New teaching in architecture

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Yesterday’s post, “‘Building Beauty’ in Naples,” discusses a new program of architecture education in Italy that emphasizes beauty. It is mind-boggling that even in Italy an architecture program that emphasizes beauty is news. I issued a tentative warning about the program, invalid I hope, but in doing so I neglected to sufficiently describe the program itself. So here goes.

First off, the University Suor Orsola Benincasa (UniSOB) is surrounded by the old city of Naples, founded as Parthenope or Palaepolis in the 9th century B.C., and subsequently re-established as Neapolis (New City) in 470 B.C. The university sits amid the very beauty that its new “Building Beauty” program was founded to re-establish in architecture. But of course many architecture programs that intend to destroy beauty – yes, intend – are also situated amid lovely settings. Not always are such settings used as models of excellence in design or permitted to impart the wisdom of beauty to students.

Although most modernist architects today are unaware or have forgotten, modern architecture is not just a style but a vital facet of a world view that sees itself as the summit of human progress. Under its domain, obsolete systems of design will, like other traditions, be overtaken and eliminated. This is already happening in almost every field of human endeavor. Why should architecture be any different?

Well, because the obliteration of tradition in architecture reflects erroneous ideas about human nature and human progress whose continuation is dangerous to society. It seems to me that “Building Beauty” must intend to act against that trend in architecture, or it is not really a new system of architectural education, let alone a builder of beauty.

Fortunately, the program does seem to see itself, albeit without really saying so, as reacting against trends in architecture and educational practices that have failed humanity for almost a century by now.

A pamphlet that explains “Building Beauty” reads:

The program emphasizes the generation of beauty by means of the practical work of making; it is offered to all those willing to explore that beauty which makes a difference in the world.

Above all, “Building Beauty” is scientific as opposed to utilitarian. Utility and science are two different things. In its quest for the utility of the machine, modern architecture seeks to don the reputation of science even as it has abandoned the rigor of science. This program will re-embrace science as an ally of nature. Christopher Alexander, as lead developer of the curriculum, is well known for his scientific research into the organic generation of forms at the heart of a living architecture. Science knows that nature copies itself, often making small advances in utility – just as architecture has evolved over centuries of practice. This parallel is at the heart of the new program.

Although technology is an important aspect of building, the conception of what is built is – if I am interpreting the program correctly – more directly tied to the way architecture changes over time as builders develop best practices through trial and error at the level of the construction site. The program incorporates the experience of construction in ways that were long ago abandoned in conventional design education.

No. 9 of the “Building Beauty” program’s 13 principles is:

The “Unfolding” Nature of Beauty Generation Essentially a process of adaptive transformation, making beauty happens in steps whereby each step expands the pre-existent beauty and, in itself, is complete and makes full sense. We test and explore the unfolding nature of beauty generation both in the process of making and in that of teaching how to make.

This is pure Alexander. Clearly, referring back to my warning at the top of this post, a mindset that rejects “mimicry” or “copying the past” as inimical to creativity in design is incompatible with this program. A new program of any sort cannot succeed if it is untrue to itself, so I believe, after reading the materials linked to above, that “Building Beauty” is well founded and likely to succeed, if success is measured in terms of helping students create beauty in the face of the opposition of the architectural establishment.

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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4 Responses to New teaching in architecture

  1. Hi David – Thanks very much for an insightful post. Speaking as a member of the Building Beauty faculty, I would say that what Chris Alexander has always been trying to do is to recapitulate the characteristics of Classical and traditional design “from the inside out” as it were, rather than by picking up one or other particular form language from a specific building tradition (including the Classical tradition).

    There are several reasons for this, one being that he has always been more interested in the vernacular side of the spectrum than the Classical. Another is that he has always wanted to be culturally eclectic, so that he might work in, say, Japan, and be able to pick up cultural references there in a literate fusion, but well outside of a Western Classical language. You can see this in the example of the Eishin School near Tokyo, which is very expressive of Japanese traditional and Classical design.

    There is a drawback in this, of course — it cuts out a lot of good “DNA” of design, not unlike the limitations of modernism. But there is also an important advantage, in that it can focus more on being generative and regenerative, with deeper roots in the place and culture than in a particular form language and its tradition. And unlike modernism, it does NOT exclude any particular traditional forms, ornaments, motifs, etc. That stylistic prejudice is foolish, illogical, and destructive of real sustainability. (Haven’t we learned this by now?)

    For me I see a value in both approaches, and we’re all feeling our way through this incredibly destructive period to something more whole. I think we need to focus on that problem more, and less on sectarian divisions – including petty attacks on “tradition.” This is what I have gently counseled to the other members of the Building Beauty program.

    For a similar reason, I don’t think the program needs to spend effort critiquing modernism in its public communication, any more than, say, Notre Dame does. Lots of us do that in other, more appropriate venues — such as you do, quite ably! Best, m

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    • All of this does make a lot of sense, Michael. Your remarks about Alexander’s work allow me to see it in a new and more plausible light. And no, I don’t think every institution that supports traditional architecture needs to criticize modernism. Tradition speaks for itself. Of course, praise for tradition and criticism of modernism are two sides of the same coin, and the latter is (if I do say so myself) a necessary pursuit. It’s a dirty job but somebody’s gotta do it.

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  2. Two good questions. Whereas the curriculum at Notre Dame is unapologetically classical in emphasis – it was modernist two decades ago, before a revolt led by classicist faculty – “Building Blue” seems to have an orientation more associated with natural processes rather than any particular style, though that necessarily suggests a broad traditionalist orientation.

    As for your second question, I haven’t the foggiest idea where the Shepley collection ended up. The PPL doesn’t seem to have a collection named for Shepley and its online database doesn’t reveal any Shepley connection, except for a letter in their archives to Colonel Shepley thanking him for a book about whaling.

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  3. William S. Kling says:

    Thanks so much for your 10/1,2,3 and 4 blogs. Great reading! Two questions-can you compare the assumed Benincasa program to others (I think you frequently mention Notre Dame) and does anyone know where the Shepley collection ended up after we lost the library?

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