Three Architects stand above the crowd in distilling the meaning of architecture to its essential elements. Vitruvius, Ruskin, and Descartes so understood the "stuff" of architecture that they were able to capture its essence in a only a few words.
Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (80b.c. - 14 b.c.)
Vitruvius was a commander under Julius Caesar as well as a principal Roman Architect and author of De Architectura, known today as The Ten Books on Architecture, a treatise written in Latin and Greek on architecture, dedicated to the Emperor Augustus. This work is the only surviving major book on architecture from classical antiquity. The next major book on architecture, Alberti's reformulation of Ten Books, was not written until 1452.
Vitruvius is famous for asserting that a structure must exhibit the three qualities:
That is, it must be solid, useful, and beautiful. These are termed the Vitruvian virtues or the Vitruvian Triad. According to Vitruvius, architecture is an imitation of nature. When perfecting this art of building, the Greeks invented the architectural orders: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. It gave them a sense of proportion, culminating in understanding the proportions of the greatest work of art: the human body. This led Vitruvius in defining his Vitruvian Man, as drawn later by Leonardo da Vinci: the human body inscribed in the circle and the square (the fundamental geometric patterns of the cosmic order).
Vitruvius is sometimes loosely referred to as the first architect, but it is more accurate to describe him as the first Roman architect to have written surviving records of his field. Vitruvius had a much wider scope than modern architects as Roman architects practiced a wide variety of disciplines; in modern terms, they could be described as being engineers, architects, landscape architects, artists, and craftsmen combined.
The subjects of Vitruvius Ten Books, using modern terminology, are:
Public places: square, meeting hall, theatre, park, gymnasium, harbour
Vitruvius is excellent reading. First he is easy to read, no complex sentences, no arty separation of noun from adjective. Second, he has content, something often lacking in the later writers and the imperial poets. What he writes can be seen in the remains of Roman buildings like the Pantheon, in the wall frescos, and in the aqueducts. There is something respectable in the writing of a man who was an Architect AND a builder, who knew how mortar and bricks go together, in short a man who knew what he was talking about.
John Ruskin (1819-1900)
John Ruskin was a Victorian writer, critic, scientist, poet, artist, environmentalist and philosopher. As the most important art critic of his time, he gained respectability for the Pre-Raphaelites and rescued J. M. W. Turner from obscurity. After trips to France and Italy, where Ruskin sketched the romantic beauty of medieval architecture and sculpture, he wrote a book on Gothic Architecture entitled The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) which documented and characterized a generation of architectural work. In the fall of 1849, he traveled to Venice and applied the general principles of The Seven Lamps of Architecture to Venetian architecture and how it related to the rise and fall of spiritual forces. This research was published in The Stories of Venice (1851).
The Seven Lamps of Architecture is structured with eight chapters; an introduction and one chapter for each of the seven 'Lamps', which represent the demands that good architecture must meet, expressed as directions in which the association of ideas may take the observer:
Sacrifice – dedication of man's craft to God, as visible proofs of man's love and obedience.
Truth – handcrafted and honest display of materials and structure. Truth to materials and honest display of construction were bywords since the serious Gothic Revival had distanced itself from the whimsical "Gothick" of the 18th century; it had been often elaborated by Pugin and others.
Power – buildings should be thought of in terms of their massing and reach towards the sublimity of nature by the action of the human mind upon them and the organization of physical effort in constructing buildings.
Beauty – aspiration towards God expressed in ornamentation drawn from nature, his creation.
Life – buildings should be made by human hands, so that the joy of masons and stonecarvers is associated with the expressive freedom given them.
Memory – buildings should respect the culture from which they have developed.
Obedience – no originality for its own sake, but conforming to the finest among existing English values, in particular expressed through the "English Early Decorated" Gothic as the safest choice of style.
Rene Descartes (1596-1650
Descartes was a philosopher whose work, La géométrie, includes his application of algebra to geometry from which we now have Cartesian geometry and the ability to locate a point in space using coordinates. He was a genius who possessed a fundamental understanding of the art of problem solving: the core of Architectural ability.
While in school his health was poor and he was granted permission to remain in bed until 11 o'clock in the morning, a custom he maintained until the year of his death. School had made Descartes understand how little he knew, the only subjects which were satisfactory, in his eyes, were mathematics and philosophy. Mathematics became the foundation for his way of thinking and formed the basis for all his works.
Descartes was pressed by his friends to publish his ideas and he wrote a treatise on science under the title Discours de la méthod pour bien conduire sa raison et chercher la vérité dans les sciences. The work describes what Descartes considered a more satisfactory means of acquiring knowledge than that presented by Aristotle's logic.
Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy, was published in 1641, designed for the philosopher and for the theologian. It consists of six meditations, Of the Things that we may doubt, Of the Nature of the Human Mind, Of God: that He exists, Of Truth and Error, Of the Essence of Material Things, and Of the Real Distinction between the Mind and the Body of Man.
The thing that should be taught to every student at an early age regards his discourse on method: a step-by-step guide to problem solving which can be applied universally from problems such as preventing moisture damage in buildings to buying a new car or selecting a profession:
The first,to accept nothing as true which I did not clearly recognize to be so; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitation and prejudice in judgments, and to accept in them nothing more than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly that I could have no occasion to doubt it.
The second was to divide up each of the difficulties which I examined into as many parts as possible, and as seemed requisite in order that it might be resolved in the best manner possible.
The third was to carry on my reflections in due order, commencing with objects that were the most simple and easy to understand, in order to rise little by little, or by degrees, to knowledge of the most complex, assuming an order, even if a fictitious one, among those which do not follow a natural sequence relatively to one another.
The last was in all cases to make enumerations so complete and reviews so general that I should be certain of having omitted nothing.
In 1649 Queen Christina of Sweden persuaded Descartes to come to Stockholm. The Queen insisted on drawing tangents at 5 a.m. and Descartes broke his lifetime habit of getting up at 11 a.m. After only a few months in the cold northern climate, walking to the palace prior to 5 a.m. every morning, he died of pneumonia.