Architecture as a Hands-on Search for Beauty

Based on Christopher Alexander’s ideas about design, a new degree program combines ecological thought, building skills, and self-awareness.

January 5, 2018
The Sala House, designed by Christoper Alexander and colleagues, with the client. The design process began with Alexander asking the homeowner to describe “the most beautiful and comfortable room you can remember,” and the house incorporates several patterns from Alexander’s book A Pattern Language, including: “The Parents’ Realm” and “Garden Wall.”
Photos: Ekyono. License: CC BY-SA 4.0.

How can we prepare the next generation of building professionals to create architecture that is environmentally responsible as well as beautiful and humane?—or “whole” and “living,” to use terms coined by architect and theorist Christopher Alexander.

Alexander—best known for his work producing and testing a “pattern language,” a description of good practices that anyone can use to design and build at any scale—has been studying and writing about the nature of human-centered design since the ’60s. His ideas form the foundation of a new master’s program at the Sant’Anna Institute in Sorrento, Italy, Building Beauty: Ecologic Design and Construction Process. According to the program’s website, the curriculum “emphasizes the generation of beauty by means of the practical work of making.”

The program aims to teach students a design process that is scientific and evidence-based but also makes use of one’s own intuitive feelings as a way to analyze and judge the quality of a built environment.

Students study the characteristics that make certain objects and experiences universally beautiful and are taught to understand beauty as an objective quality that can be measured and analyzed. Complementing this kind of knowledge, students also work on developing practical self-awareness skills to better understand how a space or environment affects them and are taught how this subjective knowledge is used in the act of design.

The program is based on the idea that the best way to learn how to design is through hands-on engagement with materials. Students are taught to produce full-scale physical mock-ups as testing and decision-making tools in the design process, and finish their training by participating in a construction project.

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