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!
Pots and Tiles – Again
Our pots and tiles are finally finished!
Pasquale 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:
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.
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…
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!
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!