Enduring beauty and usefullness: Why we still judge buildings by Vitruvian Standards


Why would a firm of modern designers in Chicago Illinois, dedicated to modern minimalism and reuse of building materials, pay attention to the writings of a Roman architecture critic, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, whose The Ten Books on Architecture was written 2000 years ago?  We may not need to reference his advice on ornamentation of the classical column orders but his ideas on what makes a good building still apply today.

The Fundamentals of design According to Vitruvius

Last week we were talking about the perniciousness of disposable architecture, and what qualities a building might need in order to stand the test of time.  Somewhat flippantly, we wrote that “To last, buildings must be both sturdy enough to stand the winds of time, useful or adaptable enough to stay in use, and likable enough that people will want to use them.”  All true.  And not a new idea at all.  In fact, those three headings represent a fairly blatant rip-off of the Vitruvian Triad – the three qualities by which we can judge buildings – Firmitas, Utilitas and Venustas.  The literal translation of that Latin is still somewhat vague so here’s a progressive interpretation of each:  Firmitas … Firmness  …  Structure, Utilitas  …  Commodity  …  Usefullness, and Venustas  … Delight  …   Beauty.  This is indexed sums it up nicely:

this is indexed triad

So Who Was this Guy

Vitruvius was an architect (probably) and architecture critic (certainly) who happens to have authored the only remaining treatise on architecture that remains from Roman times.  He died in AD15 but his work lives on in the architecture classrooms (and designers) of today.

The work in question The Ten Books of Architecture encompasses advice on a huge range of topics from siting important buildings (near the harbor if by the sea, otherwise at the center of town), building materials (softer types of stone are good for decoration but poor for structure) to room orientation (dining rooms used in winter need a south western exposure … for the evening light).  He also wrote extensively about contemporary technology diagraming aqueduct designs, catapults and even surveying instruments.

We don’t really follow Roman advice on laying out cities, building technology or war machinery anymore.  But we do still want to create useful, beautiful and long-lasting buildings.  Rather than recommend that you try to work your way through a 16th century translation of a roman treatise (its uphill work to read it) we’d suggest this alternative.

How Vitruvius Applies today

This post might also serve as a (rave) book review for James O’Gorman’s wonderful ABC of Architecture, which is a favorite architecture text.  In it, he uses the concepts that Vitruvius laid out as a spring board to go from the earliest origins of shelter, to the analysis of good buildings.  He also points out that the Triad can also be used (in a general way) to break down the three main drawing types used by architects.

Utilitas, or utility, is demonstrated in the floor plan which lays out all the various spaces and components of a building.

Firmitas, or firmness, relates to structure and shows up in the section drawing with columns, beams, joists, rafters shown connecting to each other and carrying the load of the building down to the foundation.

Venustas, beauty, is (we hope) shown in the elevations that show flat views of the exterior, and sometimes interior, walls of the building.  These show materials, proportion, rhythm and scale.

how vitruvius breaks down architectural drawings

O’Gorman even uses the triad to examine the three main people (or groups) who come together to create a building, client, architect and builder.  Although there is, of course, a lot of overlap in these roles, it is surprisingly apt:

The client begins by requesting a certain type of building for a certain purpose (usefulness/Utilitas).  The builder eventually creates the physical structure to hopefully last a long time (firmness/Firmitas).  The architect designs for beauty/Venustas.  

Note: this is a much more substantial concept than mere aesthetics, Venustas can also translate to joy or delight.  We’re not selling ourselves short here in claiming Venustas as our role.  And, of course, it is the architect’s responsibility to oversee all three aspects of any design.  This break down merely addresses the primary drivers of each.

So there you have it.  You can’t really take three steps in the world of architecture without tripping over the ideas of Vitruvius or his triad.  How do these concepts apply to you?