The ‘Vitruvian’ Architecture Critic

One of the best ways to appreciate architecture is to be a critic. In this regard, appreciating architecture can be compared with watching a reality television show or a sporting event for the first time. Until you form an opinion or back a team, it can be very difficult to engage with. But how exactly should one form an opinion and what makes a building good or great?

The common starting point for accessing buildings is the ‘gut feeling’ or initial impression. This is the superficial yes I like it, or no I don’t. Sadly for many this is where their discovery ends without further analysis or an answer to the most pressing question of why they feel this way. However for those who wish to get more out of architecture, this is my advice. Meeting a new building can be like meeting a new person, so fixating on your first impression may not be helpful in understanding them. Don’t get me wrong, first impressions are important, but buildings, like people are complex, so they should never be used as the final measure.

Once the introduction is over, a more structured ‘get to know you’ is the normal social convention. For people we may ask, what they do for a living? do they have a big family? or how old they are? (in certain circumstances).  For buildings the questions should be similar; what is the building’s job, does it have sibling buildings of the parent architect or movement and when was it built. (Buildings rarely pour water over you for asking the last one). This level of understanding is normally enough for the tourists when it is combined with a history story about the life and times of the building or the challenges of its construction. But how does one go about a deeper analysis, to form a true opinion on a piece of architecture?

The truth is that there are many approaches which can be taken, but for me I like to take it back to the guy who wrote the ten books on architecture, Vitruvius. You are probably already familiar Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Vitruvian Man’ drawing, which depicts the human scale within a square and a circle. What you may not know however, is that da Vinci was drawing ideas first written down by Vitruvius in the first century B.C.

Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man

Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man is based off the first century writings of Vitruvius



So how did Vitruvius analyse architecture? He wrote that buildings needed to possess three things, firmness, commodity and delight.

Firstly firmness is the ability for a structure to remain standing. In today’s society we take structural engineering for granted.  What is rarely appreciated however is the innovation and technology within engineering which provides unprecedented ability to span great distances and create unique spaces. The contemporary master of this is Santiago Calatrava, whose buildings and structures are some of the most breathtaking on the planet.

The importance of ‘firmness’ in the first century BC was in my view also linked with permanence. In the 21st century whilst we have virtually conquered structural stability, we are just coming to terms with permanence resulting from sustainability.

Santiago Calatrava's Liege-Guillemins TGV Railway Station in Liege Belgium

Santiago Calatrava’s Liege-Guillemins TGV Railway Station in Liege Belgium

The second Vitruvian requirement of architecture is commodity. This criteria refers to how well the building houses all the functions that are required of it. For an office building, does it facilitate a productive workplace? Is the internal environment pleasant? For a hospital does the design allow for efficiencies in treating patients and help patients regain wellness?

The final Vitruvian criterion is delight. This is the artistic wow factor which inspires and affects us on a deeper level. The methods for producing this wow factor are as varied as art itself and therefore present the greatest opportunity for debate.

So the next time you look at a building, get beyond the first impression and ask yourself some questions. Does the building convey a sense of delight? Have the practical requirements of the commodity dominated the design or is it the reverse? Will the building be there in 100 years time?

Architecture is for everyone



About Michael Smith

Architect and Director of Atelier Red + Black based in Melbourne, Australia
This entry was posted in all posts, Free architecture, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The ‘Vitruvian’ Architecture Critic

  1. Robyn says:

    Thank you Michael. Enjoy the challenge of looking at buildings in a new light! It is something we should take into all areas of our life

  2. Pingback: 2012 Retrospective | The Red and Black Architect

  3. The best thing is still that when you want to create a great building, non of the three conditions should be dominating the other two, you should seek the perfect balance…
    Thanks for the nice blog, you inspired me !
    I live in Brussels so it is very nice to hear you like the railway station of Calatrava 🙂

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