Yodan Rofè is an architect and urban planner with over 20 years of professional, teaching, and research experience. He was the founder of the Movement for Israeli Urbanism and served for five years as the Head of Urban Design at Israeli Ministry of Construction and Housing.
His research interests include building processes and structures of informal settlements, urban form and movement, accessibility and equity, cognition and feeling in the built environment, as well as public space and street design.
Together with Allan Jacobs and Elizabeth Macdonald, he wrote The Boulevard Book published by MIT Press. Together with Kyriakos Pontikis, Yodan edited the book In Pursuit of a Living Architecture: Continuing Christopher Alexander’s Quest for a Humane and Sustainable Building Culture, published by Common Ground Publishers.
Natalia Olszewska: I’d love to understand your connection to Christopher Alexander. Could you tell us about meeting him and his influence on you?
Yodan Rofè: I discovered him in high school, where I was already interested in architecture. I had a friend who studied philosophy, and he suggested we write about rationalism in various fields. I worked on its connection with architecture. We’re talking about 1974, so Aldo Rossi was still not well known outside Italy. I looked through the library catalog and found Christopher Alexander’s Notes on the Synthesis of Form.
It was exciting because it was very different from other books. And it made a lot of sense to me because it was more scientific than most things I read about the history of architecture. Then I found other papers like A City Is Not a Tree. Searching for stuff at the time was much more laborious than it is now. Back then, you had to dig through cards in catalogs and ask librarians for the books.
I was still in high school when The Oregon Experiment came out. It was the third book in the series, and it was about the master plan for the University of Oregon campus. I bought it immediately. It was my first exposure to ideas like the “pattern language” and “process of piecemeal growth.”
In 1977 the Pattern Language book came out. I was getting out of the army in Israel and starting my architecture studies. When doing my first year at Technion, I tried implementing the pattern language in my first-year project. I talked about it to my friends, and they got curious. As a result, a good friend of mine, Jonathan Fefferman, dropped out after doing two years of architecture at Technion. He went to work for Alexander at Berkeley, and later finished his studies with him.
After the first year of my studies, I had a crisis. I felt like I didn’t learn anything. And I felt I knew more about architecture than most of my teachers. On the one hand, it was the arrogance of youth. But on the other hand, I really read a lot.
Moving to Berkeley
My friend Jonathan had the same crisis after his second year and decided to go to the USA to study with Christopher Alexander himself. At the time, Chris was beginning his experiments and implementing his ideas into practice. Jonathan finished his architecture studies at Berkeley and continued to work with Chris for a while.
When I finished my degree in 1989, Jonathan was back in Israel after six years of working with Chris. I applied for a master’s in architecture at Berkeley because my original degree was in environmental design. Jonathan wrote to Chris about me, and he wrote me a letter of reference. As a result, I was accepted. I got in touch with Chris even before the course started, and I went to talk to him.
He was just setting up a building process study area. He created it with Hajo Neis, a former student also, who was the architect in charge of building the Eishin Campus near Tokyo. The area included three courses:
- The Nature of Order, the main theoretical course
- The building process studio
- The construction course
The Nature of Order and the construction course were open to both undergraduates and graduates. The studio was for graduate students only. In the construction course students worked on one of the projects being designed and built by the Center for Environmental Structure, which Alexander created as a research and development non-profit. It later became a licensed contractor to have control of all the phases of design and building. I worked on a house designed and built by CES in Palo Alto.
In the introductory studio, there was a strong emphasis on making. We started with a small ornament, then moved to a piece of furniture, and then designed our own home on a particular site. We were staking the floor plan on the site itself, and using drawing as documentation rather than as a design medium. Then we created a small place in the community as a group and made a model. For the final project, we designed a whole neighborhood as a model.
The idea beyond this sequence was that you gradually learned to work with your own feeling of self, and its sense of well-being. You also developed your feeling for the self as the criterion of the goodness of the object or the environment produced.
Human beings are not so good at imagining how they would feel – in general, or in a particular place. So you have to test things. We would imagine a project and find real locations that were as similar as possible to ours. There, we would try out how we would feel and later create large-scale mockups of what we would build.
For example, in the studio’s second year, we designed a housing project for the University of Oregon, today the Agate Street Student Family Housing in Eugene. To test out the plans for the apartments, we managed to access some warehouses belonging to the University of California. In them, we made full-scale mockups of the apartments using wooden slats, and large pieces of butcher paper to simulate the walls.
We couldn’t simulate everything, but at least we understood whether the space was working. If we were designing something outside, we would sketch it and then stake it out at full scale.
This is what we are doing today in the Building Beauty program too. Progression from the very small to the big, understanding your feeling of space and learning to work with others.
Working With Christopher Alexander
When working with Chris, one of the first things I did for him was transcribe his lectures on The Nature of Order, which was still a manuscript at the time. I listened to his talks many, many times. Several times, I gave the lecture myself whenever he couldn’t do it.
The main thing we did together was work on his book. I felt very privileged to have had that opportunity. We worked mainly on the fine details of the second book, The Process of Creating Life. He would ask me to write about some of the questions still not adequately described, and then we would discuss them. I think that was the most exciting intellectual experience I’ve ever had.
Natalia: How is the method of Christopher Alexander different from other methods that architects and urban designers typically learn at school? It looks like the first-person experience is very important in the method. What is the primary set of skills that you’re trying to develop when working with students? And what do you think is the set of skills that a good urbanist, architect, or designer should have so they design well?
Yodan: I think it starts with a deep understanding of what the term “wholeness” means in each place and situation. And it’s about the place, the program, and the community of people that the architect must consider. There is the place’s physical setup, the views, the layout of the land, the trees, and the topography. But the project also comes from the wishes, wants, and dreams of people who will inhabit that place – residents, workers, visitors, or passersby.
But understanding the wholeness is not something you do once at the start of the project and continue from there. As you work, you have to re-understand it. It’s a continuous process of understanding the wholeness. You’re just a vehicle, and the wholeness of the place generates the project. You’re just a tool, and your ego is utterly insignificant in this process.
What you want as an architect is of no interest to anybody. It’s not about: “I want to do this. I want to do that”. And if you hear architects talk about their work, you often hear, “I wanted to do this and this.” It’s a very ego-filled profession. Alexander’s method is entirely egoless in that sense.
The second key difference is that you have to understand the wholeness in terms of “centers.” The wholeness is not one undifferentiated thing, but it’s made of centers – the more salient entities that create the structure of wholeness. These centers are often implicit first. They exist only as potentials in the place and its future users. The architect needs to discover these centers and make them explicit, thus strengthening the wholeness.
The way to judge that strength is feeling. The stronger people feel, the more you are going in the right direction. When we talk with clients, we talk about what they dream of, what the dream place would be for them, and what they would’ve liked that place to be. And then we try to tease out those deep feelings from them.
These feelings are often not so easily expressed because people are used to having them ignored in their ordinary life. That’s what we teach differently, you see. You can see some examples of that in our students’ work.
Lastly, I would stress the idea that in our teaching, the process is much more important than the resulting design. You always do things step by step. At each step, you’re introducing one strong center to the wholeness. Our goal is that whenever our students encounter a problem, after they complete their study with us, they will be able to reproduce the process, not the particular details of a project they made with us.
The Building Beauty Program
Michal Matloň: Why could this course make a difference for students, their work, and their growth?
Yodan: Architects are different from most people as they pay a lot more attention to the physical makeup of the world than most people. Most people focus much more on other people. But architects and planners care deeply about the physical fabric of the world.
Before we start studying, many of us are drawn to this field because we want to make something beautiful for people in this world. I think this impulse is usually crushed out of the students in the first year of architecture school. During my first year in the Technion, they tried to indoctrinate us into straight functionalism and modernism, and the topic of beauty never came up.
One thing we do at Building Beauty is to bring back the emphasis on beauty. And I would say that if you look at contemporary environments, they’re often devoid of beauty. One of the things that attracted me initially to your newsletter is that you call it the Venetian Letter. Whenever I despair about the human race, I think of Venice.
Everything in Venice, all the beauty it contains, is entirely man-made. The nature that was there before was just a swamp. I have no illusions about the Venetians. They were ruthless. They exploited other people. They traded enslaved people. But at least they used those riches to leave us something beautiful, using the money they made. Today, we are perhaps even richer as a society, but we build the same ugliness everywhere.
We are teaching students to be able to create beauty because that’s something that’s within us. That’s what we offer to architecture students and anyone who would like to learn it.
We also opened a track for software developers. The idea is that they learn about beauty and the design process with the architects. Then they take that understanding and apply it to the world of software. It’s called Beautiful Software and led by Greg Bryant, who also collaborated with Chris.
At one point, Chris got disillusioned with the ability of architecture schools to reform and turned to the software community in Silicon valley. He is still recognized for introducing Pattern Language to software development.
Why Is Beauty Important?
Natalia: I’ve been in architectural circles for a few years now, and the word “beauty” is very controversial among architects. Why do you think beauty is so important?
Yodan: I don’t know where this aversion to beauty comes from. I think this is a question for substantive historical research on why in the mid-20th century, the world somehow lost the understanding of beauty. I would also say that it’s connected to the unease about subjectivity. Also, over time, beauty started to be considered as “feminine.”
Michal: I just remembered I started getting women’s clothing ads on Instagram after posting about beauty in architecture.
Yodan: Today, beauty is very much used in publicity and marketing. It’s used to exploit and trigger our feelings. Maybe that’s one reason it became disrepute – it has been used mostly for sales. It’s just a hypothesis, I’m not a cultural theorist. But we need beauty to function. I think research has already shown that we thrive more in beautiful surroundings.
Our conception of beauty comes from The Nature of Order. We don’t understand it as “perfection” but as “wholeness.” We equate beauty with life in things, events, situations. This kind of beauty is not just about the appearance of things. It’s not superficial.
I also think many architects know deep down they’re not creating beautiful things. They know humanity dislikes most of the things they make. And for them to admit that would be pretty devastating. I’ve lived long enough to say that it’s tough to look at your life’s work and recognize it’s terrible. I think these are difficult things to say, but I think they should be said.
There are many architects, however, who are doing excellent work. Not usually the ones that get printed in magazines or talked about, though. They are just people who serve their clients and do the best they can under challenging conditions in a system that almost doesn’t allow creating life. Architecture as a profession needs a radical reshuffle. Because today, it doesn’t uphold the values it purports to uphold in society.
The Social Impact of Building Beauty
Natalia: What role could your course play in tackling the global challenges we face, such as the climate emergency? Do you think the method you describe helps people build more sustainably? If so, how does it do it?
Yodan: I think we are a civilization on the verge of crumbling. I was at the World Urban Forum in Katowice, Poland, a couple of weeks ago, and I had that same feeling from people there. The great thing about Building Beauty is that it leads to the creation of tangible things that everyone can do. You always have to deal with much larger systems than your project, but your capacity for making changes is tiny. As individuals, we’re powerless at a profound level.
One of Chris’ goals was to empower people to be able to do things for themselves. Not only to empower them by giving them power. But teaching them to wield that power responsibly and teaching them the abilities required to do something good. Is it the solution to all of these problems? Probably not. But it can help because to achieve wholeness, you have to take into account not just the needs of people but also of the environment. I know that people like Dan Palmer in the permaculture movement use the process to make it stronger.
Another thing we have to remember is that you cannot control everything. You cannot solve problems for the whole world. You have to define a boundary for yourself. The boundary has to be bigger than the project you’re working on. Otherwise, you will not be able to do a good project. But it cannot be infinite.
Natalia: At the end of our conversations, we always ask our guests for a positive example somewhere in the world. Is there a project which aligns with your philosophy?
Yodan: There are several good examples I know of. One of our collaborators, Munishwar Ashish Ganju, who unfortunately died last year from COVID, built a monastery for Tibetan nuns in India. It’s a stunning project constructed together with the nuns themselves. They made it gradually over time.
There are the lovely projects of my late friend Kyriakos, who unfortunately died of cancer about seven years ago. He did his PhD with Chris to design and build a condominium in Nicosia. He showed that you could do this work at a price comparable to ordinary developer buildings at the time. He also built a couple of churches in the USA, one in Santa Rosa for an Orthodox community and one in Kansas for a reform church movement. Both of these projects were done with Gary Black, who also worked for many years with Chris at CES.
There’s also the work of TKWA, an architecture firm from Wisconsin. They have never been students of Chris, but they have adopted the philosophy of working with wholeness. One of their recent projects was shared by one of the partners, Eric Hancock, during The Nature of Order webinar. It was a big school in China.
Ross Chapin, who’s been building “pocket neighborhoods” all over the USA, has also adopted Alexander’s philosophy and done a great job. But you can also see a lot of beautiful architecture worldwide, made by people with whatever little they had.
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