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.