REPORT ON BUILDING BEAUTY MEETINGS AT UNISOB, Naples, Italy, April 12-14, 2017

By Yodan Rofe, Susan Ingham, & Chris Andrews

This report summarizes our April 12-14, 2017 visit to the Università Suor Orsola Benincasa (UniSOB) in Naples, Italy, where we spent three intensive days discussing the Building Beauty program, as well as touring the university and parts of the historic city center.  We have organized this report into four sections: Opportunity, Context, Program Development, and Challenges & Action.

I.  OPPORTUNITY:

The Building Beauty Program presents an absolutely unparalleled confluence of resources, as described in the subsequent sections of this report.  These include: the overall landscape, urban, university, studio and courtyard setting, the human resources marshaled by Professor Porta and his Italian and International partners, the full UniSOB commitment and participation, as well as the same from internationally recognized architects and scholars, and the ongoing organic and agile development of the Building Beauty program by all involved. Thus we find that it is critical to act quickly and decisively, to address the challenges we have identified herein, and to fully leverage this incredible and unique opportunity to carry the legacy of Christopher Alexander, the Center for Environmental Structure, and of all those associated with this work into the 21st Century and beyond.

In essence, we found the context of the Building Beauty (BB) program able to provide excellent conditions for the program to flourish. The university, its staff and facilities, the city of Naples, and its location in a wider geo-political and cultural context provide exactly the right mix of tradition, inspiration and “rawness”, openness and challenge. We see as central for the development of the program a concentration on the three dimensional reality of the Courtyard of the Camellias. However, the project of the courtyard is not mainly a problem of construction – but begins with a vision and pattern language that will have to be developed together with the university community, in parallel with the students gaining confidence in their skills and learning more about the city and its building traditions. We also believe that it is fundamental to ensure that the students learn the important insights of Christopher Alexander’s Nature of Order, and that they do it, paired with the cultivation of food and its preparation and sharing, in a way that connects them to the university, as well as the local and professional communities of Naples.

We conclude this short report with a discussion of the challenges and actions that are needed in the coming months. We strongly believe that it is important that the  program have a resident “Master Builder” who is part of the core program committee spending most of the time in Naples, to oversee the smooth development of the program and coordinate the various logistical aspects. We also believe that urgent work must be done to increase the funding for the program through sponsors and donations, as well as provide scholarships that will enable students who cannot fully fund their studies to be able to participate in the program.

II. CONTEXT:

A. Universita Suor Orsola Benincasa

1. The Place

Perched on the side of the San Martino hill overlooking the historic center of Naples, the gulf and Mt. Vesuvius, The Università Suor Orsola Benincasa is situated in a complex of buildings that originated as a convent founded in 1581 by Sister Orsola Benincasa.  The historic complex, which has grown in time into a walled “cittadella” (small town), is comprised of two monasteries, two churches, several courtyards, terraces, annexes, gardens, vineyards and cultivated land, in addition to classroom spaces, offices, several smaller chapels, workshops, kitchens, and other ancillary spaces.  The entire complex has a labyrinthine feeling as we traveled through dark corridors that were part of the thick cittadella walls, up flights of stairs and ramps, through sunny courtyards and outdoor streets, and through grand hallways to various classrooms, workshops, chapels, and lecture rooms.  At many turns, we caught glimpses of the shining gulf of Naples and the historic city spread out below.  There are so many layers of building here, and so much that has happened piecemeal over hundreds of years that it is difficult to get a sense of the whole complex.  Yet the overall feeling of the place, a feeling of quiet reverence and tranquility, paired with a feeling of grandness and expansiveness in some of the larger courtyards but especially as one looks out to the city and the sea, permeates every part of the complex.  Moreover, some of the laboratories of the university, as well as the residences of the students are located further down the hill in the heart of the  Spanish Quarter, and on Via Chiaia, its major street, providing interconnections with the local community and the city as a whole.

The fifteen properties of wholeness described by Alexander abound here, especially “Levels of Scale”, “Boundaries”, “Positive Space”, “Local Symmetries”, “Roughness”, “Inner Calm”, and “Not Separateness”.  We were in awe at the incredible richness and deep beauty of the place.  It is the kind of place that will take time to fully understand; a place of mystery, discovery, and delight as the students study and document its evolving structure.  It is an incredible resource and laboratory for the Building Beauty program, serving as both a foundation and a fount of learning that will inspire both students and faculty throughout their time living and working there.

2. The People

Our visit began with Maggie Alexander and Sergio Porta making a formal presentation of the Building Beauty program to the UniSOB community and the formal welcoming and recognition of the connection of this program by the University to its mission and resources.  There were about 30 people in attendance, including faculty and current students.  This presentation was followed by additional remarks and responses by several UniSOB faculty, facilitated by Professor Roberto Montanari.  Each faculty member who spoke expressed strong support and enthusiasm for the program, and many were interested in forming connections with the Building Beauty program and their own programs and individual research work.  After the formal presentations, we were warmly welcomed to the community by many individuals.  Our sense was that the Building Beauty program shared many values with various departments of the university, and that it would fit in well with the overall purpose of the school.

3. The Facilities

From what we were told, UniSOB has one of the strongest art restoration programs in Italy.   Thanks to Professor Pasquale Rossi, the head of the entire UniSOB restoration program, we were able to tour many of UniSOB’s labs and workshops, including painting restoration, metals, glass, ceramics, and materials analysis and research, and also speak with the directors of the individual programs (we did not tour carpentry and masonry, but we have been assured that those resources will also be made fully available to BB).  We asked many questions, and in particular we asked if the Building Beauty students could utilize these labs and resources.  In every case, the answers were yes to all of our questions.  It is possible for our students to use the facilities, as well as learn from the students who are enrolled in those particular restoration programs.

Later that evening, and early the next morning,  with Prof. Roberto Montanari, Professor of Human Machine Interface and Interaction Design, we toured a sophisticated user-interface computer lab that focused on recording user responses as people moved through space and interacted with others.  There may be applications that would be beneficial to the Building Beauty program with this technology as well, especially for the Self & Space modules.  Again, we were amazed at the level of support that was communicated, and how willing each faculty member was in sharing their knowledge and resources with us and the Building Beauty students.

 

B. City of Naples

The university is located in the Spanish Quarter in the historic heart of the city of Naples, a vibrant city of about one million inhabitants and one of the most dense cities in Europe.  The city form, with its narrow streets, tall buildings, semi-private courtyards, public piazzas, and network of Roman and medieval streets, provides a layered and complex urban context with the wide sweep of the gulf of Naples to the south, and the beautiful curving silhouette of Vesuvius to the east.  In addition to this rich urban morphology, the city also has a long history and distinctive culture of crafts and food that contribute to the city’s unique identity.  These include crafts such as Majolica ceramics and tiles, the famous presepi Nativity sets, and silk textiles from nearby San Leucio.  Food items include Neapolitan pizza, and local pastries such as sfogliatella and babà.

While the focus of the first semester will be more on the monastery, the courtyard, and smaller projects such as the making of a tile, the work of the second semester will look beyond the walls of the cittadella and engage more of the actual city itself.  This may be done in various ways, including understanding the form and place of the monastery and courtyard as part of the overall city fabric, working with local chefs and food producers to prepare special dinners, and hosting seminars open to the public, and possible architectural or urban design projects that respond to a need in the community.  While actual urban projects may not happen in the first year or two, we think that it is important at some point to venture out of the cittadella and create something positive in the real life of the city.

 

C. The Larger Context 

The city of Naples is also an ideal location for making the Building Beauty program real and meaningful in the context of the world of the 21st century. Located at the heart of the less developed part of Italy, it exhibits many characteristics of the developing world. It’s on the route of immigrants from Africa and the Middle East to Northern Europe, and it shares with many of these contexts the juxtaposition of extreme poverty and wealth, the formal and informal economy, legality and illegality. It is both a very old and historic city, but at the same time one which has never lost population at its center – and where the traditions of living in an urban setting are millennial. The reconstruction of sustainable living, local crafts, local food, and community self-reliance in such a context can serve as models that could be emulated and transferred to cities in both developed and developing countries. Moreover, Naples is already doing this, in the renewal of its city center, the exemplary improvement of its transportation system, and in the work of many organizations with youth and immigrants which are present in the university and the social world around it.

Learning to change places for the better, to make a place more beautiful, takes time and practice.  It also helps to have a deep awareness of context, at many levels of scale, from an individual tile, to the scale of the courtyard, the monastery, the neighborhood, the city, the surrounding sea and landscape, even to the scale of the region, the country, the continent, and the world.  Connections can be made between all of these levels of scale, and in fact need to be made for the nesting of centers and the unfolding of wholeness to occur.  Thus, while working on a very small project such as a tile (see tile section under Program Development), it can be beneficial to think about the connection this tile has to other tiles and tile traditions in Naples, as well as to think about this tile as part of a larger field of tiles, perhaps as a part of the floor of the courtyard, while at the same time trying to make it a beautiful tile in and of itself.  These multiple connections to context at many levels of scale help to heal our world one small step at a time.

 

II. PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT: 

A. Court of the Camellias and its Centrality

The reality of building and construction is a central theme of the Building Beauty program, as well as one of the elements of its uniqueness. The university has decided to allocate to the program the improvement and rehabilitation of the courtyard with the camellia bushes at the back of the monastery. This courtyard is a backyard, that was probably used in the past for storage and work; it is completely paved in concrete, except for some tree holes. It’s overlooked by the museum wing, and labs and passages within the main building, and is surrounded by ramps going up to the upper floors of the building, the church and the Garden of the Continents above it. While not in the general paths of movement within the building,it does have the potential of creating a place for repose and reflection, as well as connecting to other places that are today less used by the students and staff of the university.

One of our concerns before arriving in Naples, based on the images sent by Sergio, was that this court, like the other spaces in the monastery, was already beautiful and wholesome – in which case the problem of adding to it, or transforming it significantly would have been a difficult one, and perhaps beyond the skills of the students. Upon seeing it, we were all quite relieved. The courtyard is a strong center spatially – both in its three dimensional presence, as well as in its connections to the fabric of spaces of the university – however its role as a space is not well defined, it’s underused, and it is far from having the same sense of beauty or wholeness of the rest of the spaces we visited. Therefore there is a tangible need for improvement.

However, the problem is far from being only a question of construction. Understanding the space and its functioning means understanding better the organization and movement within the university, as well as envisioning a set of functions that will attract people to use the courtyard on a regular basis, this means also engaging with the community of the university, understanding what dreams and visions it has for the courtyard, understanding its potential for engaging the community beyond the university. It is also important to study the history of the courtyard within the monastery as part of the site analysis. Furthermore, the courtyard could serve as a place for understanding the connection between self and space – perhaps not only by students themselves, but also conducting experiments and observing the activities of other people in the space. Much of the instruction and exercises going on in the first semester of studies could be conducted around the courtyard and its life. This should be accompanied by building a large scale model of the courtyard, where proposals and visions for its development could be created and tested (again receiving feedback from the university community). Thus, at the end of the first semester the objective of studies would be to have a large scale model (1:50 or 1:20), of the courtyard, analysis of its centers, a vision or pattern language for its further development, and perhaps a few suggestions for practical projects that could be carried out in the second semester by the students to begin implementing the vision. Subsequent years of the program will continue from the vision and analysis done by the year before them – revising, improving, always moving forward.

 

B. Self and Space as ongoing Practice

A second element of uniqueness of the program is the conscious search for a practice connecting between space and self. While this is a central aspect of Alexander’s thinking and his approach to building design and construction process, from the “quality without a name (QWAN)” to the mirror of the self, and is the gauge of quality at any stage of the building and design process, it has always been an implicitly learned skill, and a rather public one at that. There hasn’t been explicit work on learning to know oneself better, getting better in touch with one’s feelings with regard to objects or spaces, or getting better clarity on the different aspects of self encountered when doing this kind of work. What is the difference between the universal or shared substrata of self that is the one appealed to in doing this work, and the unique aspects of history and psychology of each individual self?

It was relatively easy for us to envisage exercises of connection with self as part of the learning process, either through the process of designing and producing an ornament or tile (see below), or in the process of learning from places within the monastery, or in the surrounding city, and diagnosing the state of the courtyard and its surroundings. It was harder for us, not having experienced it, to envisage the process of connecting with self that Pia and Sergio talked about, as a discipline towards improving the capacity for learning about spaces and objects. It’s not clear for us yet whether this should be learned in an intensive workshop at the beginning of the course, or whether it should be practiced as a discipline at a certain frequency. Also it’s not clear to us yet how it could be extended to the larger community informing its decisions and feedback to the work carried out in the courtyard. We suggested that in our next meeting Pia will lead us in such an exercise, so that we could better grasp its meaning and its power, and also asked Pia to forward to us the results of her work.

C. Tile Project – connecting geometry, form and self and understanding a crucial aspect of building culture

In our discussions of the program, while thinking about the first project done in the Building Process introductory studio at UC Berkeley, we looked for a project which will have a similar quality of being small and manageable, personal, and connecting between the geometry of an object and the I. The idea originated during a visit to the laboratory where students study the restoration of ceramics and jewelry. We saw that the students are required to reproduce a piece of traditional craft as a first step in their learning, and YR suggested that our students will carry out in that lab, perhaps under the guidance of and partnership with an advanced student of these crafts a similar project of an ornament. After further discussion, and the visit to the monastery and various churches and cloisters in Naples, this idea evolved into the design and making of a tile – ultimately perhaps destined for the courtyard, but the emphasis at the start would be for the students to make something that truly pleases themselves. Designing the tile will enhance understanding of self and its relation to geometry, centers and the way they work together, as tiles are not usually alone but are within a field of other tiles, and will mean an immersion into an important aspect of local building culture that we could easily observe in our visit. The making of the tile and the design of a field of tiles within the context of the courtyard site will enhance the understanding of the importance of the process of making to the quality and depth of the centers achieved.

d. Nature of order as theoretical backbone and outreach to school and professional community

There has been some discussion within the program committee of the role of the Nature of Order in teaching. Sergio’s initial position was that he wanted the students to reach for the theory, or to develop it, as they need it and find it useful to support their practical work. Our experience of learning the building process with Chris and Hajo was different – and also varied. However we all found that it was important to accompany the making (in drawings, models, artefacts and mockups) with thinking and discussing the text – and in particular the concepts of Centers and the field of centers, the fifteen properties, the mirror of the self and structure preserving transformations. We felt that within a year of study it would be hard to expect students to come up with this theoretical understanding on their own. Nor can we expect all students to be familiar with the books and the theory.

Moreover, both Susan and Yodan participated as students in seminar discussions and led students in discussion groups which were meant to connect for the students the theory and the practice. Yodan’s teaching of The Phenomenon of Life is also done as a reading and discussion seminar where students are asked to present a chapter, and bring examples from their own life and observations – as well as connect the theory to their field of expertise (not all his students are architecture students). Students who have taken the course have said that it transformed the way they saw the world around them.

While the entire four books of the Nature of Order will not be assigned, there are specific chapters which we think are critical and should be a fundamental part of the curriculum.  These include the chapters on the Fifteen Properties, The Mirror of the Self, Structure Preserving Transformation, Incremental Growth, Patterns & Project Languages, and several chapters that describe process using real projects as examples.

Thus we envisage the teaching of the Nature of Order in the form of a seminar or “book club” where in the first semester the students read the book together with the instructors who are on site, and who will also be asked to participate and prepare a lecture relevant to the chapter in the book which is discussed at the time they are staying in the program. It may be possible for us to participate in these discussions and seminars via Skype, or other video-conferencing technology. In the second semester the students will organize a series of seminars – in coordination with the visiting faculty which will be open to the university community, and to the professional community in the city – thus opening up the program both to the university and other disciplines, as well as to the academic and professional community of designers and builders in the city. It might be a good idea if these seminars are recorded and made available on the program’s website – and perhaps visiting lectures are collected and compiled or published in some way.

e. Cultivation and food as connection to local community and Mediterranean culture

While we all felt intuitively the importance of cultivation of the earth and food to the program, we had some difficulty of locating it spatially, as well as understanding it in the context of the time schedule of the students and its role within the program as a whole. Perhaps some more clarity into this issue was brought in when we began to imagine this aspect of the program as a way to connect with the local community as well as Mediterranean culture as a whole. The cooperative of Casa Tolentino (where we stayed) is getting prepared to embark on cultivation of a garden within their grounds as a community garden for the local area, and would welcome the involvement of our students (and faculty), and perhaps some daily or weekly work schedules could be organized as a beginning. There is significant work in the area done by scholars and chefs in Naples and the vicinity – which could be involved in giving the students some deeper understanding of sustainable food production – but these aspects are still to be explored in detail in terms of how they enter the curriculum in practice.  This food to table aspect could also be a part of an open-door-potluck program that reaches out to the larger neighborhood and Naples community, maybe in conjunction with the Nature of Order seminars and the seeking and effecting of a larger scale urban placemaking project or projects in the host City. While this is a potentially strong idea, it still has to be worked out practically with local partners and with members of the university community.

III.  CHALLENGES & ACTION

In the first year of the program, starting this October, we believe strongly that it is imperative to have a Building Beauty “Master” onsite, full time, to guide the work, resolve logistical and other challenges, and leverage the potential further opportunities for cooperative interaction, especially locally.   Ideally this person would have a high level of experience in university level teaching, fluency in the Italian and English languages, and a demonstrated commitment and experience in the Building Beauty program.  It is critical to find the funds and other logistical support to enable the establishment of this full time position.

To date the program has seven qualified and committed students who have shown interest.  We believe that a few more students (for a total of 15) would be ideal, and should still be aimed for. Local students, from Naples and the surrounding region might be the first priority for further enrollment efforts.

We are concerned about the Building Beauty financial resources and viability, especially in the short term (over the first year).  We are convinced that in the medium and long-term the program will achieve financial viability and prosperity. A concerted effort should be done in the coming months until the beginning of the course in October, to boost the funds available to the program, and particularly to fund scholarships for local students.

While the details of the curriculum are under intensive development, a focused eye must be kept on maintaining a goal of more relatively compact consolidation of teaching resources over the proposed 30 weeks of the program.  Rather than 30-40 people coming in for half week or full week seminars, we wonder if there couldn’t be a core teaching team of closer to half dozen people who are coming in for periods of two to four weeks and taking on several of the learning modules during those periods.  UniSOB staff would still be readily available, and other BB committed staff could be brought in via teleconference/Skype.

We also recommend that at some point in the life of the program, it is important to  seek and establish relationships with communities in Naples, and explore tactical activities and strategic plans for placemaking and local improvement, at a more urban scale, responding to real and urgent needs, and giving students settings that are more likely to be similar to what they will encounter in real practice.

In summary, we would like to highly commend the work done so far by Professor Sergio Porta, Maggie Alexander, Antonio Caperna and many others in setting up the program at UniSOB. We believe that it is the one of the best opportunities in years to continue the legacy of Christopher Alexander, CES and the building process area of emphasis at UC Berkeley. Together with the PUARL in Oregon, PURPLSOC at Krems on the Danube, and in close cooperation with the architecture program at the University of San Francisco, it has the potential to become a center for the continued development of these ideas and their implementation in the world. We look forward to actively contributing to the development of the teaching program, as well as helping with raising the necessary funds and connections that will enable the program to flourish.