Standards Of Judgment

Immediately after his opening passage on the education of the architect, Vitruvius introduced a feature that definitively established, then and forever, the difference between a theory of architecture and a building manual. That feature is a set of criteria for judging the quality of a building. It is one thing to stipulate how a building can be built, or even how it should be built, and quite another to create an apparatus for determining whether or not it was built well—that is, a means of judging its quality. By quality Vi-truvius did not just mean how soundly a structure was built or how aptly it fulfilled its purpose. He also (especially) meant its visual quality, its beauty. Although the criteria he established suffice to analyze and assess a building, they do not preclude the substitution of different but equally efficacious criteria. So, if his system is valuable for its own sake, its greater importance is that it makes of architecture a phenomenon worthy of contemplation, discussion, and evaluation. In a phrase, it elevates buildings into architecture and raises architecture to the level of all the other human activities that are regarded as aesthetic—such as poetry, music, and painting. The particular system he set out may, even now, be used to judge buildings of any architectural tradition, but it is particularly attuned to architecture that employs the classical orders.

What are Vitruvius's criteria of judgment? The categories are order, arrangement, eurythmy, symmetry, propriety, and economy—all of them abstractions intended to characterize concretely the physical aspects of a design. Order means that the building must make visual sense, of course, but more profoundly it pertains to the plan and how well the various spaces serve their respective purposes, and the whole its basic mission. As expressly regards classical architecture, Vitruvius associates order with mensural consistency, achieved by applying a module taken from a dimension of a specific member to all aspects of the whole. Arrangement overlaps with order regarding the functional efficacy of a plan, but it is primarily concerned with the beauty of the composition of the plan (and, by implication, that of the elevations and the massing of the whole). This is the category under which building begins to become art.

Eurythmy and symmetry are related categories for judging the beauty of the design. Eurythmy is the right relationship, proportional as well as formal, of all the parts of an individual element, such as a column. Symmetry, on the other hand, is the right relationship of all the individual elements to the composition as a whole. For Vitruvius a right relationship is one based on adherence to a proportional system. Indeed, for him symmetry is never the bilateral correspondence we impute to the term today. Rather, his symmetry, the most important aesthetic quality in a building, is the harmonious correlation of proportions throughout a design.

Propriety is making the design correspond exactly to the usage traditional for a particular type of building. That means not only getting the form right but also selecting the right category and degree of decor. This is the quality that reins in any tendency to overdo or underdo whatever is appropriate for a particular situation. In a word, it is good taste. Finally, economy is the quality that Vitruvius defines as the proper management of materials and site with regard to both cost and good judgment. According to the factors he mentions, it could more readily be termed the skillful execution of the project or the degree of finesse appropriate to the project. Oddly, he does not seem to relate it to the concept of economy of means—the right amount of structure and material for the circumstance.

For Alberti, beauty was the overriding criterion of excellence in a building. Indeed, he regarded it as inseparable from suitability for use and hence an aspect of utility. Because he gathered the virtues under that one conceptual umbrella, he had to develop an approach different from Vitruvius's code of six key qualities. He opted instead to use several questions inherent to criticism. The first—How well was it conceived?—pertaining entirely to the architect, comprises the intellectual input: "choice, distribution, arrangement, etc." The second—How well was it executed?—addresses the issue of workmanship: "laying, joining, cutting, trimming, polishing, etc." The third— How good are the qualities determined by nature? —comprises all the external factors: "weight, lightness, density, purity, durability, etc." A fourth—How does all this add up?—is meant to assess the integration of all the factors. This combinatory quality he found hard to define, even to name, for he deemed it virtually ineffable; but its effect, he averred, would be recognizable to anyone.

To this set of critical questions about the building he added one more—What are the benchmarks of excellence? —by which he meant the degree to which the design follows the rules of nature as regards "number, outline, and position." Under this rubric he was concerned about the extent to which the number and arrangement of components, the use of proportion, and the generation of forms correspond to their equivalents in nature. After observing the naturelike virtues of a design, he recommended that one survey the absence of the kind of faults that occur in nature, by which he meant "anything that is distorted, stunted, excessive, or deformed in any way."

Critical codes employing these or similar questions were conceived primarily for the purpose of evaluating formal architecture composed primarily as an aesthetic image. For that reason Alberti's criteria, or versions of them, were useful for as long as the taste for architecture of the classical tradition prevailed. But when the classical ideal was replaced by the Gothic, the criteria needed to be substantially revised. The person who effected that change was John Ruskin.

Ruskin's Seven Lamps of Architecture, more than any other treatise, was organized entirely around criteria of evaluation. Like Alberti, his dominant concern was beauty. The distinctive aspect of his treatment of the issue was that he explored other kinds of beauty in addition to comeliness. In this respect Ruskin undoubtedly owed a great deal to his great Renaissance predecessor, whose text touched upon some of the same sociocultural issues. The difference is that Alberti had simply enunciated his criteria as pronouncements, whereas Ruskin justified his with reasoned argument and analysis, making them his principal topics. Unlike Alberti, Ruskin was not interested in authenticating regulatory procedures, nor did he concern himself with envisioning a new architecture of the future. Rather, he was content to spell out what was satisfactory regarding the architecture of the past as a source of inspiration to the creators of architecture of the future. Perhaps part of his appeal to architects was that he identified various types of satisfactoriness in architecture in general and left it to them to discover how these virtues could be incorporated into their own work.

In Ruskin's treatise the seven "lamps" of the title are the criteria of excellence. The first, designated "sacrifice," deals with the positive effect in a building of the expenditure of unstinting care, in the form of support by the patron and effort by the architect and workmen. This involvement may be manifested in generous size, lavish materials, and painstaking execution. The same virtues can be equally evident at descending levels of project importance and cost; indeed, it is crucial, Ruskin thought, to make the degree of expenditure commensurate with the scope of the project. In this perspective utter simplicity can be as effectual as sumptuous grandeur.

The criterion of "truth" concerns the expression of honesty in a building, regarding both materials and structural composition. One of Ruskin's most enduring dicta is that one material must never be camouflaged to look like another, most especially when the material imitated would have been the more expensive. More fundamental to later theory and practice, though, is the principle that materials should only be employed to perform tasks consonant with their inherent properties. Structure should be composed so as to express how the building is put together. This does not mean that all structural elements should be in view, but that the building must not appear to be constructed differently from the way it actually is.

The criterion of "power" distinguishes between two modes of vivid aesthetic expression, the sublime and the beautiful. These modes are not mutually exclusive and both can be present in a given building. More generally, however, one mode or the other will be recognized as the signal virtue. The sublime impresses with its forcefulness, due to such qualities as great size, stark simplicity, overwhelming muchness, dramatic play of light and shadows, and rugged strength. Beauty, on the other hand, charms with such qualities as harmony, grace, delicacy, and refinement.

Incorporation of this duality into the theory of architecture was perspicuous on Ruskin's part, but modern theorists have ignored it, implicitly relegating it to the dustbin of history despite its timeless relevance.

The criterion of "beauty" treats the ways in which ornament can be effective in the design of a building and also the ways in which it can detract. Ruskin's acquaintance with formidable numbers of specific examples led him to form strong opinions, which limited their efficacy to the taste of his own historical moment. Indeed, the one regulatory imperative in the treatise is his codification of types of ornaments and the ways they ought to be used on buildings. These are permutations and combinations of the qualities of mimetic naturalness and abstraction, color and monochrome, plasticity and flatness, proximity and distance. Arguably still applicable, these dicta fell from grace when ornament was rejected from modernist theory, making Ruskin seem more old-fashioned than he actually was.

The criterion of "life" focuses on the distinction between the vitality evident in expert handwork in historical architecture and the flaccid quality of manufactured ornament of the industrial age. Ruskin's emphasis on the merit of the minute variations that give handwork its characteristic brio provided impetus in England to the incipient Arts and Crafts movement. The prestige still attributed to the quality of handcraftedness is one of his most lasting legacies.

The criterion of "memory" stresses the poetic and inspirational value of buildings from past ages in both the city and the rural landscape. Ruskin's celebration of their salutary effect did much to instigate the modern taste for historical architecture as well as for the preservation of a historical mix in the urban environment, both of which are distinctive characteristics of the modern age. His negative sentiments concerning restoration, on the other hand, have served as a restraining influence. They remain vital in debates over the best way to deal with specific situations in preservation.

The criterion of "obedience" concerns the importance of honoring and maintaining national traditions in architectural practice. Ruskin denounced the cultural irrelevance of designing buildings in exotic modes and deplored their deleterious effect upon the architectural environment. On the other hand, he did not favor static adherence to a particular historical moment of a national tradition but encouraged its continued evolution. He saw in such continuity the only way for a culture to remain true to itself. Meaningless to modernism, this tenet contributed considerable weight to postmodernist theory, as an antecedent authority.

Ruskin's predilection for Christian architecture of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance led him to posit the evaluation of architecture much more in historically cultural terms than had the theorists of the pagan classical tradition. Yet, like them, he couched his criteria in aesthetic terms, not recognizing that other desiderata in the modern age were competing for equal status as concerns of critical judgment. Because he was an analytical observer and not a designer of buildings, he did not discern that new planning assumptions would change the way buildings are evaluated and vitiate the need for an evaluative code in the theory of architecture. But Viollet-le-Duc was about to show how to do it.

Viollet-le-Duc saw the historical traditions of architecture first and foremost as having created rational solutions to design problems, not compositions prompted primarily by aesthetic impulses. The extent to which buildings are beautiful, he opined, is the extent to which the special problem each confronted was solved in an optimal way. Hence, for him, there was no need to evaluate the beauty of a building as an independent quality; beauty was simply the outcome of a rational analysis. So it is, then, that in his theoretical writing critical evaluation was addressed first to the interrelationship of the functional program and the structural design. The style of a design was thus interpreted as the by-product of this relationship. Style, he held, is something a completely rational scheme achieves by virtue of its correspondence to the needs of the project. The historical styles, on the other hand, are simply artificial intellectual constructs devised after the fact for purposes of formal classification.


To hypothesize how the first structure may have come into being is to identify the principle a theorist believes has animated the conception of architecture from the beginning of time. Vitruvius saw the first structure as a response to the needs of people who had come together in sociability following the discovery of fire. He recognized from the outset that there were different responses to the need for shelter, some people piling up leafy branches, others digging caves, and still others using logs. Indeed, the materials used and the resultant form, he surmised, were factors determined by geographical variations in climate, topography, and availability of materials. Thereby did he explain the distinctive formats of vernacular architecture in the different parts of the world that were in his ken. He regarded them all as having been determined by the laws of nature and the inherent qualities of available materials.

He attributed the evolution of a mature architecture from these beginnings to a gradual progression of little improvements made from one building to the next, innova tions that had been noted, remembered, and subsequently incorporated into new structures. Most importantly, he hypothesized for prehistoric Greece and Italy rude structures that could serve as germinal prototypes for the architecture of the classical orders. Drawing such a connection, it was important to him to be able to assert later in his text that the orders had been formulated in wood, employing a technology peculiarly appropriate to wood, and only afterward, for the sake of permanence, translated into stone. The value of this assertion was that he could justify the compositions of the Doric and Ionic orders, respectively, as having evolved from responses to nature and natural conditions, hence irrefutable as canonical formulations. In this connection it is significant that his account of the invention of the Corinthian capital hypothesized an imitation of natural and human-made objects, in a composition that had been fortuitously assembled and also discovered by chance in a natural setting.

Indeed, it was so crucial to Vitruvius to justify the orders with an origin in nature that he inserted a different but related argument into his explication of their mature formats. He drew a parallel between the elaborate system of proportions inherent in the orders and the natural proportions of the human body. The implicit justification was twofold. Because buildings are constructed for the sole purpose of being used by people, their relative measurements should be coordinated in a manner like those of people; second, because the incorporation of a system of proportions is parallel to an example in nature, its validity is beyond contention. The conclusion to be drawn is that both the basic composition and the proportional system of the orders are derived from responses to nature itself, an absolute standard that cannot be questioned. Vitruvius did not need to justify any further his implicit assumption that all buildings of great dignity, both sacred and civil, should employ the orders.

Ever after, when a theorist has needed to justify the forms of architecture, he has resorted to an argument based on the irrefutable authority of nature. Because Alberti took for granted that good architecture should employ the orders, he had no need to discuss the primitive hut or parallels in nature. And as long as theorists were happy with the way the use of the orders was evolving, they, too, could dispense with explanations. But by the middle of the eighteenth century, when Laugier wanted to break away from that evolution and return to the purely structural use of the orders in the manner of ancient Greece, it was necessary to return to the argument from nature.

Eager to promote directness and simplicity in the formulation of structure, Laugier posited a description of the primitive hut that made it the archetype of the classical temple, with tree trunks as columns, horizontal branches as entablature, and slanted branches as pediments and sloping roof. In the revised edition of his treatise, published two years after its initial appearance in 1753, he included a frontispiece in which this structural description was forthrightly illustrated (fig. 2-1). The image added considerable weight to his assertion that all the grandeur of the architecture of the orders was descended from this primitive building. The point that makes his argument different from Vitruvius's is that for him the orders were virtually inherent in nature (along with human proportions), hence divine in origin and irreplaceable in architectural practice. On the other hand, given that the orders had emerged from such a beginning, there is no reason why their development should not continue, even to the extent of creating new orders. Driving this principle of the natural rightness of the orders was his passionate belief that structure should be rationally formulated and that architectural composition should always reflect the way a building is put together.

Figure 2-1

Laugier's "primitive hut," frontispiece of his Essay on Architecture, in the revised edition of 1755.

Figure 2-1

Laugier's "primitive hut," frontispiece of his Essay on Architecture, in the revised edition of 1755.

Quatremère de Quincy, in L'architecture égyptienne, entertained yet a different concept of primitive architecture. He did not think in terms of a single beginning but, as in the case of languages, of multiple points of origin with different manifestations. He identified three fundamentally different types of primitive buildings (the cave, the tent, and the wooden hut), which he assigned to three different kinds of cultures (respectively, hunters, gatherers, and farmers). As regards materials—stone, fabric, and wood—the three types were responses to nature, like the hypothetical primitive architecture of the preceding theorists. But in terms of their formats, they were also reasoned responses to different lifestyles. With this formulation he secularized the myth of primitive architecture, which heretofore, through its putative origin in the laws of nature, had had a link to divinity. Posited in human culture rather than nature, this explanation associated their formation with national traditions. The history of architecture, then, became the evolution of different types initiated by different kinds of societies, each with its own peculiar operating system. They all had their value, albeit unequal, and Quatremère assigned greatest value to the tradition of the wooden hut and the classical orders.

Gottfried Semper, in Der Stil, regarded theories of evolution of architecture from primitive archetypes as materialistic and shallow. For him the forms of the Greek orders, his favorite tradition of architecture, were not pragmatic adaptations of functional forms but the transfer of aesthetic habits from older forms of human creativity, namely, the technical arts of ceramics, textiles, carpentry, and masonry. In a process closer to linguistic development than to domestic problem solving, the transfers were related to meaning rather than function. Tensile forms in structures were ascribed to textiles; forms made of malleable material hardened by drying under sun or flames to ceramics; sticklike forms to carpentry; compression-resistant forms made of aggregate material to masonry. Decoration, the dressing of a structural scaffold, was the aspect of architecture that gave it meaning and was the precondition of monumentality. The orders, then, were justified in terms of human culture.

Once the orders had been abandoned as the sine qua non of architecture, there was no further need for the concept of the primitive hut, with its appeal to some sort of absolute, to justify architectural form. Viollet-le-Duc, however, retained it for a different reason. As he hypothesized in Histoire de l'habitation humaine depuis les temps préhistoriques (Paris, 1875), the invention of structure in the form of primitive shelters—particularly the primitive hut made of wood and various secondary materials—could scarcely have begun in an ad hoc manner. Instead, its inception ought to be attributed to revelation from a superior consciousness, much like the mythical gift of fire. But from that point on there was a gradual but continual process of improvement through which the traditions of the great world cultures evolved. The basic point of his explanation was to make the development of architecture a product of rational analysis, combined with openness to change. Although he readily acknowledged that change, or "progress," in material culture has an impact on social values, he was fearless in the face of the new. Thus his primitive hut was employed to justify an outlook that accepted no eternal verities, such as the orders, but sought improvement through a continual process of experimentation.

In 1914, when Le Corbusier promulgated the Domino House as a universal prototype for modern structures, he might have been seen as reverting to the primitive hut as a paradigm. But in the event he implicitly justified it as a rational conception that demonstrated what was technically possible, not as a response to natural conditions. Frank

Lloyd Wright took a further step away. He had no use for the primitive hut in his theory, but he regularly appealed, particularly in the Autobiography, to comparisons with nature to justify his structural innovations. A notable example is the rigid-core high-rise building, with its floors can-tilevered from a central spine, which he likened to the branches of a tree extending from its trunk. Or, relative to the human form, he compared the fused rigid spine and hollow tube of his "Romeo and Juliet" windmill to the embrace of lovers. His oft-cited boyhood summers in the Wisconsin countryside became the pretext for finding justifications in the safe authority of nature.

Indeed, the analogy to nature in structural design remained the standard means for some twentieth-century theorists to seek unassailable justifications of their designs. Buckminster Fuller compared his use of the hexagon in geodesic domes to the geometric makeup of the units of a honeycomb. And Paolo Soleri, in his Arcology, cited the miniaturization of parts in the higher levels of biological species to justify the small unit spaces for individual habitation within the megastructural frames of his visionary designs for new cities. But in postmodern theory, after 1965, justification has been sought more often in human culture and technological means than in nature.

3 The Uses of the Past

Most important theorists have appealed to the architecture of the past in order to confer authority upon their dicta. From antiquity through the duration of the Renaissance tradition, the rules for correct usage were justified in the light of august architectural precedent. Then in the nineteenth century, with a new type of appeal to the past, theorists again looked to historical architecture for guiding principles. And in the twentieth, examples from the past have served as both aesthetic inspiration and critical control.

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