“We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.”
(Winston Churchill to the House of Commons, 28 October 1943)
Churchill’s famous words express how profoundly the built environment affects us. But what shapes the architects who design our environments?
One main influence: books.
For over 500 years, since Gutenberg’s printing press created an architectural mass culture, architects have learned from and been inspired by books. A handful of these managed to exert great influence, to shape their worlds and those who inhabited them.
Below are 8 books which shaped the built environment, and the human condition.
1. On Architecture (Vitruvius): Ca. 15 BC
All but one of these books were published and began exerting mass influence soon after being written. The exception is On Architecture, written by Roman architect Vitruvius about 15 BC. More than a millennium passed before it impacted the development of Western architecture.
On Architecture is also called The Ten Books On Architecture because (you guessed it) it contains 10 chapters, each on an aspect of Roman building design, town planning, and what we would refer to today as civil and mechanical engineering. Vitruvius left us a singular first person account of the architecture of classical antiquity.
But, Vitruvius not only provided a historical record, but also created the first Western theory of architecture. The pillars of this theory are the Vitruvian Triad – the three essential virtues of good architecture:
- Commodity (functionality)
- Firmness (structural soundness)
- Delight (beauty)
On Architecture reemerged during the Renaissance when it was published for the first time, in the late 15th century. It deeply influenced the key architectural treatises that came out of that period, such as On the Art of Building (Leon Battista Alberti) and The Four Books of Architecture (Andrea Palladio) and others. These books established the principles of classical architecture which prevailed in Western architecture through the 19th century.
In addition to providing a systematic overview of the utilitarian aspects of building construction, On Architecture provided Western architecture with a language: the classical orders. The orders were pre-modern architecture’s poetics – symbolic forms which extended the meaning of a building beyond the utilitarian, into the realm of an art form.
2. Wasmuth portfolio (Frank Lloyd Wright): 1910
For four centuries classicism ruled Western architecture. But, by the early 20th century classicism was challenged by modernism, with books by early modernists leading the way.
In 1909 American architect Frank Lloyd Wright toured Europe. While there, he promoted the Wasmuth portfolio, a set of lithographs of his work. This publication exerted a deep influence on the European architects who founded modern architecture.
The Wasmuth portfolio is not a written treatise but it expresses its thesis plainly and seductively. Many of the principles of modern architecture were inspired by the principles illustrated in the Wasmuth portfolio.
Wright wrote prolifically, many of the published writings were highly influential. Wasmuth is significant because of its timing – it arrived on the cusp of Modern architecture.
3. Towards a New Architecture (Le Corbusier): 1923 and 1931
Towards is a collection of essays previously written by Le Corbusier, and as such lacks the topical logic of Vitruvius’ book. However, it impacted the architectural intelligentsia of the early modern movement, just as On Architecture swayed the architects of the Renaissance 5 centuries before.
Towards contains a set principles which continue to influence architecture through today:
- Architectural technology should draw from and keep up with engineering technology
- The beauty of a building derives from its abstract volumetric form, unadorned by style-based ornamentation
- The surfaces of a building should be sparely articulated in order to make its form legible
- The exterior form of a building should follow its interior spatial organization
The International Style was the first of a series of books published in conjunction with architectural exhibitions at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). These exhibitions and their companion books contributed to the succession of modernist movements which swept the 20th century.
The International Style introduced Americans to the work of Le Corbusier and other European modernists including Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. Its set of principles draws strongly from those of Towards a New Architecture. It lead to a style of architecture of the same name.
However, where Le Corbusier and other modernists declared architectural style dead, Hitchcock and Johnson recuperated it. They argued that the new modern architecture was itself a new style. This new style would be universal, global – international.
The International Style refined the modernist principles of Towards, while adding a few new ones:
- The loadbearing wall should be replaced by the light frame
- Structural and enclosure systems should be independent in order to allow for an open (“free”) plan, free of structural supports
- Surfaces should be smooth and continuous, like abstract planes
- Asymmetry should replace symmetry
In Part 2: 4 more architecture books which shaped the architects who shaped our built world.
© Donald E. Armstrong and Material Practices, 2013