“Building Beauty” in Naples

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University Suor Orsola Benincasa (UniSOB, on Sant’Elmo hill overlooking Naples (UniSOB)

A new architectural program that focuses on beauty, of all things, opens its doors this semester at University Suor Orsola Benincasa, in Naples. The development of the curriculum, known as “Building Beauty,” was led by architect Christopher Alexander, known for his decades of effort to return architecture to its grounding in nature, and back to its centuries-long reliance on beauty as the key to useful buildings.

I’ve been sent several online descriptions and registrations for the new program. They cry out for treatment on this blog. That became more urgent when the program was written up by architect and critic Duo Dickinson on the Common/Edge website, which all too often features writing that claims and sometimes provides a degree of open-mindedness in the vital style war between modernism and new traditional architecture, but whose articles usually sneer at the latter. Dickinson epitomizes that attitude, and so it was worrisome that he writes so glowingly of the new program in Naples.

Christopher Alexander’s New Architecture Program Offers an Alternative to Style and Orthodoxy” contains Dickinson’s predictable set of elbows to the ribs of new traditional architecture. He urges that “we start teaching that the basis of designing buildings is found in the human capacity to create beauty (versus mimicking a style).” Mimicking a style is code for taking inspiration from historic architecture. It is meant to belittle efforts to turn architecture away from being an abstract exercise and return it to a more hands-on exercise in helping architecture follow where nature leads – efforts that will require major changes in curricula at almost all architecture schools.

Dickinson claims to support such efforts, but that is hard to reconcile with his absurdly narrow definition of creativity, which he seems to think is the opposite of building upon a tradition. For example, he deplores the role of 3D printing, which has

made the reanimation of long dead buildings and their designs a disturbing reality: like building a new McKim, Mead, and White Penn Station in New York. Creativity becomes a thing of the past: literally.

Really? It is amazing how an educated person can continue to hold that the only valid definition of creativity in architecture is to make a new building that is even wackier than the last sensational, gravity-defying edifice. The idea of rebuilding Penn Station in its original McKim, Mead & White style contains so much opportunity for advanced creativity that it’s difficult to enumerate. How to use new materials to recreate the beauty of McKim’s natural stonework; how to adapt the 1910 station plan to the many changes in human behavior, commercial practices, transportation innovation, etc.; not to mention how to invent novel orders of embellishment that pick up on our diverse American culture, and yet nevertheless fit into the hierarchy of ornamental features common to classical architecture. (Think of Benjamin Latrobe’s corncob capitals in the U.S. Capitol’s Hall of Columns.)

It takes real creativity to imagine plausible reasons to deny the creativity of using the past to inspire the future, and in particular a project like rebuilding old Penn Station – something that millions will love – in the face of a stodgy modernist establishment. Sorry, Duo. We know you are not stupid, but your plausibility here is nil. This does not wash.

In light of these and other prejudices in his article, Dickinson’s praise of Alexander’s new program in Naples could undermine its prospects for success. A new kind of architecture education would bring genuine choice for students who seek the option of a traditional curriculum. A student who reads Dickinson’s praise of the program with his denigration of traditional sensibilities might decide not to apply to the new program. Maybe, such a student might think, Alexander’s reputation as a traditionalist is overblown. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to suggest that this is Dickinson’s intent.

It is possible to suppose that Dickinson has had a change of heart that has opened his mind to evening the playing field in architecture so that new traditional proposals have a chance to thrive in a profession still absolutely dominated by modern architecture. His slurs against new traditional could be read as efforts to maintain his professional street cred, even as he inches ever closer to apostasy. I like this view, because it would validate some of the interesting points his article makes.

So here is hoping that the new program for “Building Beauty” through architecture, in Naples, is, like the programs at Notre Dame and a handful of other schools, the real deal – a genuine alternative to a modernist-based architectural education.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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16 Responses to “Building Beauty” in Naples

  1. John Borden says:

    Thank you David. I’ve been following your blog for just a couple of weeks now appreciate your writing. I’m a student, but find that architecture school isn’t teaching me what I had hoped to learn when I applied. I applied for school after belonging to the ICAA for a couple of years (as a builder/carpenter) and attending some Proportion lectures with Steve Bass. I’m in my 3rd year of school now and I’ve been working through the work of Salingaros and Alexander rigorously on my own. I saw Andres Duany speak last year and he blew my mind. It’s amazing to have found this blog. Not only get to read about these people, but they’re contributing in the comments!

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    • Many thanks to you, John. It is no less gratifying to me to have them commenting on my blog. Good luck with school. I realize it can be heavy going when you don’t see eye to eye with your profs, but keep at it!

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  2. Pingback: New teaching in architecture | Architecture Here and There

  3. Daniel Morales says:

    I’d like to be positive also, but the ‘mimicking existing styles’ comment raised some serious flags. This is a nonstarter for any educational system intent on spreading ‘beauty’, which is the greatest good architects can do, once they’ve secured firmness and commodity (not that hard). Every great artist before WWl learned the art of design by mimicking past styles, period. The fear of turning into a traditionalist zombie is not to understand history or human nature. As traditionalists, we must tackle the all too natural desire to be original and stand out, but this, like all human learning, begins with mimicking. It boggles the mind that we still don’t acknowledge and build on this fact rather than assume a novice will produce the visual harmony that forms the basis for most beauty, regardless of cultural. Either way, baby steps. Any crack in the door to the beauty people crave is a good thing. Hopefully they will take full advantage of Italy’s deep well of cultural riches. I wish them all the best!

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    • You’re on target, Dan, when it comes to the castigation of mimicry. All beauty arises from building upon past experience, and mimicry, copying or taking inspiration from techniques of the past, whatever you call it, is vital to moving artistic technique into the future. Dickinson and others who deny this very obvious truth are not people you want on a traditional faculty. However, Dickinson is smart, and may possibly be learning, and that may explain why he is on the new program’s faculty. In any event, every faculty – like every sports team – has members who do not measure up, or who do not really understand the spirit of the group. I still hold out great hope for the program.

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  4. steve bass says:

    Glad to hear about this educational program. A key to it is that much of the student’s time is spent in actual construction – the reintegration of design and construction is vintage Alexander and an important part of generating a new vital architecture. Fusion of traditional goals and modern methods is another Alexander theme. Best wishes to this project.

    On the other hand it’s disappointing that Duo Dickinson falls into the canard of ‘slavish copying’ [imitation] when it comes to the classical elements. Study of the elements is a discipline that provides a foundation for invention. It’s hard for me to imagine that anyone who has submitted to this discipline does not understand that the elements are the starting point for design not the end of it. Nor does study of the elements have anything to do with popularity, perhaps meaning conformity. And maybe we need to rethink what ‘creative’ means in a traditional context. I would urge Dickinson, if he hasn’t already, to sit through a one-day elements course at ICAA – I can promise that he won’t be turned into a robot-zombie, compelled to go around putting leaves and volutes on everything. And if you’re looking for something to balance BIM, study of the elements might just do the job.

    Beauty is a bit more tricky – I don’t see a definition either in Dickinson’s comment above or on the school website – only beauty posed as as an aspirational goal. While not disagreeing with this I would offer the statement of Plotinus [Ennead 1.6] that ‘beauty is the joyous state of the soul as it remembers its relation to divine unity’ – though I know this is hard for some to swallow. The Building Beauty program has a course called ‘Theory and Practice of the Geometry of Beauty’ – I’d love to see the syllabus.

    Thanks for this blogpost and discussion –

    Steve Bass
    Fellow ICAA

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  5. I simply think that to do good work in the era of BIM, architects need to reconnect with the essential imperative that created our profession a couple or few hundred years ago – Building Beauty: if we are taught to imitate Any/All/Every image as a starting point for learning, the flood tide of following favor pushes the student mass to whatever is popular: then its a short step to clicking on whatever BIM thinks is wise: If on the other had, we teach that beauty is the essence of an architect’s desire and building is the focus of his devotion, then BIM, and any style, is just a tool – not the taskmaster

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    • SORRY: his OR her devotion: haste makes sexist…

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    • I would agree with you, Duo, but your article contains thoughts that, in my opinion, make such an idea sound very odd from you. I realize, and have said so in posts before, that you are among those very, very few architecture critics who even acknowledge trad work or have even one good thing to say about it. Still, an architecture school can’t be both modernist and traditional in its emphasis, or if it does it will have a split personality undermining its effectiveness – certainly its effectiveness in reinstituting beauty as an viable idea in the world of architecture education.

      I admit I know nothing of BIM, but from what I’ve read it is a tool, and it sounds to me as if it can be effective if it is used intelligently. It seems to me, all other things being equal, if a tool such as BIM herds architects toward building beauty, that is a good thing. It is their fault rather than the tool’s fault if they cannot design something worthwhile with it. Or maybe it is the fault of the architecture schools and their instructors – in which case I hope the Naples program will indeed treat beauty with the respect that it has lacked for well over half a century in the precincts of the queen of the arts. I see you are on its faculty, so I really do hope you are getting “with it” in spirit more than I can detect, regretfully, in most of your articles.

      Either way, I respect that you choose to engage with your critics rather than ignore them as is much more common among the brethren of architectural scribblers. I would absolutely rejoice if I could convince myself that you are on my side. You cannot be on both sides.

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      • I find, for me, there is only one Architecture, with many variants: “beauty” is, of course, subjective in “style” – but not in the joy some things create: babies, water, light, food, ad infinitum – denial of that, and history, and tradition, is simply self-serving and defensive: so do come to DC on November 14, and hear Michael Imber and I break it down: why there is beauty in many places, and architecture is in a place where the beauty of building is in jeopardy: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/dramatic-cultural-change-and-the-future-of-architecture-tickets-38538730380

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        • If there is only one architecture, and there is beauty in every which way, why has the architectural establishment worked so hard to deny neo-traditional styles a foothold in the development process, and a fair share of the limelight in architectural magazines and other power centers of the profession? Your comment is so anodyne and banal that it means nothing in terms of staking out a position in this debate, which undeniably exists and is undeniably pertinent.

          Good luck in Washington, but most people with eyes understand that beauty was put in jeopardy by the onset of modern architecture. I’d say your house (pictured with your recent Common/Edge article) is beautiful, so it leaves me scratching my head why you try so hard to have it both ways. Duo, just say “yes” to your own heart!

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          • Thank you: rules/Canon/expectations are often in unintended violation in my work: to both Mod and Trad perspectives: my only Canons are flat roofs leak and eaves are good (neither have aesthetic origins, but have huge aesthetic outcomes: for many Mod’s that makes my work wholly unacceptable: for others the absence of symmetry or precedent makes me illegitimate: the site, the client, my eye makes things some love, some do not: approaching 800 built things, 1,000 commissions with about 500 clients over almost 40 years: I think building to a standard of beauty at every level of cost is harder to do, often impossible to justify in the product to an agenda, but the ethic of building well in the context has defined an oeuvre that is its own fact – as is that I deeply love The Vietnam Wall and The Lincoln Memorial, unconditionally…

            Reply from David – All very impressive, Duo, but I am still scratching my head.

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  6. David,

    I feel that you are being far too harsh on Duo Dickinson, who has done a good deed by writing about the new Master’s Program in Naples. Yes, it’s indeed the real deal, and I’m involved with it. Considering that the major online journals and websites have not bothered to mention it, I was very happy to read Duo’s endorsement.

    You might be upset by the opinion about rebuilding Pennsylvania Station according to original specifications, but that surely is another topic for (fierce) debate. I happen to agree with you on that one, but wouldn’t want other matters distracting from the announcement and value of this innovative new educational program.

    Cheers,
    Nikos

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    • I realize, Nikos, that Duo is among the few architecture critics who treat traditional work with the very slightest degree of respect – by acknowledging its existence. I am glad you tell me that the new program is the real deal. Hearing praise of it from a critic who, however tolerant (merely tolerant) he may be of trad work, is worrisome, and I have expressed that worry. However, I have also tried to accentuate the positive, ending on a note suggesting that Duo might be moving toward a degree of real sympathy with tradition. I note he is on the faculty of the program. I hope that means he has indeed seen the light, and that the program itself is everything that the trad architecture community might hope for. There are few enough such programs as it is.

      Anyway, why would the establishment architecture journals and websites mention this program if it is indeed interested in architecture from an approach that favors beauty?

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