio Porta, one of our colleagues, proposed Chris and I launch a new graduate course based on Chris’ teaching methodology and his aim of better our lives through beauty five years ago. Sergio suggested that we could do this in one of the most beautiful places in the world -Sorrento, in southern Italy- where everything there could offer a first-hand demonstration of how the challenges and opportunities of human settlements in dramatic landscapes are resolved in a historical context through a unique blend of art, life, and sense of place.
Our faculty, many of whom studied with Chris at UC Berkeley, gathered in Naples to consider this vision and how we may bring new generations of architects, designers, and builders together to create completeness and beauty. After extensive work in Sorrento with our growing international Building Beauty community, our vision expanded to include working with students in their home environments where they can contribute to the restoration of their communities.
Sergio Porta – PhD, Building Beauty Faculty; Professor of Urban Design at the University of Strathclyde, Scotland
At the age of 18, when I was about to start my architectural studies at the Politecnico di Milano, my uncle – a professional architect/planner and academic himself – took a day off from his busy routine to accompany me on a tour of some of Milan’s modern architectural masterpieces. Looking back, I recognize this as a turning point: I still remember walking through Rossi and Aymonino’s Gallaratese estate, silently sharing my uncle’s enlightened admiration and yet overcome by a sense of revulsion. A sword was piercing my heart. I felt first pain, then shame. My antipathy to such a well-known masterwork could only be due to my lack of architectural training. My ignorance left me prostrate. What I experienced that day for the first time was the violent separation between feeling and thinking, triggered by the simple experience of space. I believe Building Beauty was somehow born that day: it is essentially the promise and practice of reconciling feeling and thinking in the human act of making.
Yodan Rofè – PhD, Building Beauty Faculty, Lecturer in Urban Design at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel
Three courses are at the heart of the Building Beauty program: a design and implementation workshop, a course on proper building construction, and a theoretical seminar based on Alexander’s The Nature of Order (currently delivered via webinar). Four aspects make our program unique: The centrality of beauty as an objective property of nature and the built environment, which is the sign of a deep order that is both functional and formal; the role of feeling and the student’s growing understanding as a central criterion for evaluating beauty in making ; design and construction as fabrication, with students taking a project from conception to actual construction over the course of their studies; and finally, our insistence that students work on real projects for real clients while allowing the clients’ vision to guide the design and construction process.
Susan Ingham – M.Arch, AIA, Building Beauty Faculty, Director, KASA Architecture, Seattle, WA
One of the most lasting lessons I took away from studying and working with Christopher Alexander and his Berkeley colleagues was the importance of having a primary goal of always trying to better a specific location: to create something that can add to the harmony and beauty of the world. As an architect, I question my clients about their deepest goals and ambitions for how they want to live in their home: what do they aspire to, what do they value most when they see their perfect home? I then analyze the site to see where it needs the most improvement, and focus my work on those areas, integrating the client’s visions with the needs of the land.
At Building Beauty, we teach students to discover and trust their deepest feelings about place, read the land carefully so they know where to construct, and then build structures that combine both the vision and the site to enhance the beauty of our physical environment.
Or Ettlinger – PhD, Faculty of Building Beauty, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Architecture, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia
Our society has practically lost the know-how to produce truly beautiful places since beauty has not been a key goal of design for nearly a century. Few people dare to try, and therefore fewer and fewer succeed, which only reinforces the impression that beauty is a useless goal for architecture in our time. Beauty has been reinterpreted as a mere commodity – a superficial veneer to be rejected or approved. Some people seek answers in the past, but is that the only option?
Building Beauty is about discovering and understanding what beauty is and how it may be created in today’s world: the beauty of daily settings where everyone can feel at ease. It’s about creating spaces where genuine beauty is inextricably linked to who they are. It is a shared quest to cultivate the architectural beauty of our time, and to redevelop the mindset that makes it possible.
The way we teach something is either forward-looking or based on the support of the past, whether it is classicism or the modern movement. Building Beauty is an educational program that aims to link pupils to the universal principles of creation that Alexander spent his life defining and that are not based on “style.”
But this isn’t a cultish devotion a la Taliesin or Arcosanti; I know this since what I teach at Building Beauty is appreciated and effective because it is founded on our shared humanity, not on the recitation of a strict procedure, which I don’t know.
Building Beauty isn’t about perfecting the existing level of architecture education’s severe presentations and impenetrable rationale. Instead, the program captures the essential and personal reality of making things that embody the ineffable synthesis of craft, place, art and humanity as a forum that no algorithm can simulate. It’s about time, maybe just in time
A man, a city, a structure, or a wilderness all have a primary quality that is the fundamental criterion of their life and spirit. This characteristic is objective and precise, but it is unnameable.
-Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building.
See the article in French