Vitruvius as the Model for Modernist Architects

by Carroll William Westfall

Classical and traditional architects honor the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius as their godfather. He is surely the most prominent face of classicism among the modernist architects who reject any connection with tradition. They may not recognize him as an important predecessor, but they certainly know the critical standards he introduced, ones that both professionals and laypeople use today. In the diction of a seventeenth-century translation, they read: “Well building hath three Conditions. Commoditie, Firmenes and Delight,” or satisfying a function, providing structural stability and giving pleasure to the eye.1 Vitruvius also divided the architect’s task into two parts, just as the mod­ernists do: the fabric, or the material part of the building, and ratiocination, the architect’s intellectual contribution that elevates a building above mere routine construction. Vitruvius had much more to say, but architects today are probably uninformed about it. And certainly they would not recognize that he is their model, not for how their buildings are to look, but for the service they render to those for whom they build, a similarity to be explored here.

Herbert Langford Warren, plans illustrating Book III, Chapter 2, Vitruvius, <i>The Ten Books on Architecture</i>,<br/>trans., Morris Hicky Morgan (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1914, reprinted New York: Dover, 1060).

Among the forgotten content of Vitruvius’ treatise De Architectura (c. 20 bc) are six criteria the architect is to address. Three of them—ordering (putting things in the proper places), composition (assembling the parts to make the whole) and allocation (managing the job)—concerned the work on the job site and prevail today, although with different names and an absence of the rules he provided. The other three criteria were stripped bare early in the changes that led to modernist architecture. One, symmetria, meant proportionality between a building’s composition and the order of cosmic nature; now symmetry is little more than bilateral equality across an axis and, occasionally, lip service to geometric regularity and proportions. The second, eurhythmy, burnished symmetria to make proportionality conspicuous, but modernist architects produce no proportionality to burnish. The third, decorum, calls for a larger comment.

Decorum unites architecture with urbanism and exhibits authority. Decorum uses the differences between buildings that exhibit common con­ventions and components to display the relative importance of the services they render to the authority resident in a civil order and serving the common good. Greek temples displayed the role of their gods in religious/civil life. The Romans also honored their gods with temples, and they added public buildings that served the civil affairs that bound citizens together—the basilicas, baths, theaters and triumphal arches that we think of when we picture Roman buildings. These were built after Vitruvius wrote, so he understandably says little or nothing about them.

To protect their cities from chaos, the ancients built temples as exhibits of cosmic order and perpetual pleas for their gods’ protection. A temple had always to present the correct aspect (aspectus, appearance), which required using a conventional composition and components with modifications address­ing variables such as its location and the specific deity it was to serve. The modification that eurhythmy made to symmetria would sharpen its imitation of the stable, eternal and unchanging proportionality of cosmic nature. This made it and the other buildings the visible counterpart to the state’s imitation of nature aimed at maintaining the stable order of the common good. The individual found delight in his individual acts, but he found a greater delight through his participation in the civil order that the gods bestowed on Rome. The delight that Vitruvius said well-building offered, whose Latin name was venustas, was a lesser delight, as was the delight offered by the word’s inspira­tion, Venus, only one of Rome’s numerous important deities.

The city, which was the ensemble of gods, buildings and people, required continued governing by the authority that resided in the Emperor Augustus. In his dedication to Augustus at the opening of his treatise, Vitruvius explained that the order and well-being of the state derives from acts based on his “divinely inspired intelligence” and “godly presence.” With this book you can “teach yourself how to evaluate works already brought into being and those yet to be.” Thus Vitruvius serves Augustus in the Roman patron-client social and political order that was based on inequality. The architect is always a client who does his patron’s bidding, and his buildings express the patron’s authority. 


The Architect in the Christian World


The Christian world adapted much of what it inherited from the pagans to serve its theology and purposes. The patron-client order meshed with the Judeo-Christian creation story: “In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth,” and “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” (Gen. 1:1, 31) Medieval authors recognized that it was also beau­tiful. God had made man in His image and likeness, and he retained his place among mortal beings on the pinnacle of the Great Chain of Being. Uniquely endowed with a soul that united him with his Creator, he was also uniquely equipped with reason, which he shared with God. This allowed people to per­ceive the goodness and beauty of God in things in the cosmic nature that God had created ex nihil, and to imitate creation to make things that united them with their Creator. Thirteenth-century authors sharpened the pagan doctrine of imitation by identifying two sources or models, the things that nature had made and the laws that nature uses to make them.2 They also sharpened beauty’s identity. St. Thomas Aquinas observed: “Only man delights in the beauty of sensuous things as such.” “[L]et that be called beauty the very perception of which pleases.”3 His word for beauty was not Vitruvius’ delight, but the more weighty word pulchritude, a word little used now so beauty will stand in its place in the text that follows here.

These medieval ideas found great importance in the treatise of Leon Battista Alberti (1404–72), the very figure of the Renaissance man. Treated as a recrudescence of Vitruvius’ treatise, it is much more an extensive revision and expansion—a modernization, in short—just as Renaissance buildings are of their ancient predecessors. Alberti’s first extensive treatment of beauty is well known. It is “that reasoned concinnity of all the parts within a body, so that nothing may be added, taken away, or altered, but for the worse,” and ornament makes it visible.4 Three books later, his less familiar second defini­tion identifies concinnity as “the absolute and fundamental rule of nature.” (9.5.303) Imitating concinnity moves beauty beyond the delight of visuality as the reasoning intellect grasps and the soul takes pleasure in (we would say finds happiness in) the perception of the order, harmony and proportionality of God’s creation and nature’s production of beautiful things, just as Aquinas had explained.

Equally important was Alberti’s revised role for the architect. In the princely Italian states, he could be Vitruvius for good princes, but in a self-governing republic where citizens enjoy liberty from external power and internal tyrants, he is a magistrate who uses his special talent to serve the public good and defend the republic’s liberty. Alberti also explained how to use imita­tion to make buildings for a republic in the absence of ancient conventions and precedents.

Alberti wrote as a Florentine republican, but Florence would succumb to princely government, leaving Venice as the last major republic until Napoleon crushed it in 1797. Alberti’s treatise appeared in 1485, the first one to be printed, but princes and their architects largely ignored its long, complicated and unillustrated text. In contrast, Fra Giovanni Giocondo’s handsome illus­trated Vitruvius, dedicated to Pope Julius II, was printed in 1511. This Latin edition became “one of the most influential books of the sixteenth century. It served as a fundamental basis for the practice of architecture in early modern Europe, and through its circulation among European merchants, colonists, and missionaries, for the rest of the world.”5 Translations and many more editions have followed down to the present day.

In the course of the Renaissance, God’s monopoly on creation was chal­lenged. Artists were said to extend God’s creation. Leonardo da Vinci used the word create rather than make. Pietro Bembo’s epitaph for the tomb in the Pantheon of Raphael, who died in 1520, tells us: “Here lies Raphael; by whom nature feared to be outdone when he lived, and when he died, feared that she herself would die.” And Michelangelo was considered divine even during his lifetime.

Raphael’s and Michelangelo’s works brought luster to their princely and papal patrons, and their successors wanted their artists to bring them similar renown. To train them, they sponsored academies that introduced the academic method that made major modifications to the classical theory of imitation.6


The Architect and the Academy


Michelangelo, details, Piazza del Campodiglio, ROme, from Georges Gromort, <i>The Elements of Classical Architecture, </i><br/>trans., Henry Hope Reed et al. (New York and London: Classical America, W.W. Norton, 2001), pl.28

Established in 1563, the Florentine Accademia del Designo incubated the aca­demic method.7 Giorgio Vasari contrived its program, which he based on the role of lines in Alberti’s 1435 treatise on painting. Lines produce the outlines of visible things that are then composed to depict bodies engaged in narratives within a fictive place produced by linear, geometric perspective and lit by light cast from a single source, producing shades, shadows and colors. The result is a forceful counterfeit (Vasari’s word) of what the eye can see. Line as drawing was the common denominator that unified the three arts of design (designo) that make representations of things. Alberti treated line very differently in his later treatise on architecture, but not so Vasari. Painting and sculpture use line to make their counterfeits of things in nature, but the architect works a little differently. He uses line to describe profiles and then passes the drawings on to craftsmen for execution. Here, and not in Vitruvius or Alberti, is the much-derided academic separation of the architect from the job site.

The academic method took hold in academies and in masters’ studios, where it replaced the imitation of nature with the emulation of canonic prec­edents.8 These are the works of earlier artists, with Raphael and Michelangelo as staples and others included in different times and places. Training begins by drawing the precedents and moving through ever-richer drawings to inventive emulations and original compositions.

Precedents have always been indispensable to artists. They provide a point of departure for new works, and they express the continuity in a tradition that is important in expressing the stability of the civil order’s authoritative institutions. For Vitruvius, precedents modeled the conventions that would give a temple the proper appearance (aspectus) that symmetria could adjust and eurhythmy burnish. Decorum assured that they would express the stability of the status quo’s hieratic order and validate the authority of patrons.

Alberti’s treatise and the Italian republics’ statecraft challenged the hier­atic authority that princes and popes claimed to possess on the basis of their descent from the legal order of the Roman Empire and that the emulation of precedents expressed. Alberti emulated precedents, but rather than drawing on those that expressed a long-standing status quo, he emulated those that served republican uses and, like the governing of the republic they served, imitated the proportionality of concinnity that is accessible through reason to adapt them to their civic roles and clothe the good with beauty. Emulation had neither the object nor the means to go where Alberti took imitation. The former cited the long-standing status quo, and the latter stressed the role of reason in uniting men of good will with one another. To paraphrase St. Augustine, emulation could bring concord and delight, but could not reach justice and beauty.

Thomas Gordon Smith, "A <i>tetrastylos, prostylos</i> Ionic temple...,"<br/>in Thomas Gordon Smith, <i>Vitruvius on Architecture</i> (New York:Monacelli Press, 2003).

Top-down authorities seek to preserve the status quo, and they control emulation’s precedents to shield them from challenges. In the early modern period, they used the three arts of design to validate long-standing doctrines of theology and statecraft. Over time, the validity was buffeted by skeptical, empirical challenges that gradually drove a wedge between the unity of what we now call the human sciences and the material sciences, and before long, the status quo faced serious challenges. New patrons with new objectives in mind for them, and especially for architecture, conscripted the arts of design. The role of God’s hand in men’s affairs and in His creation was gradually set aside. Imitation was dismissed as mere copying, and all restrictions on creativity were removed. Here we find what Professor Paul Oskar Kristeller called the “real turning point in Western thinking on what we now call ‘creativity’. …In the nineteenth century, this attitude became pervasive, and we might note with surprise that an age that found it difficult to believe God created the world out of nothing apparently had no difficulty in believing that the human artist would create his work out of nothing.”9

Architecture from Civic Art to Fine Art

Architecture lost its role as a civic art when it came to be treated as a repre­sentational art like painting and sculpture. Its alliance with the authoritative institutions of the civil order eroded. In the eighteenth century, it and the other two arts of design found themselves under no obligation to serve the status quo. They also lacked both the ability and the interest to use imitation to suggest reforms to authority and realign them with classical nature. They formed a club, the Fine Arts club, that was also known as the Beaux Arts, with music and poetry eventually admitted to complete the “irreducible nucleus of the modern system of the [fine] arts,” with a few others such as dance and theater occasionally accepted as associate members.10 Their object, increasingly, came to be seeking fame by providing delight to like-minded patrons who had the means to support them.

The arts had always had beauty as their object, but beauty now became unconnected to the good. It no longer made meaningful connections between people, nature and the good that reason could perceive. Beauty was now merely the feeling stimulated in those with refined taste by works based on custom. Its abode was in the eye of the individual beholder, and disputations could neither dislodge nor ensconce it. The older understanding of beauty was reduced to the general agreement that some things exhibited good taste lon­ger and more broadly than other things, and they could be called classics and exhibit the classical. But those were judgments of taste, and like le donne they were mobile, and like le donne, they served delight.

In the new, modern world, delight and its Vitruvian compeers, firmness and commodity, survived as vigorous performers, but more as soloists than as members of a trio. Delight, the most popular and versatile star, offered the delicate pleasures of beauty in the feelings with its brawny mate, the sub­lime, thrusting thunderous excitement directly into the emotions. Buildings gave delight for both the intellect and the sensations through the ever-enlarging cast of exotica from places far away in place and time. Explorers, merchants and adventurers displayed them, and historians catalogued them. Their sorting categories were based on formal properties called styles, orga­nized in a chronological narrative, with each style carrying the content of the era that produced it. This new contact with formerly foreign things gave delight in Romantic reverie and reflections on the putative content associated with the styles.

Associationism gained force when states used it to connect their present with the qualities they admired in an early era, a service made to order for emulation. Cities absorbed a number of buildings serving new purposes, with associationism identifying their roles—something Gothic for city halls, universities and churches, Renaissance or Baroque for opera houses and museums, ancient Rome for banks, courthouses and railroad stations. Styles were also used to associate the governments founded in the wake of the French Revolution with their national traditions and ambitions, with decorum displaying the ranking of their authoritative institutions.

The newly founded United States reached into the classical past for buildings that would express its ambitions. Thomas Jefferson used imitation to supervise his emulation of ancient and modern classical models. A century later, architects again turned to the classical tradition for the architecture and urbanism that would honor the nation’s founding principles and its claim on a larger role on the world stage. They benefited from the instruction given at the world’s premier school of architecture, the post-Napoleonic École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Its program synthesized the “form follows function” program first taught at Napoleon’s engineering school with the academician’s method of emulation, while drawing on a rich catalogue of precedents that could be adapted to produce the character desired by the patron. The École’s favored precedents carried imperial and national associations that validated the French government. The Americans chose precedents that recalled the unique classicism of the early Republic and the sources it drew on, and they concentrated more on evoking the proportionality of favored models and less on honoring the con­ventions and measurements of precedents that have come to play a more forma­tive role in the recent revival of traditional and classical architecture.

Firmness also reached for stardom. In his infatuation with primitivism, the Abbé Mark-Antoine Laugier (1713–69) stripped the accretions of civilization that had hidden the structural frame of the ur-type of all buildings, the primitive hut, and proclaimed it to be the model for all buildings.11 This reductionism opened the path to using the new technologies and materials spilling out from the maturing industrial revolution to support creative structural exhibitionism, at one extreme, and excuses for cheapness, at the other.


The Architect in Modernism


Commodity took up reductionism’s role by following the engineers’ “form follows function” recipe to authorize strict economy, either actual or feigned. Its literal use produces buildings that in the satirical taxonomy of Robert Venturi (b. 1925) are ducks, with the other category being reductionist decorated sheds.

Today, commodity quite sensibly has become the sine qua non for a building’s success among ordinary people who have given up trying to like what architects like. Not so the modernist culture of building, which is the clan of architects, critics, developers, financiers, owners, building officials, the related publishing and educational enterprises, and everyone else involved in the design, construction and maintenance of the urban and rural fabric. Its members believe that the aesthetic properties of the latest new thing trump commodity. It’s tough luck if ordinary people complain about hard-to-find entrances, labyrinthine pathways, disagreeable rooms, sealed windows, alien­ating surroundings, leaking roofs, snow cascading on innocent passersby, and so on. They travel, often quite far, to enjoy the beauty of surviving traditional buildings and cities, and when these are close at hand they fight to preserve them and gladly spend large sums to adapt them to modern uses and standards. Modernist buildings, few of which were built to last, are now becoming eligible for landmark status, and preservation officials, who have risen to positions of leadership in the decades that have been immersed in the modernist culture of architecture, are finding their preservation to be a “hard sell.”

Palladio, Villa Rotonda, Vicenza, from Palladio, <i>I Quatro Libri dell'architettura</i><br/>(Venice: Domenico de'Franceschi, 1570), Book 2, p. 19.

This same culture denigrates the rising output of traditional buildings as a response to mere “branding.” Treating traditional styles as branding was certainly a major impetus for the associationism that Continental states used to legitimate their authority. In the aftermath of the Great War, the bellig­erent governments were condemned for producing the war’s horrors, and so were the buildings that branded them. New governing systems were proposed or founded, and a new architecture was invented to brand them. In place of anything national and traditional, they installed internationalism and the products that history demanded in the new age in which authority would be found in historical imperatives emanating from the social and natural sciences and technology. On the ruins of war, we will build utopia! The dead hand of the past will no longer inhibit progress! Architecture or Revolution! Strip architecture of the formal accretions of two and a half millennia, and archi­tect-poets and architect-technicians in the modern age will use new materials and technologies to make buildings and cities as efficient as machines in the beckoning utopia!

With utopia’s arrival delayed, the modernist culture of architecture has found new patrons to serve. Modernist architecture has become the brand (one dare not call it a style) of globalized commerce and prosperity in economic systems ranging from socialist to capitalist, and of the scientific management of bureaucracies serving democracies, tyrannies and everything in between. Lesser architects, constrained by meager budgets, emulate the starchitects and their patrons who serve the avant-garde’s Fine Arts avatars whose work, as José Ortega y Gasset explained, “helps the elite to recognize themselves and one another in the drab mass of society and to learn their mission which consists of being few and holding their own against the many.”12 Why should the judgment of that drab mass, those ordinary people, the impediments to achieving utopia, be considered?

The builders using the brand were long ago taught to look only forward and never back. So said the theories that support modernism and the histor­ical narrative based on the English ur-text, Nikolaus Pevsner’s An Outline of European Architecture, first published in 1943. And they share their view of the past with that of the founder of a well-known brand, Henry Ford: “History is…tradition. We don’t want to live in tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s dam is the history we make today.”13

Pevsner used a now largely forgotten ancient trope that distinguished between building and architecture when justifying the creative independence of an architect. The difference between a bicycle shed and a cathedral, he wrote, is in the building’s“aesthetic appeal.” This goal frees the architect from the obligation to serve the common good and takes him through the gate whose motto is the one on Rabelais’s Abbey of Thélème: “Do as you wish.” Of course, he needs a willing patron with the authority and the means to realize his intent, but there is a wide range of them with ample access to both author­ity and means who are eager to share in the adventure. They run from public agencies that use tax funds for subsidized housing, build infrastructure, and construct courthouses and schools, to deep-pocketed corporations, developers and patrons of culture, whose desire for recognition is as great as the architect’s is for celebrity. All of them have the endorsement of the modernist culture of building.

In that culture, architecture is a Fine Art that dispenses with decorum and abandons its role as a civic art that serves the common good in order to allow the architect to produce what he believes has “aesthetic appeal.” He and his clients create buildings that are “of their time” and can take their appointed places in the narrative of progress that the history of architecture chronicles. Its motive force for progress is the zeitgeist that has produced what has been built and is now directing what is being built. It leads individuals to forsake their reason, which has been corrupted by the civilization that tradition trans­mits, and to obey history’s forces, as members of collectives such as states, bureaucracies and cultural institutions, or the profession of architecture, where the zeitgeist’s influences exert their irresistible force. Time marches on! You can’t stop progress! Architecture or Revolution!

Palladio, Villa Rotonda, Vicenza, from Georges Gromort, <i>The Elements of Classical Architecture, </i><br>trans., Henry Hope Reed et al., pl. 37, with measurements made in 1827.


This is specious ideology. Its authority is, for the modernist architect, what Augustus’ divine status was for Vitruvius. Like his ancient predecessor’s, his role is to validate the authority and preserve, not challenge, the status quo. His ancient predecessor’s service called for adapting long-sanctioned conventions for current use. His modernist successor’s service calls for using his “creativity” to serve constant change in the “aesthetic appeal” required of buildings that are “of our time” and that become instantly obsolete, until we reach the utopia lying beyond time’s horizon. Paradoxically, then, he is not free. He and his enabling clients are the subjects of tyrannical influences controlled by histo­ry’s irresistible imperatives. Their nemesis and opposite is architecture that is nourished by a tradition that they improve for current use and then pass on to benefit the future.

The modernist architect’s model is Vitruvius, obviously not for how his buildings look, but for his obedience to a tyrannical patron. Vitruvius’ only option was to serve his divine imperial patron. The modernist architect does have the option to reject the modernist ideology. In the modern era, he can act as a free person and embrace liberty as he pursues his happiness in civil arenas by contributing his special talents to the common good—by making beautiful buildings in cities where people work together to fulfill their aspiration to live nobly and well.


1. Henry Wotton, The Elements of Architecture (London: John Bill, 1624; facsimile reprint Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1968), 1; italics original. All later cita­tions are to Vitruvius, Ten Books on Architecture, trans., Ingrid D. Rowland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) with occasional modifications.

2. Henry A. Lucks, “Natura Naturans—Natura Naturata,” The New Scholasticism 9 (1935), 1–24.

3. Summa Theologica in Władysław Tatarkiewicz, History of Aesthetics, 3 vols., ed., J. Harrell, trans., Adam and Ann Czerniawski (The Hague and Paris: Mouton; and Warsaw: PWN—Polish Scientific Publishers, 1970), II, 259, note 9, 258, note 2.

4. Leon Battista Alberti, On the Art of Building in Ten Books, trans., J. Rykwert, N. Leach and R. Tavenor (Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT Press, 1988), 6.2.156; substituting concinnity for harmony to render the Latin ratione concinnitates. Consult also Alberti, L’architettura (de re aedificatoria).Latin text and Italian trans. by Giovanni Orlandi, 2 vols. (Milan: Polifilo, 1966).

5. Ingrid Rowland, “The Fra Giocondo Vitruvius at 500 (1511–2011),” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 70 (2011), 285–89; 285.

6. Władysław Tatarkiewicz, A History of Six Ideas: An Essay in Aesthetics (The Hague et al: Martinus Nijhoff, and Warsaw: PWN- Polish Scientific Publishers, 1980), 273.

7. Still useful is Nikolaus Pevsner, Academies of Art Past and Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1940), 35–6; 49; 54–66. Vasari’s theoretical comments are brief and divided. The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, trans., Gaston du C. de Vere, ed., Philip Jacks (New York: Modern Library, 2006), “Preface to the Third Part” and Vasari on Technique, trans., Louisa S. Maclehose (New York: J.M. Dent, 1907; reprinted New York: Dover, 1960), “On Painting,” Chapter 1, 74–75.

8. The program is set out clearly in David Mayernik, The Challenge of Emulation in Art and Architecture (Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate, 2013).

9. Paul Oskar Kristeller, “Afterword: ‘Creativity’ and ‘Tradition,’” in Renaissance Thought and the Arts (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 274–78; 250.

10. The standard treatment is Paul Oskar Kristeller, “The Modern System of the Arts,” in Renaissance Thought II: Papers on Humanism and the Arts (New York, Evanston and London: Harper Torchbooks, 1965), 163–227.

11. Marc-Antoine Laugier, An Essay on Architecture, trans., Wolfgang and Anni Hermann (Los Angeles: Hennessey & Ingalls, 1977).

12. José Ortega y Gasset, “The Unpopularity of the New Art” (1948), in The Dehumanization of Art and other Writings on Art and Culture (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, n.d.), 7.

13. Quoted in Charles N. Wheeler, “Fight to Disarm his Life’s Work, Henry Ford Vows” Chicago Daily Tribune (May 25, 1926), 10.

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2015, Volume 33, Number 2