Beauty in Building
Posted on January 8, 2015
My web page opens with the words Firmitas, Utilitas, Venustas. I’ve been told it sounds too academic; too aloof. I’ll probably change it one day. But as an architect, these Latin words have real meaning; in English they translate to Firmness, Commodity, & Delight; passed down by Vitruvius, master architect of ancient Rome, these were the three basic tenants for building architecture, and for centuries architects were devoted to them. Architects felt no need to question their logic, for they seemed to make perfect sense – we must build buildings that last, are practical, and are beautiful. Common sense.
If there was one thing the Romans were not, it was innovative. Their customs, institutions, and arts, were all in fact borrowed. But what the Romans excelled best in was refinement. Over thousands of years they continued to refine their military, their education and political systems, their engineering and their arts until they were perfected. This canon of architecture; Firmitas, Utilitas, and Venustas remained the principle for building for thousands of years, and for many subsequent generations of architects after the fall of Rome- the result; lasting, useful and beautiful architecture; cities like Rome; like Paris.
For the most part, this framework no longer exists in the lexicon of building today. Schools don’t teach it. Architects don’t use it. Those simple “Vitruvian” rules gave way to modern contradictions such as “form follows function” or, “a house is a machine to live in”, and so on, and so on. If there is a modern canon for training architects to design buildings today it would be just one- innovation.
Architects devoted to these ideals are focused on one thing- being different; being next. Function often doesn’t enter the conversation, and the fact that they chase the latest trend means that it is impossible for their work to be lasting, for they are immediately dated once the next next thing comes along.
I once heard a citizen question a renown architect’s design as not being beautiful or charming and the response was “why would we want to do that? That would be nostalgic!” I went home and looked up the word ‘nostalgic’, since I have never known it to be a bad term. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines Nostalgia as, I quote: “Pleasure and sadness that is caused by remembering something from the past and wishing you could experience it again.” In other words, what the ‘Starchitect‘ was telling us, was that we wouldn’t want to return to that which was good or memorable.
Today we are challenged to create beauty, or for that matter, understand any common definition for what beauty really is. We sense it. We react to it. We are comforted by it. But as our institutions, our artist and our architects deny it, we will continue to be wandering in the wilderness. For without a common commitment to beauty we will continue to fragment our sense of culture and our knowing of who we are. As long as every architect and every artist attempts to redefine by their own definition that meaning in human expression, what we create as a whole, will be meaningless.