chicago cultural center via wiki commons

Christopher Alexander’s New Architecture Program Offers an Alternative to Style and Orthodoxy

Given the challenged state of the architecture profession, you might think that the last thing we need is another graduate school. Yet a new program is starting next month in Naples Italy. About a dozen “Professional Certificate” students will enroll in a three-semester master’s program at Suor Orsola Benincasa University (UniSOB).


Why? you might ask.


Like other professions in transition, architecture’s desire for self-preservation often overrides its need for transformation. Organized religion has been marginalized in Europe and is in freefall in America; doctors and lawyers are completely retooling how they provide services; publishing and journalism have no clear path to sustainability; and we elected Donald Trump as president. This is a change time.


Architectural education is still largely based on a fine arts studio model of teaching abstract aesthetics. But education has to change because the way we create buildings is changing. We know this is true, because there are too many people looking for the available jobs in architecture. According to NCARB, 150,000 designers are either professionally licensed or are pursuing it; an additional 6,000 new degrees are granted each year. All of this despite the unfortunate fact that there are about 110,000 total jobs “in the profession,” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.


What is being taught is not what is useful in the marketplace. The legendary architect/author Christopher Alexander, whose revolutionary book A Pattern Language and many others, changed architectural thinking, has spent five years with others, defining a new way to teach the discipline. The new program is called “Building Beauty.”



This new voice is essential. Although I don’t use words like “cosmology” and “ecologic design,” I do believe that either education changes or the humans involved in architecture will continue to become less relevant.


Unless we start teaching that the basis of designing buildings is found in the human capacity to create beauty (versus mimicking a style), architects will consign themselves to be aesthetic “pickers.” Building Information Modeling (BIM) has instant facility to compare and contrast, but no ability to create: if architectural education directly embraces the capacity to make beauty that is unique to humans, architects may come to a place of value in construction in this new era of applied “information systems.”


This new mode of education is not a stylistic posturing, or a Luddite cursing of the digital gods. Our common cultural future is not the no-win game of Technology or Humanity; the future of architecture lives in the teaching of Technology and Humanity, found directly in the act of creating beauty. The trick is to teach that truth.


Our traditional reliance on the defined defaults found in intellectual aesthetics does not work when the new technology of cross-referencing existing options now performs far more effectively than any human. If we try to continue to live in a world of picking between stock solutions, we lose the capacity to do more than mimic. This transactional approach to design is not unique to this era. Ninety-five-percent of all house design never sees an architect’s perspective because homes can be effectively done without us if cost is king and beauty is dumbed down to mere style.


Why not teach architecture based on the outcome of building beauty? The paradigm of the past century has been to teach architecture as a fine arts exercise, with students gaining exquisite proficiency at presenting ideas in 2-D or maquette representations. Education tended to equate “design excellence” with the perceived beauty of the student’s presentation, because building happened later, often years later.


Technology should reinvent architectural design and teaching, not pander to preconceptions of old-school academia. The irony of 3D printing is—it’s 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.


I have been building things and writing about architecture for 40 years. When a piece I wrote for Common Edge struck a chord with Alexander & Company, I was contacted by David Getzin, who serves as a researcher and Media Director for “Building Beauty.” We met and in short order, the gist of the program’s approach was conveyed to me. In a blend of priorities, positions and methods, here is my take on the program’s core principles:



Beauty: Using everyday materials and the spiritual potential of them— arguably, architecture’s raison d’etre and often lost as a central value in education.



Cosmology: Bringing the world around any design into the agenda up front—not as abstract “concepts,” but the basic realities of each context.



Functionalism: Making the ordinary world part of the creation of beauty, rather than secondary to the building’s design.



Values: Rather than a defined set of aesthetics, this approach posits that there is an “Objective nature of beauty” and “a common canon of values.”



Space: Investigating how both the individual and the community view space in the creation of things.



Quality of Space: When values and space combine to make beauty, function is enhanced, even transformed, and it’s measurable.



Testing: Rather that make an empirical canon of abstract aesthetic truths (the tradition of fine arts architectural training), the designs created in the sequence are analyzed and considered, to validate the “quality” determined.



Craft: It’s not just ideas that make architecture. How architecture is physically made transforms ideas into a deeper beauty than one conceived in our minds—things will be physically made in this program.



Beauty Analyzed: Instead of accepting a best effort and giving it a grade, the results of these students will be reviewed in the context of how the actual creation enhanced the final result (or didn’t).



Understanding Making: An overview of how the process of design affects the designer, the user, and the context—for example, does the design do more than just solve a problem? Did it also enhance the lives of everyone involved?



The Land and Beauty: After the design’s creation and analysis, the program pulls back to see how the land and the individual interacted, and the changes to both that transpired.



Mock-ups:  Full sized explorations are used in design: these constructions do not rely on technique or rationalization.



Construction: After two full semesters, the program spends the final semester building enhancements to a courtyard at the site of the university, UniSOB.



Creating beauty as the guiding principle of teaching architectural design was first posited in a conversation between Sergio Porta and Alexander five years ago in England. The two, along with Alexander’s wife, Maggie Moore Alexander and Getzin, have recruited professors and architects from Seattle, Oakland, Rome, and Israel in this distinctive effort.


The program is based on one truth: that buildings are not created exclusively by or for our brains. The architect-as-Master Builder faded in the first half of the 20th century, and with it apprenticeship as a means to education. The fine arts education that architects now receive values aesthetic ideas and presentation techniques, in a way that often leaves the joy of building unexplored (especially if BIM takes care of the messy “details”).


We do not experience buildings—or life, for that matter—as an intellectual exercise. How we teach architecture can and should connect us to the primal values of beauty—or at least that’s what Christopher Alexander and his group hopes. And I do too.


Featured image: Chicago Cultural Center, via Wikipedia Commons. 


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