Vitruvius presents design of the Basilica at Fano to the Emperor Augustus; Claude Perraults’s interpretation of Vitruvius’ design. Sebestian Le Clerc (1684)
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By Eric Inman Daum AIA
Presented at the Traditional Building Conference, March 10, 2009
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Commodity, firmness and delight are words that come to us from a 17th Century translation of the Roman architect Vitruvius’ work, de Architectura. Known popularly today as The Ten Books of Architecture, it is the only treatise on Classical architecture surviving in its entirety from antiquity. These Ten Books, which are the core source of Classical design and construction, describe these essential criteria which must be observed in order to create a “good building.” In my own practice and through my involvement with the Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America, I profess a Classical sensibility. Therefore, these principles should underscore my own philosophy of practice. So, in the moments following Judy’s question, as my professional life flashed before my eyes, I realized that these same criteria are as relevant today as they were long ago during the early days of the Roman Empire. These are relevant words to guide us, not just for the design of individual buildings, but also for the design of communities, cities and regions. And in this moment, I also realized that perhaps I myself had not paid these ideals as much heed as I should, and that they deserved my re-examination.
So as the silence hung between us on the phone, I came in my horror to realize all of this and I replied in a manner that I hope sounded nonchalant:
“Why, Judy, I’d be delighted.”
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Architecture among all the arts is unique. As the art of building, it straddles the line between the theoretical and the practical. Vitruvius himself states in the first chapter of Book I: “The arts are each composed of two things, the manual work and the reasoning behind it.” Unlike the fine arts of painting, sculpture, dance, theater and music, architecture is a commercial art. It has a responsibility to its audience to do more than just provoke it. It must satisfy basic needs of shelter. It must work in concert with its surroundings. It must adapt to the changing needs of its users. When an audience does not like a performance, they are free to leave the play or concert. If they do not like a painting or sculpture, they are free to move on to the next gallery.
A building in a cityscape or a development in a landscape represents enormous resources that have been invested in the commonweal. Unlike other commercial arts such as illustration or cinema, it is not ephemeral but serves a longstanding audience. When the audience for architecture occupies a work that does not satisfy its needs, it has two choices. Either be a captive audience or destroy the work and waste the resources invested in its creation.
Surely, then, the sensible thing to do is to build well.
Geoffrey Scott commences his book The Architecture of Humanism with a discussion of commodity, firmness and delight. He describes architecture as a “focus where [these] three separate purposes have converged. They are blended in a single method; they are fulfilled in a single result; yet in their own nature, they are distinguished from each other by a deep and permanent disparity.”
He goes on to describe the architect’s work as “synthetic,” “He must take into simultaneous account our three conditions of ‘well-building.’ ” The first of these, Firmness, he states, is related to science. An architect considers structural forces and material properties. Forms are governed by the material choices made.
For the second condition, Commodity, he states: “Architecture is subservient to the general uses of Mankind …” and that “buildings may be judged by the success with which they supply the practical ends they were designed to meet.”
For the third condition, Delight, Scott describes “an aesthetic impulse … by which architecture becomes art.” He illustrates conditions by which it may be guided by the other two conditions, firmness and commodity. Ultimately, “it has its own standard and claims its own authority.” Beauty is its own reward.
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The phrase commodity, firmness and delight actually comes to us not from Vitruvius but rather from Sir Henry Wotton (left), whose The Elements of Architecture. published in 1624, is a loose translation of Vitruvius’ de Architectura.
Wotton’s version of Vitruvius’ frequently quoted line is: “The end is to build well. Well building hath three conditions: firmness, commodity, and delight.” Scholars debate whether Wotten’s Elements is a paraphrase or a true translation, but the quote is popularly attributed to Vitruvius.
Joseph Gwilt, in his 1826 edition of Vitruvius writings, published in London, uses the words “strength, utility, and beauty.” The venerable translation of Vitruvius’ The Ten Books on Architecture by Morris Hickey Morgan, originally published in 1914 and still available through Dover Publications, states: “All these must be built with due reference to durability, convenience, and beauty.”
In 2003, Thomas Gordon Smith published an emendation of Morgan’s work and framed the phrase in more contemporary language: “All of these [architectural works] must be built so that account is taken of Strength, Function and Beauty.” This is very close to Gwilt’s strength, utility and beauty, but the substitution of function for utility is a clear reference to Louis Sullivan’s “form follows function.”
Sullivan’s Modernist dictum has come to represent the Modern emphasis upon firmness and commodity as criteria to judge the merits of an architectural work without consideration of beauty.
Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, who was born between 80–70 B.C. and died sometime after 15 B.C., himself used the words “firmitatis utilitatis venustatis.”
Whether we say, “Firmitatis utilitatis venustatis” … strength, utility and beauty … durability, convenience and beauty … strength, function and beauty … or commodity, firmness and delight, we are describing the fundamental standards we should aim to meet when we build. Let us look at each of these concepts in turn.
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Firmness: We must build buildings with strength to survive the elements and the forces of nature. A building needs to stand up, to protect its occupants – keep them dry and warm in the winter and cool in the summer. It also needs to be built to protect itself. It must shed water away from its structure to prevent rot in organic materials, decay in masonry, and corrosion in metals. It is wasteful to replace building materials frequently.
Commodity: A building must be well designed, laid out efficiently so that spaces for related activities are adjacent. The building must be composed not just in plan but in section, with regard to the hierarchy of its spaces. A building should be laid out so that the most important activities take place in the most important spaces. We must consider how to use building materials efficiently, and know the most suitable materials for that building in that particular location in terms of availability and durability.
Delight: This represents the most difficult of the Vitruvian ideals to define. With our liberal sensibilities and a prevailing politically correct attitude of relativism, we espouse the idea that “I’m okay; you must be even better.” We are trained to believe that beauty is subjective, that it rests in the eye of the beholder. Vitruvius held a very different idea. He believed that architectural beauty was quantifiable, stating that “account will have been taken of … Beauty … so the relative measurements of the members will give the work a pleasing and elegant purpose.”
“Architecture, Painting and Sculpture Protected by Athena from the Ravages of Time” (1921) by John Singer Sargent
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In the first book of De Architectura, he describes techniques to be used by architects in order to achieve “Beauty,” declaring that “architecture depends on ordinatio, dispositio, eurythmia, symmetria, decor and distributio.” In the recent edition of De Architectura by Thomas Gordan Smith, the author’s commentary describes each of these in depth. I will touch upon them briefly, but I would like to direct you to his commentary for further elaboration.
Ordinatio: Morris Hickey Morgan uses the word “order.” This is simply the process of creating incremental units of measure within an object. We determine a consistent unit of measure based upon a part and construct the entire work using that part as the underlying guide for the whole. This creates a sense of visual harmony.
Smith chooses to avoid use of the word “order.” In contemporary English usage, it describes the types of column, their entablatures and pedestals. In fact, there is a proportional relation among these larger parts, but Smith argues that this expands the meaning of Vitruvius’ use of the term and prefers the words “type” or “kind” to describe the genus of columns.
Dispositio: Morgan uses the word “arrangement.” What this really means is to design not just in the graphic sense but in the conceptual intellectual sense as well. Vitruvius describes the practice of drawing floor plans and elevations, and also perspective drawings as tools to understand the conceptual form of a building. However, these graphic techniques are informed by “reflection” and “invention.” Essentially, reflection is the careful consideration of all aspects of the design, analysis of site, program and the client’s tastes among them. Invention is the ability to adapt the rules of design to issues unique to each architectural problem.
Eurythmia: Eurythmia is the graceful arrangement of the elements of a building, so that the height of the parts is suitable to their width, and their width to their breadth. In other words, each part is in harmony with itself. Looking at a classical building, the proportions of the columns in relation to the weight they must bear, the entablature, we see that they comfortably support the weight of the load above. In fact, this is not an engineering exercise, but a simple intuitive understanding that the proportion of the bearing and the borne “works.”
Symmetria: This is the methodology of determining ratios of proportion between different elements in a design. In a sense, the Classical “types” of columns suggest this, both at large and smaller scales. On the large scale, when we lay out a column, we understand that its height is a proportion of its diameter. The heights of columns are multiples of their widths. The measuring modules are either the diameter or the radius of the base of a column. Getting architects through history to agree on what those proportions are has been difficult, but they all have begun with a module based on the column width. The basic elements of the entablature, the architrave, the cornice and the frieze are proportioned as ratios of that same column-based module. Even the proportions of the individual elements within the column base and capital, and within the entablature, are all fractions of the base module.
Decor: Smith describes this almost as a form of architectural etiquette. Vitruvius discusses the use of the appropriate elements for the design of temples for each deity. For instance, in his text Vitruvius describes the Doric as embodying masculine and rational characteristics, the Ionic as being more feminine, and the Corinthian as the most delicate. Temples for virile deities – Mars, Hercules and Athena – should be Doric. Temples for Juno and Diana should be Ionic. Noting that these goddesses are mature feminine beings, the restrained and elegant Ionic is the appropriate choice. The Corinthian is appropriate for “delicate divinities,” such as Venus and the Nymphs.
Rotunda of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, featuring Sargent’s protective Athena (detail above)
But the idea of decor extends beyond the choice of the appropriate classical order. Ornament can be chosen for its symbolism. The Ionic, with its fecund articulation, the egg and dart is an appropriate choice to celebrate motherhood. Bucrania in the metope of the Doric are a perfect complement to a dining room.
In contemporary terms, decor suggests that we need to consider the forms we choose. We need to understand their meanings and to make choices appropriate to the site, the client and the needs of the building. One common theme we see in contemporary practice is the use of the Tuscan order as a catch-all decorative column in many projects, added to lend a traditional flavor. Because it is the most austere of the orders and free of what seems, to Modern sensibilities, fussy ornament, it is the easiest to draw, the least expensive to build and the most palatable to those architects who believe that “ornament is a crime.” However, it is suggestive of utilitarian purposes and usually not appropriate to the entrance of a house or within the interior of any significant room. Decor also relates to the appropriate disposition of rooms according to their exposure; bedrooms and libraries face east and picture galleries north for even diffuse light.
Distributio: Vitruvius’ principle of distributio describes the organizational skills an architect needs to get a building built. “The proper management of materials and site as well as the thrifty balancing of expense. … This will be observed if the Architect does not demand things that cannot be found or made ready without great expense.” Of course, he says nothing about our client’s wish lists. But his sense is clear: we need to build what is appropriate by considering climate, site, and occupants. A building built in the desert is different from a building built for a wet, tropical climate.
Describing these Vitruvian ideals of strength, utility and beauty is somewhat like stating a tautology: Of course we want to build well, of course we want to serve our clients by laying out a building well, of course we want to make beautiful things. It’s obvious, isn’t it? In fact, were we choose to reduce these terms to a simple phrase, we might say that the source of good building is simply “common sense.” And yet, if we survey the current state of the built environment and of the architectural profession, it is obvious that our culture has not embraced these ideals.
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Below are Louis Sullivan’s Carson Pirie Scott & Co. Building (1899), in Chicago; the cover of Adolf Loos’ “Ornament and Crime” (1908); and Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye (1929)
The great catch phrases of Modernism, which we all learned by rote at the knees of our teachers, do not tell us to consider beauty in our designs. We learned the First Commandment of Modernism, “Form follows function,” from Louis Sullivan, the late 19th Century American architect, whose buildings embraced a florid ornamentalism; then the same people who quote Sullivan turn around and, missing the irony, quote Adolf Loos and his Second Commandment of Modernism: “Ornament is a crime.” Le Corbusier’s simple Third Commandment of Modernism stated: “A house is a machine for living in.” Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto is the Fourth Commandment of Modernism: “Beauty exists only in struggle. There is no masterpiece that has not an aggressive character.”
The Modernist commandments speak of disposing of the past and building in the “Spirit of the New Age.” Marinetti, writing in his Futurist Manifesto of 1909, told us to “leave good sense behind like a hideous husk and let us hurl ourselves, like fruit spiced with pride, into the immense mouth and breast of the world! Let us feed the unknown, not from despair, but simply to enrich the unfathomable reservoirs of the Absurd.”
“Carica di Lancieri” (1915), by Umberto Boccioni
The enduring poison of this nihilistic point of view is the constant quest for the “New.” Innovation is heralded as the most important aspect of the design profession. Most of us are here at the Traditional Building Conference because we believe in tradition and because we respect the accumulated knowledge of millennia of builders before us. We know that architecture is much more than mere fashion.
But to the Cult of the New, who believe that what is trendy today will be obsolete tomorrow, I would suggest that innovation is highly overrated.
The ongoing tradition of building is part of the endless human quest for immortality. We hope to leave behind something of ourselves that will mold and shape the lives of future generations. Because we seek to leave something of ourselves behind, we aim to build well; not just with firmness to guarantee its survival for future generations, but with commodity and delight to make it worth preserving.
Simply put, Vitruvius tells us that when we build, we should not to lose sight of common sense. If we are going to make the investment of time and resources in order to build, then it is in our best interests to listen to the Vitruvian ideal. Resources have always been scarce. It has always been expensive to build. This should make us question why so much of the contemporary built environment is disposable.
Demolition in 2007 of Paul Rudolph’s Micheel Residence, built 1972
We realize that the legacy of sprawl and its Big Box stores and cul-de-sac developments is wasteful of resources. We understand intuitively that “good building” is nothing more than the exercise of common sense. Yet in our consumerist greed, we have ignored the obvious truth. It is wasteful to cleave into yet more open land, spreading a motoring culture further across the landscape.
It is a self-fulfilling prophecy in futility as we extend a vacuous, soulless wasteland across this nation.
We ignore “Firmitatis” when we build the boxes described by James Howard Kunstler as chipboard and vinyl Mcbuildings. We ignore “Venustatis” when we plunk a Mediterranean-style Dryvit McMansion into New England, or a shingle-style house on the Gulf Coast, and we deny “Beauty” when we persist in building places no one wishes to inhabit.
As a culture, we have been blessed with technological advancements and growing wealth that has allowed us to undertake the impossible. Our hubris is our realization that anything is possible and therefore anything is justified. We have lost sight of the basic fact that architecture is about more than changing fashion. It is the art of building, and part of a long tradition. When we endeavor to build, we must take it seriously. We must be cognizant of its costs and its impact on both the natural and the built environment. We should consider the practice of good building applicable not only to the creation of a single building, but also, a neighborhood, a city, a region, and even the nation.
Residences foreclosed upon before completion, in Las Vegas (2009)
Recall a portion of the Marinetti quote I repeated moments ago: “Let us leave good sense behind … and enrich the unfathomable reservoirs of the Absurd.” Certainly for America in the early years of the 21st Century, exactly 100 years after Marinetti wrote those words in 1909, that legacy of the absurd is continuing.
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Ultimately, the act of building is about so much more than assets and property value. It is an investment not just of materials but of time and of human lives. How we choose to build is as important as what we choose to build. We leave a mark in time and space on this planet which speaks to future generations. It tells of who we were and what we valued. James Kunstler comments that we persist in making places that no one actually wants to inhabit. Strip malls and Big Box stores, highway interchanges and expansive parking lots, cul-de-sacs and McMansions are not places whose passing anyone will mourn. They are the legacy of a culture that does not value the civic realm. With the ongoing economic downturn, these nowheresvilles are being abandoned, and we won’t even have the prospect of their beautiful ruins to contemplate.
Imagined ruins of John Soane’s Bank of England, by Joseph Michael Gandy (1830)
During the Romantic period of the early 19th Century, architects would prepare renderings of their proposed buildings not just as they would appear fully realized, but also ruined as a projection of a distant future. It was a nostalgia for that which was yet to be. They hoped that future architects would learn from the ruins of their buildings just as they themselves were learning from the ruins of antiquity. The excavations of Herculaneum, and Pompeii, and of Stuart and Revett’s documentations of Athenian antiquities not only provided a tangible laboratory to measure Vitruvian ideas, but also to shape the forms of Romantic Neo-Classicism.
In one hand these 19th Century architects held the ancient text, Vitruvius’ ten books that told how to build correctly, and in the other a sketchbook, the tool to document the surviving fragments of Greece and Rome. By preparing drawings of ruins of their own work, they sought to reach for the eternal and to connect to a distant future. They hoped to mold that future just as their present was molded by the Master Builders of Greece and Rome.
One wonders if on some distant day, long after we all gone, a future architect will uncover a Walmart design manual and bother to attempt match it to some overgrown ruin of Dryvit and light-gauge steel trusses. If this is the legacy we are leaving to future scholars, then we deserve to be forgotten.
“Apollo and the Muses” (1921), by John Singer Sargent
Roman architect Vitruvius, as interpreted by Wotten, described the essential characteristics of good building as commodity, firmness and delight. Too often, contemporary architects lose sight of these basic principles. The signatures of their individual styles have become more important than the work of architecture itself. There are explicit and implicit criteria against which all buildings can to be judged. Architecture, as the art of building, needs to be grounded in its traditions in order to accomplish these Vitruvian ideals. We must build for the ages within the contemporary constraints of declining resources and we must build with an eye toward Beauty. “Delight,” which has come to be viewed as irrelevant or unimportant by the Modern movement, can and should become again an essential criterion of good building today.