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Monday, January 9, 2012

Revisiting Vitruvius


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Vitruvius (c.75 – c.15 BCE) felt that architecture should exhibit firmitas, utilitas and venustas to be excellent; but this gives us very little to go on, even when solid, useful and beautiful becomes commodity, firmness and delight. Today it could mean structurally sound, physically accommodating and visually appealing, but the guidance lacks definition and the Roman style is simply assumed by Vitruvius in his definition. We are still searching for the definition of total value that he was attempting to explain. 

Vitruvius focused on the building rather than the profession in the first century BCE as he attempted to explain excellent architecture to Augustus. Alberti (1404-1472 CE) followed suit after a 1,500 year pause. Five hundred years later we are still asking the question: What is excellent architecture? If the focus remains on the building, the answer will continue to be a variation of the Vitruvian response that it is a stable, habitable work of art. Architects will have to decide if this continues to be a satisfactory response when our sustainable future depends on the land use allocation of activity and intensity within a Built Environment that must not exceed the limits of a sustainable Built Domain. It is certainly a potential answer of limited scope; but it might help to begin by asking for a definition of the architectural profession. A collection of artists is a response that does not do justice to the skill set required after 2,000 years of invention. 

I’d like to suggest that the architectural profession combines the inspiration of art, the logic of philosophy and the knowledge of accumulated research. In fact, this definition applies to all modern professions. Architecture, however, has used the logic of philosophy to extend its emphasis on the inspiration of art while ignoring the accumulation of independent knowledge. It has spun off many professions of independent research and practice over the centuries, but I wonder if its current emphasis on fine art is the right priority given its search for a definition of excellence.  

My guess is that architecture is searching for a body of knowledge it can call its own; for a measurement system to define a foundation of excellence within cities; and for a cataloguing system that can record, repeat and refine success over succeeding generations. 

 The city design of urban form is based on design specification values and a collection of forecast models that can predict intensity, or development capacity, options based the design category represented by the model chosen. Evaluation and comparison with existing measurements can improve our physical, social, psychological and economic quality of life within a Built Domain limited by science.  

Intensity represents a measurement system for the accumulation of knowledge needed to expand the Vitruvian definition of excellent architecture and its contribution to humanity. Architecture and its many allied professions are not ready to redefine excellence, but they are ready to begin the work. 

Progress has always begun with instinct, intuition, inspiration and imagination referred to as art by those who grasp the mystery involved. Logic has converted art to knowledge that could be memorized across generations. Language and writing simply made it easier. In other words, talent cannot be memorized but imagination can be used to build knowledge with logic when the goal is perceived.   

At the present time, architecture is about art and logic. It borrows knowledge from specialties focused on building technology. This has caused architecture to remain focused on definitions similar to Vitruvius and Alberti; while the problem has expanded with sprawl to indicate that shelter must be guided by more than stable, habitable and artistic objectives. So it’s a question of how logic will use inspiration and imagination to lead the profession toward knowledge that increases its public benefit.  

Vitruvius and Alberti are wonderful historic references, but it’s time to move on to the city design of urban form with a new language of intensity. It can improve our contribution to public benefit; but requires information that doesn’t exist, knowledge that must be distilled and a skill set that must be expanded. This can only begin with a new vision of the goal required. 

We have traveled through the art of Lascaux, the logic of Thales, the knowledge of science and the inventions of industry -- but our tendency is to pigeon-hole events when they actually represent a progression of thought. In many ways, the solution to every shelter design project represents a walk through this history, but we have not decided where we want to go. When the goal is defined the definition of excellence will follow.

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