23. Final Reflections on Building and Beauty
With the inaugural year of the Building Beauty program now behind us, what can we see and say about building, beauty, and the building of beauty? Before we joined this program, each of us, for our separate reasons, was drawn to it by the rare opportunity to engage in both. We were excited to have found an architectural program that doesn’t shy away from the topic of beauty, and dares to approach it directly; and that doesn’t only approach architecture conceptually, but also through a physical engagement in the act of building.
Learning from Christopher Alexander’s The Nature of Order, his book series which forms the backbone of this program, was profound, insightful, and transformative – on a professional level, and on a personal level. It addresses so many unanswered questions about architecture, about today’s world, and about our possible place and role within it, that by the end of studying it, you cannot remain the same person you were when you started out. And yet, although indispensable, this is not where the most essential value was.
Similarly, learning and experiencing construction techniques was both fun and invaluable. From the small scale to the larger scale, we benefited from our work with carpets, pottery, tile-making, sculpting, masonry, and plastering. Beyond mere technique, we acquired a maker’s mindset, and absorbed the value of careful attention. But the most meaningful insights came from the juxtaposition of the two: building and beauty; theory and practice. Their fusion together has mutually deepened our understanding of both.
Through our work on the design and construction of our bench, especially from mockups to realization, the meaning of beauty began to shine through. As our work progressed, we gradually realized that there truly is such a thing as wholeness, that it’s something real and tangible, not just a theoretical concept. When it is present, it can be felt, just like the life of a living being can resonate with us when our eyes meet theirs. Therefore, by engaging in the act of building, of putting together stones and mortar day after day – not just menially, but in a conscious search for this quality of wholeness, beauty, and life – you eventually discover that it actually exists. You discover that you can feel it in your body, and you can feel it in your soul. And this feels quite different than only seeing it with your eyes or knowing it in your mind.
The bench is now finished, and to us, it feels like a being. When we look at it, it looks back at us. It has a character, a soul of its own. Such words may sound strange, but they are the closest that words can approximate such a feeling. For one, this bench embodies the beings of all of us who were engaged in making it: people from many different parts of the world who chose to put their diverse personalities and preferences aside, and seek wholeness, beauty, and life together. But it also embodies the spirit of the place: this entire part of Italy, the town of Sorrento, as well as this particular garden. We just followed the life that we found there – its wholeness, not its appearance – and somehow, a new and unique living part of that place brought itself to life through us. And in doing so, it enhanced the life within us, as well as opened our eyes.
We finally got it. What Alexander talks about in his books – it clicked. Wholeness-Beauty-Life is a quality that actually exists in the world, and our real task as architects is to discover it, uncover it, and manifest it in building. But this level of understanding only emerged from an active engagement in the act of building, and the physical act of building is where it can make the most meaningful difference in the world. Beautifying the planet, hands-on, one building at a time.
As you are reading these words, perhaps you find yourself nodding in agreement. That’s great, but that too is still only theory – a theory about the value of fusing theory and practice. But if our discoveries about it truly resonate with you, then please, do something about it. Go ahead and build something, anything, at any scale. A house, a toolshed, a table, a vase, a toy, whatever. But just do it, physically. Take all the theory you already know with you, but just focus on the act of building and the making of beauty through it. And if you cannot find a place where you can truly do that, well, we happen to know of a program where you can.
22. Chilling Out in the Land of the Trulli
The program is over, but we’re not quite ready for it to be all over yet. After all these intensive months, it wouldn’t feel right for it to just end from one day to the next – there was a need for a nice fadeout and closure. So, the day after the bench was inaugurated, we packed our things, said goodbye to Sorrento, and went to another part of Italy for a 10-day summer school, which was designed, organized, and led by Paolo, whom we have come to know quite well by now. This provided us with a perfect combination of work, sightseeing, and relaxation, with good food and good company.
The summer school took place in Puglia (‘Apulia’ in Latin and English), the geographical ‘heel’ of Italy, in the far southeast of the country. Puglia is also the land of the trulli (singular, trullo), which are traditional dry stone houses that have been built there for thousands of years. Accordingly, the theme of the summer school was to learn how to build a trullo. A full-size trullo would take an experienced trullaro (a trullo builder) around 50 working days to build, which we obviously didn’t have. So instead, we built a miniature version of a trullo: smaller, faster, but otherwise identical in all its construction principles.
Fittingly to the theme, we stayed at a masseria (country house) which already had two trulli units in it, along with a few peripheral structures that made it into a very pleasant place to stay in. It was located on a large flat stretch of land between the two coasts of Puglia, surrounded by wide open fields, dotted with olive trees, and with neighboring country houses a few minutes away. Our host was Tonino, a former restaurant chef from Milan who decided to leave the city bustle behind and open a tourist country house. Trulli were obviously not enough for his vision, which is why he added a fully professional kitchen as well as interior and exterior dining areas. You can only imagine how amazing the meals we had there were (or perhaps you can’t. This is Italy. Every meal has two main courses).
The work on the trullo was led by Mario, a lifelong trullaro who has built and renovated structures all around the area. Our raw construction material was large rocks and slabs of limestone of about 6cm thick, which Mario showed us how to break with a hammer into smaller pieces from which to construct a trullo. By hitting the stone at the correct spot, in the correct angle, with the correct amount of strength, the stone beautifully breaks in just the right way. Well, at least when he does it. When our turn came to do it, it was neither correct nor beautiful. We just kept breaking stones the wrong way… but we did improve a little over time. When we asked him how he does it so well, his answer was “I feel the stone”. It seems like we have yet a lot to learn.
The construction of a trullo involves building a cylindrical exterior wall to define a square interior space, followed by a conical roof to cover it. Both are made of limestone, with one interior layer and one exterior layer, and the gap between the layers is filled-in with smaller stone debris. But the lengthiest process is the construction of the exterior layer of the conical roof, which begins only after the inner layer of it (which defines the ceiling view) is already built. From this point on, circular rows of manually-shaped stones are added one after the other. Each stone is placed at a slight slope outwards to drain rainwater, so that the entire thickness of the cone functions as a large rainwater drainage system. The conical shape of the overall structure is ensured by using an ancient hi-tech method for determining where to place the stones: a tall vertical stick in the center of the structure, with a cord attached on top, which can be stretched all around the perimeter to mark the outer edge of the cone at all times. Making an architects joke, we couldn’t help ask Mario whether it would be possible to place the stick at a different angle so as to end up with a modern variation of a trullo. His answer, which came with a puzzled face, was “Why?”. That told us all we needed to know.
Other than building, eating, cooking, and hanging out together, we also did a fair amount of exploration of the surrounding area. We visited Alberobello, an entire town built mostly of trulli. We also visited Matera, a town which was originally built into mountainside caves, where the limestone carved from them was used to build the house’s facades. Its dwellers were evacuated in the 1950s to modernist housing blocks nearby, but in recent years the old center is being revived again. It’s also a popular destination for Italian and Hollywood filmmakers, who use it as a setting for filming biblical stories. Another interesting town was Lecce, an ancient town which was substantially expanded in the Baroque period to provide a front line of defense against the Ottomans, and became home to numerous merchants and businessmen – and their resulting architecture.
We managed to stretch the end quite successfully, but obviously not to avoid it. The summer school, too, had to reach an end. It was a good balance of activities, and an opportunity to spend more time together without the pressure of having to finish our bench project or our personal assignments. Isolated in this distant land for 10 days, sitting together for meals around the large communal table, or even spread around each doing our own thing on a rainy afternoon – it just felt like a continuous, large-family gathering. Now this family has to say goodbye, we each return to our separate countries and lives, and we’ll have to find new ways to maintain what we’ve created here together. Hopefully, next year this family will grow further with new members, with new people who choose to dedicate themselves to the search for beauty – people who, in a world that thinks that beauty is unimportant, still dare to follow their hearts and remind us all that beauty, if understood and done correctly, is indistinguishable from life itself.
21. Celebrating Beauty
After all those months in Sorrento, our Building Beauty program has come to its formal end. To mark the occasion properly, we held a two-day long event with invited guests from both near and far. We presented the various aspects of our work, reflected on the results and celebrated it all. Our guests of honor were the architects, educators and theorists Narendra Dengle and Munishwar Ganju. They also served as the program’s external examiners and came all the way from India with their wives who joined us as well.
We started the event with an Italian breakfast (read: espresso and sweets), followed by an experience of making feeling maps. The idea was for our guests to do what we did months ago: to walk around the Sant’Anna garden with a plan drawing of it in hand, notice how they feel at different locations in it, score it from 1 to 4 (from bad to good) and mark that score in its corresponding location on the map. With our guests now sharing that method and experience, we proceeded to give our presentation of the work process which we followed throughout the year.
Later on, we opened an exhibition of our work from the entire duration of the program – the urban analyses of Sorrento, the carpet projects, the pots and tiles, the Sant’Anna site analysis and model, and of course, the countless sketches for potential projects in the garden. We also had presentations of our personal research projects – the development of the bench might have been the centerpiece of the program, but there were other classes too, where we each picked personal topics of interest to which to apply the knowledge we acquired in this program.
Finally, the great moment came to inaugurate the bench. We were joined by Sant’Anna staff and by students from other programs, and kept hearing how the bench seems like it had always been there… perhaps hardly a compliment in many architecture programs, but for us it is probably the best compliment we could have hoped for! Some of us sat on it, some stood around it, others kept moving around, and yet others joined us through Skype (Hi Maggie!). Huddled together around the bench, we chatted, we took photos, we laughed… in short, we just allowed it to do what we aimed it to from the very beginning: to nurture a community.
20. Let the Construction Conclude
We have come to the final steps of making the bench. The structure is there, all the stones are in place, and it’s time to take care of the finer details. While we were waiting for our tiles to arrive, we used the time to prepare the placeholders for them. We drew onto the stones the exact locations for them as we came up with during the mockups, and Luigi cut their outlines for us into the stones with a Flex angle grinder. We then all grabbed chisels and carved them out one after the other to a depth of a little over 2 cm, to make place for the tile as well as for the mortar that would come under it.
There were still several other details to take care of too. Throughout the bench, and especially along the backrest, the stone edges had right angles that needed to be made smoother and rounder. And of course, we had to fill in all the gaps between the stones. This required first to wash the dirt and dust off the entire bench and then to insert mortar into the gaps. But the most fun was the technique: We literally used the same tool that bakers use for adding whipped cream onto a cake! Luigi’s wife sometimes borrows it from him when she makes one…
Next came installing the fountain, and Luigi was around to help a lot. He applied a special kind of waterproof cement to the interior of the basin and set up both plumbing and electricity to operate the fountain. Getting the water to sprinkle in the right shape and intensity took some experimentation and mocking up of its own too. We’re not done experimenting yet, but we do have a working fountain.
And finally, after many days of expectation, our tiles arrived at last. They were basically our design, produced by Pasquale with some minor personal touches of his own added to them. Getting from him the exact tiles we wanted wasn’t simple, but we managed to get enough suitable pieces to embark on a long series of mockups and debates… Should we put the blue tiles in the front and the greens in the back? Maybe vice versa? Alternating blues and greens everywhere? What should be along the edges of the fountain? And what color should the centerpiece be? Since we already had all the placeholders carved out, we could easily put tiles in and pull them out repeatedly until we arrived at a decision.
Eventually it all came together, at the last minute of course, but just on time for the official inauguration. Coming soon!
19. Let the Construction Continue
We’re all into the construction phase, and now is the time to set in place the bench’s structural framework. Working with tufo blocks is much fun, since we figured out that we can achieve quite a lot by playing with their orientation in different ways. To get the optimal height for the bench, we found that we should set the blocks vertically and then cover them with horizontally laid blocks. We placed two parallel rows of such vertical blocks, and found that for the optimal seating depth we should set them apart using a vertical block rotated at 90 degrees.
With the structural framework in place, we proceeded to fill the gaps. We put in leftover pieces from previously cut blocks and covered it all with mortar. But before covering, we couldn’t help ourselves from hiding something of our own in there too: We produced a little time capsule in form of a bottled message with our names on it, and also a model of one of our project ideas that we scrapped sometime earlier.
We then proceeded to place the seat stones and figure out further local details: How to make the stones at the corners of the seats? How to round the stones at the far edges of the seats? How to shape the edges of the backrest? For each of these questions, we first produced mockups, and when we were satisfied with the results we proceeded to cut the stone blocks accordingly (with Luigi’s help, as always) and put them in place.
Another set of decisions was about figuring out what kind of tiling we want the bench to have. How much of it should be tiled? Where exactly should we place the tiles? What colors should they have? Should they also have patterns, and if so, which? To try to answer these questions, we conducted many experiments. For some, we used the tiles we already made with Pasquale a few months earlier. For others, we used pieces of paper which we hand-painted on our own to create mockup tiles.
For each proposal, we also discovered that we need to look at it not only from up-close, but also from a distance, such as from the library window. We were experimenting mostly with colors such as blue and red, when at some point, Pasquale came to visit and casually said “oh yes, you’ll need green”. At first, we didn’t pay much attention, but as we eventually realized, he probably knew what he was talking about… We narrowed it down to a few options of tile designs and colors, gave them to him to produce for us, and then we’ll decide.
We can’t wait to see our tiles made!
18. Let the Construction Begin
Here we go! The time has come to start constructing and we’re all set. Over the period of a few weeks, we’re going to take all we’ve learned so far, the vision we developed, and the mockup we made – and build our bench in the Sant’Anna garden. With us are Yodan to guide our decision making process, Luigi and Paolo to guide the actual construction, and Pasquale to occasionally drop by and help with tiles.
First, we had to take all the tufo blocks we had, sandpaper them and wash them. Then Luigi brought us a heap of volcanic sand, which we had to sift stones out of so it has a smooth granularity. From that he taught us how to make nice malta (mortar) with which we could bind the tufo blocks to each other once we put them in place.
We started to build the bench from the center sideways. Since the arch we built a few months earlier was to become the bench’s centerpiece, we first had to remove it from its original location so we could start the construction. So we cut the arch apart just off the keystone, moved it away, and built the new base for it. With the base in place, we placed the arch back, but now on top of it. The bench was now ready to continue to grow on both sides.
In parallel, there were still more decisions to be made. One of them was to determine the exact profile of the seat’s lip. We were first excited about making quite an elaborate shape there, such as the profile of the first stones we learned to cut a few months ago. But once we tested several more variations, it became quite clear that the more we keep it simple, the more beautiful it turns out to be! Oh well… it seems that beauty often appears when sophistication can be let go of.
With the decision about the profile already made, Luigi invited us to his home and workshop to cut the stones in the exact shape. He lives in the hills above Sorrento, and joining him there was an experience in itself. When we were done, he made us pasta with Sicilian tomatoes which he grows in his own beautiful garden. He proved his cooking abilities by making a meal for ten people in no time, which, as far as we can tell, only Italians can do!
17. Mocking Up the Bench Project
Following all the preparatory work until now, it was time to pick one of the proposals we developed and turn it into our construction project. For that purpose, after preliminary testing of a few of the options on the site itself, we chose to develop the large bench along the edge between the orchard and the entrance area. It was the best suited proposal to the size of our group, the knowledge we have acquired so far, and the current resources and time available to us.
Unlike a regular architecture program, we are not developing a project in the form of presentation drawings, nor is our purpose merely to turn such drawings into a built structure. Instead, our main point is to study a way of building by which an initial idea is only a starting point for a process that happens on the ground and gradually leads to the built project in its final form. This involves a continuous interaction of builders, materials and building site, engaged in a careful exploration of what brings out the best in all of them.
For this purpose, we proceeded to construct a mockup version of the bench, based on our initial idea of it, so as to test how we feel about it once we can experience it on a 1:1 scale in its intended location. Our starting point was a concept sketch, a clay model and a rough technical drawing on a 1:50 scale. Based on that, we took tufo blocks (11x26x35 cm) and arranged them on the site to fit the dimensions of the bench, resulting in a full-size mockup.
As we looked at (and sat on!) the bench mockup, the first thing we realized is that having a backrest only along the central part – as our original design suggested – leaves the two arms of the bench too exposed. So we added backrests on them too, but then felt that they create a too strong enclosure which also blocks some of the view from the entrance area. So we shortened the backrests, but then saw that they end too abruptly, so we added a smaller block there to smoothen the transition. We also realized that the right arm of the bench should be extended along the existing curbstones to slightly envelop the nearby tree.
The next steps had to do with enhancing the central part of the bench. First, we realized that the area in front of the arch would actually be better if there were no sitting structure there at all. Then we explored what might take its place and experimented with defining a void there, which could later become either a fountain or a planter. Once that was in place, we realized that the arch’s vertical position should be lifted up so it starts on the same level as the top edge of the newly created void.
After following these steps we reached a point where we felt that we have it right and could proceed to actually building it.
16. Site Analysis and Project Language for the Sant’Anna Institute
Following months of study and analysis of the Sant’Anna garden, we have finally completed our report and proposal, and submitted it to our client – the Sant’Anna Institute management. Following are two heartwarming reactions that we have just received:
– From Olga Stinga, Director of Sant’Anna Institute:
– From our teaching staff at Building Beauty:
The Site Analysis and Project Language for the Sant’Anna Institute is the students’ summary of their work in the first term of Building Beauty. It is a significant contribution to the Institute and the learning community we are a part of. Guided by The Nature of Order and Christopher Alexander’s colleagues of many years, it is a prime example of how to prepare the ground for living architecture to be enhanced and built, extending the wholeness of community, structures, and the natural environment around them. The students have given their all to this effort, and the teaching staff congratulates them on both the high quality of their work, and the heart they have put into it.
You can download a copy of the Site Analysis and Project Language Report here.
15. Modeling the Future Garden
Since this is the first year that the Building Beauty program is running, our task was particularly wide-ranging: not only to design and build a project in a particular part of the garden at Sant’Anna, but to map out the entire site and to envision the many possible projects that could be built in it over the coming years. And then, from that, to pick one of them as our own construction project.
As this process was drawing to a conclusion, we also made a model of the garden. The practical aspect of building the model was a challenge in itself, since there are no real art supplies shops in Sorrento where we could get modeling materials… So we improvised with cardboard packaging from the grocery store, some solid foam (for trees and fallen fruits) and metal wires. But it turned out quite nice!
Now that we had a model, we could actually test our ideas for the garden and its connection to the school building. Redesign the school entrance? Check. Build a small, shaded theater in the lower courtyard by the school? Check. Add a balcony to the library right above it? Check. Build a large U-shaped bench at the beginning of the orchard? Check. Build a bridge across the sunken driveway to the south garden? Check. Build a gazebo in the location of the current football (soccer) court? Check. Build a fountain and a long water channel along the far edge of the court? Check.
The best part, however, was that we were doing all of this just one minute away from the site. Whenever we weren’t sure about something, we just stepped outside to see how it feels in the actual location. It was really surprising how often the feeling we initially had about some ideas was completely off when we checked the conditions on the ground. Then we just adjusted our ideas and rebuilt that part of the model accordingly. After repeating this process over and over a few times, we had a completed model of our vision of the future state of the Sant’Anna garden.
If you end up joining the program next year, you’ll get to build some of it! But don’t worry, we left plenty of unresolved questions for you to design yourself.
14. Generating a Form Language
Christopher Alexander is mainly known for writing A Pattern Language. What is a form language then?
In Alexander’s terms, patterns are like architectural phrases, parts of a series of design principles that come together to generate a complete design project. Yet such patterns don’t tell you the particular form the result will take – they can be realized in many different ways. Accordingly, for our project in the Sant’Anna garden, the work we did so far mainly included an analysis of the site, and the development of the patterns that would be applied to it.
The next step of our work, then, was to develop the form language with which we would realize the patterns in our project. A form language is what guides the actual realization of a project’s pattern language, and at the same time, it also helps with selecting the particular patterns that are most relevant to it. If a pattern language is likened to what is being said, a form language might be likened to how it is being said. For a more in-depth discussion of form languages, you can read this article by Nikos Salingaros.
In our case, developing a form language had to do with studying how gardens in the Sorrento area tend to look like: their chosen materials, the way they are applied, the type of details being used, and so on, along with identifying the type of patterns that are most commonly used in them. It is a study of what gives gardens in this area their particular character.
You can see the full form language here. Following are two short examples from it.
13. Presenting Our Project Language to Sant’Anna
After the completion of the feeling maps (see previous post), the time came to share our results with all those who helped us. We made quite an event out of it! We invited the Sant’Anna staff as well as other students from other programs in the institute. We started by giving a lecture presentation of what we did so far on our project, followed by a light lunch buffet for informal talk, and then continued with a workshop for eliciting feedback.
In the presentation, we showed how the process of developing a project, according to Christopher Alexander’s method, is a matter of following two parallel lines of inquiry and then merging them into one. One path, through honest introspection and discussions with the client, is about identifying a series of patterns that would bring life to the project. The other path, through study and analysis of the site, is about discovering its stronger and weaker parts, their relationship to each other, and the particular layout of how it all feels.
Based on these two, we presented our preliminary ‘Project Language’ for the Sant’Anna garden. Rather than a specific design, it’s an articulated approach for generating a project for a specific site and a specific program. It is a foundation from which to approach the design and more importantly, a basis for engaging in further discussion with a client. In our case, the key patterns that emerged for the project language were ‘Learning Garden’, ‘A Garden Full of People’, and ‘Connection to the Building’.
After the presentation we left on a projection of the plan of the garden with our observations and preliminary ideas for it, and had people add their own thoughts using post-it notes. The snacks were great (well, Italian pastries) and the conversation was lively. Then we got people back into smaller groups and engaged them in conversation which brought out even more ideas.
We now have a much better picture of what to do next!
12. More Feeling Maps
As our construction project in the Sant’Anna garden is getting nearer, we are preparing for it in several ways. During the recent weeks we had several construction workshops to familiarize ourselves with different techniques, but parallel to that, we also continued with our research and planning of what we might actually build. For this entire phase of the project we were joined by Yodan Rofè, an urban designer and former student of Christopher Alexander, who also closely assisted him in editing The Nature of Order.
A central aspect of our research was to keep developing our map of the garden and to document in fine detail the feelings that different parts of it elicit in people. The idea is to identify which areas already bring out positive feelings and therefore require less further intervention, and which ones are lacking in quality and could benefit from us introducing added beauty to them.
The core assumption here, as previously, is that the experience of beauty is not merely a subjective personal matter. Instead, learning from Alexander, we consider the experience of beauty to be a universal human response to the existence of a certain quality outside of us. In that sense, people have the capacity to detect the presence or absence of that quality in the world – by experiencing it as a feeling. To map this response, and examine the patterns of feeling in the garden, we used a method for mapping feeling developed and verified by Yodan as part of a Ph.D. research at UC Berkeley.
We performed that experiment with four different groups of people. First, the employees at the Sant’Anna institute which hosts our program. Second, architecture students from the Alfred State College in the US who are spending a semester at Sant’Anna doing their own program. Third, other, general students at the Sant’Anna institute. And fourth, we did that experiment on ourselves as well. Each participant walked out in the garden with their own copy of the map, and whenever they identified a spot which brought up a distinct feeling in them, they marked it on the map. There were four possible feeling values to mark, each of which was given a distinct color: Very Good (red), Good (yellow), Bad (green), and Very Bad (blue).
We then collected all the results to produce a combined map for each group of people, and then a map for everyone together. The resulting feeling maps, and the consistent nature of human experience they demonstrate, speak for themselves…
11. The Lost Art of Turning Plaster into Stone
How long does it take for a layer of plaster to start peeling off from a wall? Maybe forty, fifty, sixty years? That seems to be the case in the last 150 years since cement-based plaster was invented. But a more interesting question is this: Should plaster ever disintegrate at all?
For example, some years ago, a man who was renovating his home in Rome dug deep enough into the ground to reach Ancient Roman ruins with an ancient plastered floor in them. As he tried to break through it with a hammer, it was so hard that he had to bring in a jackhammer to do the job. But then, instead of the floor breaking, it was rather the jackhammer that broke first. How is this possible?
That question came up this week, as we continued our work with Paolo, who was this time joined by two experts on traditional plastering techniques, Gianfranco Rigoli and Giuseppe Guglielmino. They both work at Guglielmino, a family company from Sicily that has been researching, recovering, and preserving traditional plastering techniques for several generations. These techniques include lime plastering, cocciopesto, and earth plastering.
What they discovered through their studies and analyses of ancient plaster surfaces is quite fascinating: if the materials used are correct, plaster doesn’t get weaker over the years – rather, it keeps getting ever stronger. Through an understanding of how limestone is formed in nature, it is possible to initiate the same process artificially, which is how it was done in antiquity. In other words, if done correctly, applying plaster to a building would gradually result in the generation of actual stone! Now THAT’S sustainability…
So what did we do? First, we learned a lot of chemistry: what to mix with what, why, and how, and which kind of layers need to be applied when. Then, we picked two niches in the walls along our garden, cleaned them up, got our hands dirty, and gave them an authentic treatment of cocciopesto plastering.
10. An Arch of Our Own
This week we had our first hands-on experience with construction. We were joined by Paolo Robazza, from the sustainable architecture firm Beyond Architecture Group, and Luigi Apreda, an expert on construction with tufo stone.
Tufo, or tuff in English, is a stone common to the area around the Vesuvius. It is made of hardened volcanic ash, which makes it relatively light and soft for carving and chiseling. For several Millenia, people in this area have been cutting into the landscape to extract tufo stone for construction. Several parts of this area have become somewhat like Swiss cheese, with multiple caves, many of them networked with each other. Some of these caves were even created by accessing the cliffs sideways from the sea, all in search of ever more building material. Nowadays there is increased regulation of tufo quarries (Sorrento, for example, has become a no-dig zone), but the material is still being produced in selected locations.
We had rectangular slabs of tufo to work with, learning how to cut them and chisel more refined forms into them. We decided to build an arch, and proceeded to produce the stones for it. We chiseled them by hand, over many hours, one stone for each of us. We also carved a pattern into the intended keystone to give it more character. We built a wooden scaffold, and then assembled all the stones onto it, adding a layer of mortar between each two stones.
One week later, taking the scaffold off was a moment of reckoning… but our arch stands!
9. Pots and Tiles – Again
Our pots and tiles are finally finished!
Pasquale and Vincenzo came back to work with us some more. Now that the pots and tiles were dried and ready, we learned how to glaze them. Check out these two videos to get a feel of the entire process:
8. Learning To Feel With Our Eyes
Could a blind man become a sculptor?
25 years ago, sculpting professor Nicola Zamboni conducted an experiment to address that question. He invited three blind people to join his studio class for three sessions. Among them was Felice Tagliaferri, a then 24-year old who had lost his vision when he was fourteen and was working as a switchboard operator at the local town hall. That experiment has transformed Felice’s life entirely. Today he is an accomplished sculptor and an inspiring figure in his own right (you can check out his website here).
Felice joined us for a two-day sculpting workshop, whose main purpose was to learn to not only see forms, but also to feel them. The material we worked with was aerated concrete, an artificial stone that is light and easy to carve. Our task was to produce a replica of the vase we each made with Pasquale a few weeks earlier. But if the vase was made by a process of shaping a malleable material, this time we had to learn the process of removing a hard material. First with a saw to get the rough shape, later with a chisel, then with a file, and finally with sandpaper.
At some stage in the middle of process, we even worked blindfolded! That was revelatory to some, disorienting for others, but challenging for all of us. The lesson was to learn how much seeing is not done with the eyes alone, and that vision can sometimes distract us from seeing what is actually there. Eventually we took the blindfolds off, and Felice brought the point home:
We should maintain our ability to feel what we see also when we do use our eyes. And we should learn to touch the whole world as if we needed to reproduce it. To touch, not only see, and notice all the finest details. And to see everything in the world as if we also touch it.
7. The Wonder of Mockups
NOW we’re convinced. Christopher Alexander’s methods actually WORK.
Here’s how it happened:
We were joined for a week by Greg Bryant, a long-time collaborator of Alexander’s and a software developer who worked with some of the largest Internet firms in their early days. Back in the 1990s, together with Alexander, they explored how the growth of the computer industry might be harnessed to help spread and implement design principles for making beauty. As an experiment, they created “Gatemaker”, an online tool that guides its users in how to design a beautiful gate (you can check it out here, see tutorial here). The tool’s software is a rudimentary prototype, especially for today’s graphics standards, but that’s not the point. The real point is the knowledge that is embedded in it and the results it can lead to.
Alexander identified that the key to making beauty is following a correct series of steps in the correct order – having a good “generative sequence”. Gatemaker was an experiment in exactly that: providing a series of design decisions to follow in order to create a beautiful gate. In principle, once such sequences are deeply understood, it is possible to develop other sequences for other design tasks as well. But we’re not there yet.
So what did we do? We experimented with Gatemaker a bit and then followed its guidelines for coming up with a design for a gate in our actual site in the Sant’Anna garden. We first did it separately to explore various ideas, and then together as a group when we already had a shared feeling for which direction to follow. We picked the gardener’s toolshed area and came up with a nice design to replace the generic rusty grill gate that is currently there.
But the best part was to actually build a MOCKUP of it. In about an hour and a half, equipped with very few materials and improvising with what we could find on site, we physically put together a preliminary version of our gate, right there and then. We simply repeated the same steps from Alexander’s generative sequence, having in mind the preparation work we already did moments earlier in Gatemaker. We just put up sticks, empty crates, garden hoses, fallen branches… and there it was!
The most amazing was how fast it happened and how clear it was to agree between us on what feels right at any decision point. As we experimented with each small variation, we could all immediately tell whenever we got it just right.
The pictures might not do it justice, but trust us – we were there. In only an hour and a half, we could feel how that shabby spot on the edge of the garden suddenly began to shine…
6. Mapping Feelings in the Garden
We’re back! The winter holidays are over and we dived straight into an intense week. With us this time were Sergio Porta, the program’s director, and Susan Ingham, an architect and former student and collaborator of Alexander’s.
Although Susan completed her undergraduate architecture degree at Berkeley, where Alexander was teaching, she didn’t know much about him or his work back then. It was only some years later, after she finished her studies and moved to the East Coast, that she attended a public lecture that Alexander gave in Philadelphia. What she heard there entirely redefined her professional life path and took her straight back to Berkeley where she completed her graduate studies with him and his colleagues.
Susan shared with us how she continuously applies Alexander’s principles in the projects she develops at her architecture firm in Seattle. From interviewing clients in search of their visions, to determining a project’s pattern language, to applying the fifteen properties of living structures, we heard how it’s all done in practice. We also explored the occurrences of these fifteen properties in Sorrento and how such cases might be enhanced further.
And so, with both Susan and Sergio around, we set out to work on our project. We conducted interviews, with each other as well as with our clients (the directors and employees of the Sant’Anna institute) to continue to map out what our (and their) dream gardens might be like. From that, we began to develop our pattern language of what the eventual project should include.
On a parallel track, we further explored the site of the garden, to identify “centers” within it and to produce “feeling maps” that mark which parts of the site have a stronger positive feeling. First, individually, and then, comparing them with each other to identify how much of it is actually shared rather than personal. Surprisingly (or not), once we figured out a clear evaluating system, we actually agreed on almost everything! The result was a unified feeling map of the entire garden.
But the real point of these two tracks is that they eventually converge… As we learned, a project is born when a pattern language and a site’s feeling map actually come together to create a project language. Stay tuned!
5. The Experience of Making (pots and tiles for now)
One of the main ideas of the Building Beauty program is to develop a highly attentive mindset to making things. While our aim is to be able to do that at the level of architecture, we are discovering how such a mindset is essentially the same regardless of scale. So, to warm up, we are starting small. Last week, carpets, this week, pots and tiles.
We were joined by Pasquale Liguori, a master craftsman of the Vietri ceramics tradition, and Vincenzo Consalvo, Pasquale’s nephew and apprentice. Pasquale discovered pottery as a child and quickly became hooked by it. As the legend goes, when he went to a master potter and asked to work for him, he was initially brushed off for being too young and too short. But when he persisted, the master pinned a banknote to the wall and challenged him to make ten cups by the end of the day. So he made one hundred.
Luckily, Pasquale didn’t harbor such high expectations from us, but was still very generous and enthusiastic about sharing his knowledge. First, we made clay pots on a pottery wheel, with different shapes each. Pasquale and Vincenzo helped quite a lot, but we really got the feeling of it. And they look great.
Then we moved on to making tiles, which starts with… making a pizza. A thick pizza with clay instead of dough, but with the same rolling pin and the same rolling motions. Where our part really kicked in was in planning the layout for cutting these pizzas into a series of differently-shaped tiles that would come together as a rich pattern. Next time, we’ll work on producing their finishing layer. If all goes well, they might even find their place in the project we’ll build.
4. On To Magical (Non-Flying) Carpets
Last week we were joined by Chris Andrews, an architect and former student and collaborator of Christopher Alexander’s. One of his main interests nowadays is carpets – traditional Anatolian carpets from the 15th and 16th Centuries.
At first look, they’re just carpets. Well, OK, nice carpets. But upon closer look, they are so complex and intricate that they seem to embody the entire process of generating beauty, all into one object. As we soon realized, what they achieve is not so different than what we wish to achieve with architecture.
So what do we do with these carpets? We study them up-close and produce digital analyses of their exact design patterns, colors, and geometry, providing reference material for contemporary carpet-makers so they could reproduce them faithfully. Not at all simple! The work will go on for much longer, but as we go along, the approach behind these carpets and the structural logic of their design patterns are gradually sinking into us.
As far as we can tell, they cannot fly. But there surely is magic in their beauty.
3. Tapping Into Our Own Dreams
The location for our building project is the garden behind Sant’Anna – the institute in Sorrento which hosts our study program. As we began to familiarize ourselves with the garden, we started to ask ourselves what we might be able to build in it which would enhance its overall beauty. We started to imagine our own ideas of what an ideal garden might be, the kind of place we would really wish to be in, and how such a vision might take form in this particular location.
We did not do it as a list of random associative ideas produced by our intellectual minds, but rather as a sequential experience that we each followed in our imagination.
What kind of intervention should we make? Add some objects such as benches or a bridge above the sunken driveway, or rather make a closed space, such as a small building or a cottage? Shall we introduce objects or rather activities? Would other students who stay here become involved in the maintenance and caretaking of the garden? When the weather changes, where in the garden can we go? When it’s too hot, is there a place in it where we can find coolness and shade? When it’s too cold or it starts to rain, is there a place where we can find shelter and comfort?
Shall we make a pool or fountain, or maybe a kitchen or fireplace? If it’s a pool, what kind of pool might it be? Would we swim in it or just chill out on a hot summer day, or would we heat it as a hot tub on a cold winter day? Would it be close to the cottage so we can find shelter as we come out of it? If it’s a fire pit, should it be dug into a protective place? If there’s a kitchen, would it be used to cook vegetables from the garden? If there’s a fountain, where would the water come from and where would it go?
If we imagine ourselves already there, what do we see? Are there birdhouses in the garden and chickens running around? What fragrances are there in the air? How do we reach the courtyard and what is its floor made of – earth, gravel, cobblestones? Is there an element of gushing water we can hear as we walk by? Are we protected from the sun along the path by the shadow of a tree from above? Where are we hanging out? Are we on deckchairs catching the afternoon sun? Are we sitting by a large table after dark, enjoying the food we prepared under lanterns that hang down from the trellis we just finished building?
We’re not here to solve problems now and we don’t care about the practical limitations at this point. We first want to get to the vision, to the dream. We are now dreaming the life of the garden.
We’ll figure out the rest later.
For now, we are dream hunters.
2. A Trip to the Minerva Gardens
Our first field trip! The beauty of the location of our program is not only in its immediate surroundings, but also in the accessible trips around it. We headed south from Sorrento towards Salerno, a city on the Amalfi coast. The highlight of the day was a visit to the Giardini della Minerva, a medieval garden that dates back to the 11th Century.
As presented to us by the garden’s director, Luciano Mauro, it was made as a garden of medicinal plants. Its physical arrangement does not represent botanical logic as we know it today, but as it was understood way back then. It has four different sections for the four basic elements – Air, Earth, Fire, and Water. According to medieval medicine, different plants belong to either one of these elements and illness is a state where the body either lacks or is in excess of one of the elements. Healing, in that system, is a matter of using the medicinal plants whose types complement the body’s imbalance.
But for our purposes, the beauty of the garden was already healing! It helped us see how elements of living structure come together to create an environment that heals those who experience it.
1. Building Beauty Is Underway
Our Building Beauty course has begun!
The community is already taking form, with a core group of students from all over the world, with teachers joining in for set periods at a time, with practitioners and theorists, architects and non-architects, all united by a shared interest in beauty and what makes it possible.
We started in November in Sorrento, Italy, at the Sant’Anna institute. Perched on top of a cliff overlooking the Bay of Naples and accessed through narrow stone alleys, it hosts several programs and now also Building Beauty. Classrooms downstairs, dormitories upstairs, wide terraces on top, and behind it, a beautiful garden and citrus orchard where we will be developing and building our project.
For the first two weeks, we are mainly learning Italian. No big aspirations here, just to be able to order a pizza napoletana or buy groceries without sounding too much like tourists. In parallel, we also began to dip our toes into the heart of the matter – studying Christopher Alexander’s Nature of Order.
More courses coming up soon, both theoretical and hands-on. We can’t wait!