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Lesson Plan #9: Ideas on Architectural Education

Schools of architecture have not found ways of teaching the art of building that is effective. We want, collectively, to make architectural teaching better, and through that, to make architecture better.

By Christopher Alexander
June 11, 2020

Editor’s Note: This is the ninth in a series on the future of architectural education created and curated by Nikos A. Salingaros, Ph.D., Professor of Mathematics, winner of the 2019 Stockholm Culture Award for Architecture, and co-winner of the 2018 Clem Labine Traditional Building Award. Salingaros is the principal editor of Christopher Alexander’s 4-volume book The Nature of Order. See Lesson Plans #1 through #8 at the end of this feature.


Curator’s Note: We are honored to have the voice of Christopher Alexander join this series. I have re-worked portions of text, taken with permission from the following two sources, and combined them into a new essay. “Assumptions underpinning the education of an architect,” The 2008 Oxford Conference – A Re-Evaluation of Education in Architecture, edited by Susan Roaf and Andrew Bairstow (WIT Press, Southampton, UK, pages 3-5); and Michael Mehaffy “A Conversation with Christopher Alexander” (Katarxis No. 3, September 2004). The text was edited by Kristen Richards and myself for consistency. — N.A.S.



Beautiful architecture for the 21st Century


The last 100 years have not been good to architecture. And the same goes for architectural teaching. Schools of architecture have not found ways of teaching the art of building that is effective. The not-very-good architecture of our era, and the not-very-good teaching in our schools, maintain a symbiotic stranglehold on the process.


It must be said that there are dawning signs of improvement. Some recently built buildings show signs of improvement. Some teaching programs show signs of inspiration. And we want, collectively, to make architectural teaching better, and through that, to make architecture better. We hope that what we do can help to steer the teaching of architecture and the practice of building so that the architecture of the 21st century may become, on balance, better.


An assumption that surrounds this topic is roughly the following: When we want to say that we “like” a building, or we want to suggest that it is “good,” the language of the last half century or more offers us a great variety of expressions. It is interesting, it is stylish, it is cool, it is groovy, it is far out, it is wild, it is fascinating, it is brilliant – almost anything can be said, but to say that it is beautiful comes out with the greatest reluctance.


In short, the idea of a beautiful building is no longer a concept we use or understand. Not only that, but if somebody does want to make a beautiful building, the concepts, ideas, and practices which would make it possible, or which would help, are not permitted.


It is certainly OK to say that a building is sustainable. This is a technocratic concept. But it does not have much truck with the souls of men and women.


It is precisely this that I mean to point to, when I say that the fundamental assumption we are encouraged to make is that there is no such thing as beauty. Beauty is not part of the technocratic and mechanistic vocabulary. Therefore, it is not a valid concept. This is yet another way of forbidding our access to what is beautiful.


A student exercise


Let me give an example of an exercise one might give to a student. If you say: “OK, I want you now to draw something that has the character of nature. An imagined drawing of – actually it could be almost anything.” So, it might be a frieze running around a room. It might be of a plan of a couple of rooms in a very small house. It could be a wall with a bottom and a top, or whatever. And if you simply say to that student: “Please draw this so that it has the character of nature. Do you know how to do that?” My experience is that students have great difficulty doing that kind of thing. Because essentially, they don’t understand what the question really means. So, there will be various attempts, different things will be tried. It’ll be: “OK, what about organic shapes, will that get what the professor wants?” Or it could be: “What about integrating it with rock gardens and water, is that what he’s talking about?” Or, it could be: “Is it sustainable in, you know, a piece of sustainable ecology?” Or students can obviously go in for the weird shape thing.


But of course, all of these will be wrong. Even the better ones among the drawings will have only a little bit that is “natural” and is true and worth holding on to, in guiding the students’ pencil while this person is trying to draw something that actually is a part of nature – that has the character of nature.


This is something that is really quite clear, and if we were sitting together, I could draw you something in a couple of moments that would have the character of nature. Its main feature would be that it has this peculiar and distinguishable structure. And that gradually, what happens is that you learn, somehow recognize in your bones, to achieve this natural quality – that is, to shape things that way, and not some other way. And it really is a morphological characteristic of natural structures.


Morphology, Bauhaus, and juries


The Bauhaus had, as part of its original curriculum, exercises that had to do with just drawing the shape of certain things. And one – later I think – began to be a bit doubtful about those exercises, that they were too formalistic, and so on. Actually, this activity might be also be taken as very formal, formalistic even, because it does have to do with what kind of shapes are actually, recognizably, natural in the sense of their geometry. There’s a knack to doing that, of designing something that has the character of nature. It’s a knack, of course, that can be learned. It can be learned, and it must be learned by observation. You have to try to do it, and then find out what it is about it that you can’t do, and then try again, and keep on until actually you are drawing stuff that is like natural structure...


I remember when I was at Berkeley, sometimes my colleagues would get mad at me because I said I didn’t want to come to juries; I didn’t like them, and I thought that they were the work of the devil! The reason I feel this way is that you will never be able to get the character of nature by that form of teaching. If you believe in what you’re seeing or attempting to do in a typical jury and so on, that’s completely at odds with those sorts of processes that reach natural beauty. So the present jury system actually is a very bad thing to do, and a very unfortunate thing that has been inculcated in schools...


The Beaux Arts people were right in saying: “Morphology is everything. Don’t try to be an architect and not deal with morphology.” True, they had a very peculiar and very narrow view of morphology. The problem is that the ecologically minded people of our time – even though one might want to embrace them and say: “You’re brethren, you’re trying to do the same thing I’m trying to do” – are missing an essential point. Actually, they are not dealing with morphology sufficiently…and so their designs ultimately fail because of the morphology.


If one takes seriously the idea that adaptive design all resides in process – and that it’s not just an empty phrase, but really, the kind of morphology that we’re referring to here as “nature” is produced only when certain kinds of step-by-step processes go forward – then this leads to some conclusions. Accepting that design processes follow definite sequences, they unfold in certain ways, and so on – if you take all that seriously, then you would expect, in a sense, never again to see an architectural studio where students try to lay out an entire urban design project or a subdivision in one go.


Instead, what would be mandatory and natural is that every student would be struggling with a generative process; the class would be struggling with simulations, where everything is going forward, step by step. The question is whether the regulation of those processes that go forward, step by step, leads to coherent and beautiful results. And that’s a very concrete thing.


Let’s suppose if, in just one stroke, we could say: OK, we’re going to stop 500 design classes in architecture schools around the world today, and we’re going to replace them with a focus on generative process. Then what? It’s particularly clear, because one can certainly imagine simulations in which step-by-step processes can be tackled by a group of students, and you can either get chaos or you can get good results – or you can get in-between results. To get really profound results, we have to ask: “What processes will achieve the character of nature?” You say: Well, we’ve got this collaborative class, and these people are putting buildings, one by one – bringing them in balsa wood or in cardboard or in whatever material – on this group model. And we’re going to keep doing this class until they’ve come up with something, an overall configuration that is as good as the Piazza del Duomo in Florence. Then you’ve finally got a process which is actually going somewhere.


The unspoken assumption and its antidotes


I shall describe this unspoken assumption by describing, first, several unspoken assumptions, all inimical to architecture, and then go on to show how these several assumptions, lethal to our profession, are all instances of a larger assumption. I shall argue that to find antidotes to the unspoken assumption, we need to understand the single underlying assumption, so that we may be guided by this perception, and may then be able to do something about it.


I believe the decline happened because the discourse about architecture has focused on matters of relatively less importance, and architecture, as fashioned in the 20th century and, therefore, was not capable of creating a good environment for people to live in. At the same time, there are matters of vital importance, hidden matters essential to the construction of a good environment. These matters have been obscured by certain key assumptions:


• Buildings are more important than the space between the buildings.

• Belief in the use of blueprints.

• Unnaturally little focus on the best way to spend money for a building.

• Too little focus on involvement of people and neighborhoods.


What is the single broad assumption underlying all these particular assumptions? It is what used to be called the “mechanist” fallacy. It was inherited from the rationalist world view of the 17th and 18th centuries. But let us consider this assumption in blunt language.


The scientific world view has now embraced the idea that everything is made of “things.” Atoms are made of things like electrons and quarks. This means that people are made of things like molecules and hearts and lungs. Minds are made of things. Everything, it is now being said – flowers, even human beings – are assemblages of pieces of stuff, rattling around in their interconnections.


This atomistic-mechanistic view of matter is obsolete on the face of it. Modern physics has long ago given up this view. Biology has not yet given it up, but it is on the way to doing so. The working of complex systems depends upon emergent properties that go beyond their components. Yet architecture persists in this feeling and this attitude – producing simplistic assemblages of dead pieces.


Components play a large part in architecture. In today’s practice and thinking, components are separated by nothing – leading to destruction of positive space. Components are assembled, rather than unfolded, so their capacity to adapt themselves to context is not there.


Development is assumed to be a suitable way of getting buildings made. Even sustainability is viewed as something that can be achieved by making technological toys. This attitude leads to a separation of design and construction as two different processes, and the separation of architectural design from landscape design, from urban planning, and from structural engineering.


Putting things in little boxes (by category) arises directly from the fundamental assumption (i.e. the now obsolete “mechanist” fallacy).


A need for antidotes


There is a more fundamental error in our present view of ourselves and of the earth. In a well-made world, small events are driven by, and launched by, the larger wholes in which they sit. But in our typical current world view, larger wholes are constrained and driven by the details from which they are made. Because of this, the very simple idea of beauty is not tenable, and cannot be understood. It has almost dropped out of our vocabulary. Especially in architecture schools and even in the practice of architecture, this concept is not encouraged; it is almost not allowed to exist or to be thought.


The whole is not permitted. We are not encouraged to see or feel the whole. We deal with parts, but rarely deal with the way that things intertwine, and interlock, and fuse.


This fundamental assumption [of mechanistic assemblage], never mentioned explicitly, yet nonetheless pervasive in our professional beliefs, actions, and processes is inimical to the life of the environment. Indeed, this assumption makes the design and construction of life in the environment all but impossible. We shall find, too, that our best efforts at making towns sustainable will also be frustrated by the action of this assumption.


We, therefore, need antidotes – practical ways of thinking and teaching that prevent the fundamental assumption from taking hold. We need to speak about the unspoken assumptions and to begin to put in place the antidotes – in architectural practice and in architectural education – which we will need to build truly sustainable architecture.


Christopher Alexander is widely regarded as one of the most original thinkers in architecture ever. His theories about the nature of human-centered design have affected fields beyond architecture, including urban design, software, sociology, and others. Alexander has designed and personally built more than 100 buildings, both as an architect and as general contractor. He is the author of Notes on the Synthesis of Form, The Oregon Experiment, A Pattern Language, The Timeless Way of Building, A New Theory of Urban Design, and the four-volume The Nature of Order.




Lecture by Christopher Alexander on The Nature of Order, presented at Harvard University, October 27, 1982, Architexturez Imprints. [Long presumed lost, the audio recording of this historic lecture was recently re-discovered and transcribed.]


“Christopher Alexander’s Process of Connecting, lecture given by Nikos Salingaros to the Building Beauty Program, May 21, 2020, available as a video HERE, and will be prepared and published soon. Continuation of earlier essay and lecture: “Beauty and the Nature of Matter: The Legacy of Christopher Alexander” (New English Review, May 1, 2019). The video of the first lecture is HERE.


See also:


Lesson Plan #8: Petition of the British Architecture School Inmates

Students are taught how to tinker with computers and how to plug into a corporate design culture that aids and abets precisely what drives the petitioners to seek reform.

By David Brussat


Lesson Plan #7: An Implicit Rather than Explicit Model for Teaching Architecture

I would institute an annual prize, with substantial cash awards, for architecture students who would be given the task of designing a building that surpasses an iconic monstrosity in ugliness.

By Dr. Theodore Dalrymple


Lesson Plan #6: Teacher, Don't Teach Them Nonsense: Reforming Architecture's Broken Education

A curriculum overhaul alone cannot fix the problem; rather, the practice of architecture must first reform itself for any pedagogical reforms to make sense.

By Mathias Agbo, Jr.


Lesson Plan #5: Letter from an architect to the gurus [teachers] and chelas [disciples] of architecture

From India, Shirish Beri writes this special letter out of the restlessness that arises from a genuine concern for the present state of architectural education and profession, as well as that of our society.

By Shirish Beri


Lesson Plan #4: Response to Open Letter for Curriculum Change: A New, Biological Approach to Architecture

This response, in two parts, is from two instructors at the Boston Architectural College.

By Ann Sussman, RA, and A. Vernon Woodworth, FAIA


Lesson Plan #3: Beauty and Sustainability in Architectural Education

We were greatly heartened to see architecture students call for a curriculum change to address the social, political, and ecological challenges of our time, and we want to say something about how their proposals intersect with the work of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission.

By Nicholas Boys Smith and Roger Scruton


Lesson Plan #2: A Time of Change

The coming technological changes in architecture will impose a full deconstruction of the way we educate architects.

By Duo Dickinson


Lesson Plan #1 "Signs versus Symptoms": A Reply to the Open Letter from British Architecture Students Calling for Curriculum Change

Asking for radical reforms in architectural education, this courageous appeal could help this latest effort be taken seriously, and not simply dismissed, as previous cries for reform have been.

By Dr. Nikos A. Salingaros

(click on pictures to enlarge)

Nikos A. Salingaros

Sensitive architectural education with intellectual weight reflects adaptive architecture that evolved along with humanity itself.