Building Beauty

Beauty remains a problem for many in design, something that is very difficult to talk about. We have heard esteemed colleagues saying they would not pronounce publicly the word “beauty” because that would damage their reputations as academics and scientists. The same could be said of the word “feeling”. Engaging with these basic, fundamental human responses to our environments is avoided even as we attempt to improve them because we fear that what we mean by beauty and feeling will be disregarded, misinterpreted or ridiculed.

In direct opposition to that, the words that follow are written by Duo Dickinson, a practicing architect in Madison, Connecticut, US, and staff member at Building Beauty: Ecologic Design & Construction Process in Sorrento Italy.

‘In the maelstrom of today’s changes, it’s easy to forget that the central reason for creating beyond survival is making beauty. But Christopher Alexander has never forgotten that seminal truth. In all of his teaching, designing and writing, every action, word and lesson all focused on making beauty.

You would think that making beauty is the unrelenting mission for all architects like me. But we often get distracted. We design to the photograph, to what we see others do, what we assume the clients want. We often don’t ask ourselves the simple question, “Is this beautiful?” We can be trapped imitating what we think is beautiful, often using old answers for each new question.

Despite all the sturm und drang of dissipating distraction, beauty is the fundamental reason I am an architect. Christopher Alexander’s work dwells where I aspire. He spoke of beauty as “essential,” and found it in paths, arcades, nature, and any number of built or experienced moments. It is his focus on embracing what should be obvious that made all his writings and designs elementally meaningful.

But times are changing, radically and pervasively: media is exploding, making the two dimensional dominant for many. HOUZZ has become residential pornography for many. Instagram has replaced conversation, let alone meeting. And, I fear, the new and evolving tools of design, an unending host of electronic and automated manifestations, are becoming the focus of the creative mission, rather than its tool in in a prime mission of making beauty. Beyond the zeitgeist, there are few rational recommendations to build beauty. It costs money, takes more time, and always involves risk.

For whatever reason, there are very few factors in design and construction today keyed to beauty. Christopher Alexander knew that, because he made things. He went beyond the “what” and “how” of making and focused in his writings on “why” we strive to create. In a world often preoccupied with pandering, profit and projecting egos, beauty is often forgotten – even trivialized.

It’s easy to forget our values when there is so much noise around us, especially in these loud and raging times. No matter who you are, surrendering to cliches to avoid all the sturm und drang in our social media culture is often easier. Christopher Alexander knew that beauty was the fundamental reason why we live beyond surviving.

It’s not about style. Everyone knows beauty, but when creating, I only know architectural beauty when I see, feel or do it. I cannot conjure it up, argue it through, or fabricate it—beauty just happens when I listen for it.

Despite all the screaming realities in everyone’s lives, there are moments of compelling beauty in art, music, children, nature, even architecture. It’s easier than ever to lose that truth. For architects the trivialities and fears of a changing profession can make the hard seem impossible. Christopher Alexander knew that beauty is possible, and then gave anyone willing to read his words a mirror to our motives.’

Duo speaks as co-coordinator of the Building Beauty’s American Advisory Board and on behalf of all of us at Building Beauty. He underscores the reason this new post-graduate programme in Architecture has been founded, building on the shoulders of giants such as Christopher Alexander: to give students the opportunity to learn hands on about what it means to build beauty.

You can learn more about the Building Beauty course at:

by Maggie Moore Alexander (President at Center for Environmental Structure), Duo Dickinson (Architect), Sergio Porta (Professor of Urban Design and Director of UDSU in the Department of Architecture of the Univ. of Strathclyde in Glasgow).