Friday, August 14, 2015

Why should we care about construction? Part 2

Virtruvius and his influence
Vitruvius’ Ten Books on Architecture had a profound influence on architectural and artistic practice in the Renaissance. Further, within his discussion of the practice of architecture, there are many instances where the human figure becomes the underlying template for design. Writing on the design of columns, Vitruvius stated:

When they discovered that for a man, the foot is one-sixth his height, they applied this ratio to the column, and whatever diameter they selected for the base of the column shaft, they carried its shaft, including the capital, to a height six times that amount. Thus the Doric column came to exhibit the proportion, soundness, and attractiveness of the male body.[1]

In Vitruvius, we see something very different from a literal translation of the look of the figure and/or its outwardly appearance as applied to a temple. Rather, underlying proportional principles are used as the basis for linking two radically unlike things. Vitruvius goes one step further in identifying each type of column (Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian) as specifically manifesting different bodies (male, female, and girl). This isn’t to say that the columns take on representational attributes of either, but rather the proportional schema shifts in each, projecting an ideal connected with those types. The columns, in essence, become idealized forms distilled from an abstract essential specific to each figure or body type.

As a side note, we might think of Plato’s thoughts as foundational to the way Vitruvius’s columns align the viewer with a rational order via the abstraction of figurative properties into the simple geometric language of the column. While Vitruvius’s thoughts on the column orders give a very direct picture of the relationship between the human body and building, his thoughts on proportion are still more encompassing. To this point, Vitruvius stated that proportion

consists in taking a fixed module, in each case, both for the parts of building and for the whole, by which the method of symmetry is put into practice. For without symmetry and proportion no temple can have a regular plan; that is it must have an exact proportion worked out after the fashion of the human body.[2]

Thus, all proportion is derived from the human body. Further, this system of proportion is achieved the same way as in architecture, through the organization and assessments of units realized under a larger plan. For Vitruvius, and the Renaissance artists that follow, it is not just the large design of the figure which organizes a floor or elevation view of a building, but also the design of smaller parts and how they speak in concert to the whole. With a consistent line from Plato to Vitruvius showing an emphasis on mind and the rational ordering of proportion, we can now look to Alberti, one of the first Renaissance architects to practice/theorize this.

In his study and translation of Vitruvius’s work, Alberti (the first to translate Vitruvius, making his thoughts available to other Renaissance artists capable of reading latin) takes much from his thinking, allowing it to influence his ideas of beauty, design, and proportions. While not always in complete agreement with Vitruvius, Alberti does share a strong connection expressed in his thinking of concinnitas. Alberti defines this idea as “a harmony of all the parts … fitted together with such proportion and connection that nothing could be added, diminished, or altered for the worse.”[3] This idea comes to stand as paramount to Alberti as a way of composing form and proportion consistent with antiquity. While beauty is a concept intimately paired with reason, it is also developed and abstracted from existing principles observed in nature. Regarding the body more directly, Alberti states:
Beauty is a form of sympathy and consonance of parts within a body, according to a definite number, outline and position, as dictated by a concinnitas, the absolute and fundamental rule of nature.[4]

Here, Alberti points to a universal principle in his statement on beauty consistent with the concerns of Vitruvius and Plato. According to this governing rule, proportions are translated into geometric forms, which are then translated to human qualities, and these human qualities are then taken into that of architecture. It is this idea of concinnitas, as Alberti’s governing ideal, which allows for this practice to function as something common to all subjects depicted. Specifically important here is that Alberti is consistently drawing on and creating through the formal language of this aesthetic outlook. While he may be observing a body, façade, archway, etc., what matters is that they are all speaking to a larger ideal from which his artistic practice may be thought to originate from.

The thread of Platonic thought that runs from Vitruvius to Alberti appears throughout artistic thinking in Renaissance works in some form or another. With an emphasis on geometry, harmony, and proportion, beauty becomes a quality not found in the material of artworks, but rather in the conceptual plan the artist brings to it. The idea or ideal of beauty is pre-existent in the mind of the artist and thus something applied across subject matter and practices. In essence, from Platonic thinking via Vitruvius to Alberti, a form language is synthesized between the natural world and man’s rational capabilities in pointing to the Divine. This form language permeates Renaissance architecture, and as I will hope to show in the next entry, is also active in anatomical dissections as well as abstractions of the human figure.

[1] Vitruvius Pollio, Vitruvius: Ten Books on Architecture, trans. Ingrid D. Rowland (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 55.
[2] Ibid.,72.
[3] Leon Battista Alberti, On the Art of Building in Ten Books, trans. Joseph Rykwert, Neil Leach, and Robert Tavernor (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988), 422.
[4] Ibid., 422.


Ashok said...
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Ashok said...

Arch history is rich with "human" dimensioning. Frank Lloyd Wright used to design ceiling heights as high as his arm would reach (7'6"). A little more client centric and scientific, Le Corbusier came up with a human based proportion scheme - Le Modulor .

When I was a young practicing architect, my mates and I used to carry around a 1/4" scale template of the modulor when I designed homes. Eventually we would all put the templates on the shelf as the proportions became instinctive. said...

Excellent! Thanks for chiming in with that.