2017-18 Learning Journal

Some stories and scenes from the work that our students have undertaken, as they investigated the kind of beauty that makes a difference in the world, following the 13 Principles that appear on the first page of this website. The active engagement with the physicality of building is the dimension in which Alexander’s propositions come true, as our students have demonstrated once again.

The journal begins at the bottom of the page.

23. Final Reflections on Building and Beauty

MAY 2018

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.