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Christopher Alexander is Building a Legacy in Beauty

Architectural Education is still largely living in the mid-20th century, where the studio model is both wonderful, limited and alive and well. Students are offered two stark pedagogies: either getting a fine arts education or applying a glorified trade school regimen towards being a technocrat. Artificial Intelligence (AI) might just eliminate architecture as a career for those who are not versed in the things that only humans can do: synthesize, channel, invent, craft. Beyond imitation. By its new nature, architecture could be becoming inhuman.

The Eishin Campus was built in Saitama prefecture outside of Tokyo, Japan, using Alexander’s methods that create architecture we can conceive in our hearts , and build with our own hands, using processes that encourage us to make places of life and beauty. Photo: the campus from a cross the lake, the Great Hall and the entrance to the Homebase street. Image © Or Ettlinger

Christopher Alexander, architect, educator, and author of “A Pattern Language” and “A Timeless Way of Building” has spent over 50 years revealing humanity in design and creation. Starting with humanity in architecture that uses AI as a tool —versus the driver— of architects.

That legacy has ultimately evolved to be an academic crystallization of Alexander’s extraordinary theory and practice, the Building Beauty Program in Sorrento Italy. This spring, the University of Hartford has extended full academic credit for the three-year-old program’s fully crafted pedagogy and classes. I have run the HOME Competition as part of the Building Beauty program, and have had Alexander’s impact revealed to me.


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The PUARL conference this year will also take up the evolution of architectural education that has humanity as its central aesthetic measure and method.

Five central creator/implementators are at the core of Building Beauty. Their perspectives reveal why, how and what the program is: 

The Eishin Campus from a cross the lake, the Great Hall and the entrance to the Homebase street. Image © Or Ettlinger

Building Beauty President

Five years ago, our colleague Sergio Porta approached Chris and me with the possibility of starting a new post graduate course using Chris’ teaching model and his vision of how making beauty enhances our lives. Sergio suggested we could do this in one of the most beautiful places in the world —Sorrento, southern Italy— where everything there could offer a first-hand demonstration of how challenges and opportunities of human settlements in dramatic landscapes are resolved in historical context through a unique blend of art, life and sense of place.

Our core teaching staff, several of whom studied with Chris at UC Berkeley, gathered in Naples to consider this dream and how we might bring new generations of architects, makers and builders together to create wholeness and beauty. After significant work in Sorrento with our growing international Building Beauty community, our vision is expanded to include working with students in their home environments where they can contribute to the restoration of their communities.

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Carving an ornament into the backrest of a bench, all made by Building Beauty students. Giving attention to different scales is part of what makes buildings and structures resonate with life. Image © Or Ettlinger

PhD, Building Beauty Faculty; Professor of Urban Design at Strathclyde University, Scotland

Aged 18 and about to start my education in Architecture at the Polytechnic of Milan, my uncle —a professional architect/planner and academic himself— took one day off from his busy routine to accompany me visiting a few masterpieces of Milanese modern architecture. Looking backward, I acknowledge that as a turning point: I still remember walking through Rossi and Aymonino’s Gallaratese estate, silently sharing my uncle’s knowledgeable admiration and yet overwhelmed by a sense of repugnance. A sword was piercing my heart. I felt first the pain, and then the shame of it. My dislike for such a celebrated masterpiece could only be my own fault: I was not an architect yet. My ignorance left me prostrated. What I was experiencing that day for the first time was the violent separation between feeling and thinking, as triggered by the sheer experience of space. I believe Building Beauty somehow was born that day: it is, essentially, the promise and practice of reconciliating feeling and thinking in the human act of making.

Building Beauty student design for one’s own ideal home. A primary focus of the program is on the feeling of deep belonging t hat a home can provide to its inhabitants, and how that can be created and brought into the world. Image © Or Ettlinger

PhD, Building Beauty Faculty, Senior Lecturer of Urban Design at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel

At the core of Building Beauty’s program are three courses: a design and making studio, a course in appropriate building construction, and a theoretical seminar (now a webinar taught on the internet) based on Alexander’s . Four aspects make our program unique: The centrality of beauty as an objective property of nature and the built environment, which is indicative of a deep order that is both functional and formal; The role of feeling and growing understanding of the student’s own self as a central criterion for evaluating beauty in making; Seeing design and construction as making, with students taking a project from conception to actual building through their studies; And finally, our insistence that the students work on real projects for real clients while allowing the clients’ vision to guide the process of design and building.

Building Beauty students constructing a stone bench they designed. In this program, construction is not an execution of a pre conceived blueprint, but an inherent part of the design process, where the design and its details unfold through its construction. Image © Or Ettlinger

M.Arch., AIA, Building Beauty Faculty, Principal, KASA Architecture, Seattle, WA

One of the most lasting lessons that I learned from studying and working with Christopher Alexander and his colleagues at Berkeley is to have as my main purpose the goal of always trying to improve a particular place: creating something that can add to the harmony and beauty of the world. In my work as a practicing architect, I ask my clients what their deepest dreams and visions are for how they want to live in their houses: what do they long for, what do they value the most when they consider their ideal home? I then analyze the site in terms of where it needs the most improvement, and focus my work in these areas, integrating the visions of the client with the needs of the land.

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This is the approach that we take at Building Beauty: teaching students to identify and trust their deepest feelings about place, carefully reading the land in order to know where to build, and then crafting structures that integrate both the vision and the site as a way to increase beauty in our physical world.

PhD, Building Beauty Faculty, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Architecture, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia

With beauty no longer a central purpose of architecture for nearly a century, our civilization has mostly lost the know-how for making truly beautiful places. Few dare to try, and thus ever fewer succeed, which only reinforces the impression that beauty is a pointless aim for architecture in our time. Beauty has been reinterpreted as being a mere commodity – a superficial veneer to either reject or endorse. Some look to the past for answers, but is that the only way?

“Building Beauty is a place for exploring and learning the core of what beauty is and how it can be generated today: the beauty of everyday places where anyone could feel at home in this world. It is about building places where authentic beauty is inseparable from what they are. It is a shared quest to cultivate architectural beauty of our own time, and to redevelop the frame of mind that makes it possible.

In May 2019, Building Beauty students spent 10 days in Ghesc. An abandoned medieval village in the heart of the Italian Alps, all made of stone, is now slowly being restored by ‘Associazione Canova’ through international workshops. Image © Or Ettlinger

Conclusions

How we teach anything either addresses the future or is based on supporting the past —whether Classicism or The Modern Movement. The Building Beauty program attempts to connect students to the universal truths of creation that Alexander spent a lifetime defining that are not “Style” based. 

But this is not a cultish devotion a la Taliesin or Arcosanti, I know this because what I teach at Building Beauty is welcomed and useful, because it is based on our common humanity, not a recitation of a rigorous method, as I do not know it. 

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Building Beauty is not about perfecting the extreme presentations and inscrutable rationales of the present state of architectural education. 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 no algorithm can simulate. It is about time, maybe just in time

There is a central quality which is the root criterion of life and spirit in a man, a town, a building, or a wilderness.  This quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named.

—Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building. 

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