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A Critical Response to Vitruvius & Alberti

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Throughout history, the makings of an architect have changed by stark proportions and so did the requirements of the finished creation. Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (80 B.C.E), famously known as Vitruvius, wrote in The Ten Books on Architecture of how the architect must possess wide knowledge and expertise in many fields of study, and that his buildings must encompass firmitas [durability], utilitas [usefulness], venustas [beauty] (Vitruvius, 33) and harmonious symmetry that of which is found in nature and in man. Leon Battista Alberti (1407-1476), however, stresses in his book Art of Building in Ten Books that the architect should have sufficient skill in both art and mathematics, and that constructions should meet the requirements of man, be of utmost utilization, and have an aesthetic appeal. Modern day architecture can be seen as a hybrid of these mandates. Some annexed, and some abandoned. Vitruvius strictly states that an architect ought to have the ability to draw and sketch, and have a sound understanding of geometry. He continues that an architect must also possess thorough knowledge of history, philosophy, music, medicine, principles of law, and even astronomy for “we find the east, west, south, and north…the heavens, equinox, courses of stars” (Vitruvius, 36).

This mandate in itself is overtly existential; for in Vitruvius’ era, astronomy was greatly popular and considered an important field of study. Apart from art, math and physics, the fields of study that Vitruvius mentioned would not be conducive to architecture today, at all. Compared to modern civilization, Vitruvius’ social setting was still a primitive one, even to Alberti’s. It is this time period conflict that urges Vitruvius to state in his treatise that the architect must be all-knowing. The rudimentary beginnings of modernized architecture around that time would pressure prospective architects to acquire knowledge from a plethora of fields, in order to perfect their skill, and deploy unto society their expertise. Vitruvius’ understanding is that the architect must be aware of every aspect of his creation, whereas today, these aspects are met by separate entities. Vitruvius also stresses on order, arrangement, eurhythmy, symmetry, propriety and economy and how
architecture depends on these demands.

This is not the case in today’s society. With advances in physics and construction sciences which allow buildings to be of asymmetrical shape and attain an abstract form directly places it in conflict with his stated ‘Eurhythmy’. To Vitruvius, all facets of architecture were to be in a state of complete harmony, as his views were so constrained towards the perfection of the human body. He described the various proportions of limbs and other body parts to be so accurately symmetrical and coordinated to meticulous detail. This perfection of the human body inspired architectural designs. In contemporary society, mainstream architecture has little to no correlation with the human body. It has been kept completely separate. Architectural inspiration today, more or less stems from everything outside the human, and looks towards a futuristic simplicity and sleek aesthetic that demands a different approach to the art of a building altogether. This commercial mindset has been influential since the engineering breakthroughs of the second millennium.

As for Alberti, he holds the architect on a very noble and high ground of esteemed public admiration and respect. His views state that if it were not for the architect, society would not have congregated the way it did. Communities had formed because of a roof and walls. He goes on to say that it was the architect who brilliantly designed everyday constructs, things to keep humans healthy and fed, as well as monumental creations which garner peoples’ worship and prayers. He stretches the architects usefulness to that of war machines and devices that assist in siege. In conclusion, the architect has paved the way for entire pathways to lead to new lands and provinces. His premise mostly revolves around the architect and his efficacy, his abilities to provide society with homes, protection against unfavourable weather; making it possible for travel and trade, health, and assist in defense against external threats. He constituted ideologies of architecture as rendering the harmony, variety and beauty found in nature. Alberti had a mid-Renaissance upbringing. This was the prime time for an emerging architect, or a disciple of any of the arts.

Since the Renaissance was at its intensity during the mid-1400s, Alberti himself was a Renaissance man, and as mentioned before, he excelled in many fields of art and knowledge. His understanding of contemporary architecture in the 1400s served not only to housing people, but more than that. The architect was a civil servant who graciously donated his capabilities to all aspects of the development of a society and its communities. The architect therefore, was his own Renaissance man, in that, he is a man possessing not an expertise in many fields, but, using his architectural skill to serve many purposes. Alberti stressed and personally lamented on how the architect ought not to have expertise in history, philosophy, astronomy, medicine, law and music, but only art and mathematics (Alberti, 59). Interestingly enough, this 15th century disposition on the architect still holds true today. Modern architects use art, math and creativity, along with problem solving to translate plans and building proposals into finished creations of dynamic proportions. Modern architects also go by both Vitruvius and Albertis common grounds on practice, trial, error, and experience.

The principles of architecture and the makings of an architect have been passed down and rewritten from generation to generation. Vitruvius and Alberti may have had different views on principles, which were centuries apart, but one certain element that is and was omnipotent throughout the life of architecture, is the passion for the art and its translation from paper to earth in the form of a constructed, finished, building. Architecture is an age old art form that has been revamped and re-explored so numerously throughout history, that no matter how diverse the field has blossomed, architecture remains a true ancient art form that will always embody one of human beings’ greatest achievements.

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