Why We Need a Third Architectural Treatise

by C.W. Westfall

Léon Battista Alberti, De re aedificatoria Florence, 1486, opening page, Book 1

Vitruvius famously opened the first treatise on architecture with the statement that architecture requires the interaction between practice (fabrica) and reasoning (ratio). The former takes its form in buildings, the latter in treatises. Now that the practice of traditional and classical architecture and urbanism has been firmly reestablished, it is time to take another look at the complement to practice. Two treatises have dominated theory. Vitruvius, writing in the first century A.D., wrote the first one.1 Leon Battista Alberti revised and reformulated that body of theory in the early years of antiquity’s restoration and renewal at the dawn of the modern age.2 Together, these two treatises present a comprehensive and rigorous theoretical complement to a rich and maturing practice in architecture. We know a little about the role of Vitruvius’ treatise before Alberti wrote his, and we know a great deal about the role they both played afterwards. To remain current they needed only fragmentary contributions or partial and respectful amendment to absorb new knowledge or to give theory a different emphasis. For example, Filarete3 sought to give a princely perspective that would counter Alberti’s republican bias, and both he and Francesco di Giorgio Martini4 restored and expanded Vitruvius’ comments about the anthropomorphic analogy Alberti had left implicit. Philibert de l’Orme5 adapted the full body of material to address conditions in France. Serlio, following Cesariano’s publication of Vitruvius, introduced images to supplement the text.6 And Palladio, knowing that his audience was familiar with the body of theory, wrote his in a kind of shorthand.7The treatises link buildings to the larger body of knowledge that an educated person ought to possess. Buildings and treatises provide complementary ways to investigate and comprehend the content and meaning of the stable, coherent, rational, moral universe within which individuals pursue their destiny, which is to “Know Thyself.”

The career of architectural theory resembles that of political philosophy. All the principles concerning man as a political animal that a person needs to know are encompassed in a few books by Plato and Aristotle. Subsequent writing on the topic has been based on experience that suggests amendments to that initial body of knowledge. Yet, while Aristotle’s Politics and Nicomachean Ethics are no longer adequate descriptions of the form political societies ought to take, they continue to provide valuable insights to anyone who seeks to live nobly, justly and well. Like political theory, architectural theory takes it as a given that the universe has a moral content, that the world man lives in is orderly and coherent in ways that are beyond comprehension, that man is endowed with the tools required to gain an understanding of the moral order that is adequate for his flourishing in the world, that revelation is compatible with reason, and that it is man’s fate and obligation to devote his natural gifts to fulfilling his duty to live abundantly and well in a just human society. But even before this understanding had reached mature form, philosophers such as Heraclitus had raised doubts about the validity of giving the continuity and rationality of the universe that lies outside perception superiority over its much more obvious and easily accessible discontinuities and unpredictability. These doubts remained submerged until a series of new discoveries made during the Renaissance.

The discoveries covered a wide range of topics. The potent combination of newly available ancient texts, the distribution of identical texts produced with the printing press and textual criticism led to doubt about whether we had exact knowledge of what Plato or Cicero said, much less what Moses or Paul had said. Wide ranging exploration turned up formerly unknown peoples and places with incomprehensible habits and ways of living together. Things previously invisible—what the telescope made visible in the heavens and the microscope revealed in everyday earthly things—shook the confidence people had in the adequacy of their knowledge about things they thought they knew well. New interpretations of ancient and modern theories about the structure of the physical universe and increasingly extensive and accurate observations about the movements of the heavenly bodies led, first, to a displacement of the earth from the center of the universe, then to contending theories about how those bodies behaved and why they behaved as they did, and then to the more serious question about where things terrestrial left off and things celestial began. Even the validity of the proportions that architectural theory said were necessary to instill beauty in the architectural orders, the principal ornament of architecture, was called into question when new, accurate measurements of ancient examples revealed that none of the examples that were considered models of beauty embodied those proportions. While Palladio and Vignola could present particular examples of the orders as illustrations of different forms of common beauty, Claude Perrault would present generic examples of the orders based on rules sanctioned by nothing more than the pleasure they customarily produced.8

Sebastiano Serlio, Tutte L’opere d’architettura Venice, 1537, Book IVThe Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns that engaged Perrault revealed that people had lost confidence in the received tradition and that they would seek certainty in more, and more accurate, data. Sir Isaac Newton used the twin pillars of precise, measurable observation and newly powerful mathematics to make the most impressive discoveries, because they led to the most accurate descriptions of how material bodies in the heavens and on the earth behave. He demonstrated conclusively that, if we have accurate information about the present configuration of things, we can predict the future configuration, both in the celestial realm where we cannot intervene and in the terrestrial where we can. Enthusiasts of Newtonianism, as it was called in the Enlightenment, undertook a program of stripping away received ideas and extrapolating the system of the natural sciences into the realm of the human sciences. The most successful reduction of architecture to minimalism was in Laugier’s presentation of the primitive hut as the model for the basis of all architecture.9 The most obvious and best-understood application of Newtonianism to architecture was in the field of statics, or structural engineering. Two other less direct applications were in historical studies, one of them becoming archaeology, the other anthropology. These focused on the origins of things—things closer to the beginning were thought to be more truthful, that is, more revealing of the essence or the nature of the thing. Whereas Renaissance architects believed that what Rome had achieved had more to teach than did the buildings that preceded the Romans, people with serious architectural interests for the first time now turned their attention to Greek buildings, making their first visits to well-preserved remains in Athens and Paestum in the middle of eighteenth century.10 This interest quickly spread to other non-Roman and even non-Mediterranean peoples and locales, although even ancient Rome got a reassessment by the discovery of a vast new range of things Roman when Pompeii and Herculaneum came to light during these same years.

By the end of the eighteenth century, people had available an ever-expanding body of precise information about ancient buildings by people akin to us, by others unaffiliated with us in any direct way and in remote places such as China and Polynesia, where people and things were utterly unfamiliar to us. This body of newly acquired accurate information was regarded as having qualities that were equal to, although incommensurable with, those that the received traditions of building and theory said were required for a good building. It was not long before the standards for what constituted a good building migrated from the concept of beauty resulting from judgment to that of accuracy based on reproducing approved precedent. Knowing the historical past became more important than knowing traditional theory.

To serve in this new role, history emerged from its subordinate role within theory to become an independent discipline. During the course of the nineteenth century, it became wedded to anthropology and took on a polemical edge. Historians organized the new information about the diversity of mankind in the present and the past into eras or ages, each with a distinct culture identified by a distinctive style composed of commonalities among a variety of artifacts, among which architecture occupied a prominent position. This new concept of culture was then hitched to various newly invented philosophical positions that Hegel, Comte and various Darwinians formulated to explain why people acted as they did and why the forward march of history would inevitably lead to mankind’s perfection on earth.11 The historical narrative presented each culture as unique; each has its distinctive style, and each style is “of its time.” If we adapt the style of some other time to our own time, we can associate our time with the cultural attributes of that time, a way of thinking that Geoffrey Scott identified as the Romantic Fallacy.12 The role that theory used to play in assisting the architect in rendering judgment about how to make a good building that satisfied the criteria of architecture was displaced by histories that taught him the proper, past styles and how to use them in the present.

In the early twentieth century people involved in architecture quite properly identified this nineteenth-century position, which produced an age of stylistic eclecticism, as a sham. In seeking a unique identity for their culture and an alliance with the idea of progress, they devised a style of their own so that their buildings would be “of their time.” To be “of its time” required that a building be unlike any building of any other time. Constantly changing time and the inevitable march of progress require ceaseless innovation. The old, whether in the form of fabrica or ratio, must be discarded in favor of the new. Now neither theory nor history would guide the architect. Instead, the manifesto appeared to point the way into the future that the architect was obliged to hurry into existence with a building that was a novel and “of its time.”13

The only survivor from traditional theory in the twentieth century was the Vitruvian trilogy of commodity, firmness and delight. It has gone largely unnoticed that Vitruvius presented these as conditions for building that must be satisfied before building can become architecture and that architecture has its own criteria, namely, symmetria, eurythmia and decor.14 The reduction of architecture to mere building occurred in accord with the extraction of architecture from among the liberal arts, or the arts of a person who enjoys and defends his free status in society, to being a building art, that is, a craft used to satisfy immediate needs with material means. Another victim was the concept of imitation, which was fundamental to the classical tradition. Despite the best efforts of Quatremère de Quincy15 through his important position in the École des Beaux-Arts, the distinction between imitating and copying was lost, and the copy became accepted because it was factual. The first comprehensive presentation of these positions was the handbook of J.N.L. Durand, based on lectures he presented between 1802 and 1805 at the École Polytechnique, which Napoleon had established to train engineers for his army and public works program.16 It is often cited as a foundational text of modernist architecture. In suffering this reduction from liberal artist to building artisan, the architect fell hostage to experts outside architecture. To satisfy commodity, he consults his client and the social scientist. For firmness, the engineer is the expert. And for delight, he depends on his own inclination and preference, or he responds to what be believes is required to produce a building that is “of its time,” something he learns by seeing what historians, critics and publishers are presenting as the architecture “of our time.” In all three fields the material he needs to know is so specialized, his knowledge cannot be as accurate and profound as that of these experts. He has become dependent on them, and what he knows as an architect about architecture necessarily takes second place. In this circumstance, what would be the point of architectural theory, much less of a comprehensive treatise?

But theory was not so easily dismissed. After the experience of the first half of the twentieth century proved that new architecture was incapable of delivering on its promise of perfection, architects sought a different liaison for building. They did not look at practice and the body of knowledge aimed at clarifying the role of man in the world, which is where theory had first originated and continued to flourish. Instead, they looked at one of two places outside architecture and building. One was at their own preference, hunches, inclinations, instincts and attraction, and defined whatever they liked as almost all right.17 The other was in the obscure (and therefore profound) musings of nihilistic philosophers.18 These sources provided theories that were de rigueur in the schools and in academic journals but useless in the professional offices, unless the architect was working for a client who was treating a building as simply an addition to a collection of art objects.

The outpouring of manifestos, histories and theories has produced a tremendous din, but it has not stilled the voices of reason that understand that ratio is a complement to fabrica and that theory is a guide to practice and a link to the larger body of knowledge that assists men to know themselves. One of the first to disregard the distractions and listen to the music of architecture was Thomas Jefferson. He had copies of both Vitruvius and Alberti, but he considered Palladio’s treatise the bible of architecture. These surely guided him in formulating the role architecture needed to be given in the new republic he was helping to found, as he set about producing a series of important buildings and city plans suitable for the new republic’s civil purposes and the unique American landscape.

Marc-Antoine Laugier, Essai sur l’Architecture Paris, 1753, frontispieceJefferson’s way of operating has persisted, even as his successors have pushed traditional and classical architecture forward while resisting the attractions of the concurrent modernism. The differences between the two positions are well defined by remarks made a century ago. In 1910 Adolf Loos delivered a lecture whose title would become a modernist maxim, “Ornament and Crime,” while only a few years earlier the American Institute of Architects’ Committee on Education said the American schools teaching architecture sought to produce “gentlemen of general culture with special architectural ability.”19

New buildings and urban projects, both in this country and abroad, attest to the vitality of the newly restored practice of traditional and classical architecture. But the buildings have yet to find their complement in theory. There have been profound contributions to the existing body of theory.20 But there is not yet a comprehensive treatment that does for the present age what Vitruvius did for the Romans and Alberti for the Renaissance. Those engaged in practice are therefore often left without strong moorings in theory when buffeted by the turmoil modernism carries in its wake.

Leon Krier, Architecture: Choice or Fate London, Andreas Papadakis, 1998, p. 33  No one treatise can encompass the full and complete body of knowledge about architecture. Vitruvius’ and Alberti’s come closest, although even a fragment or shorthand version can give access to it, as Jefferson learned by consulting his “bible.” In a telling passage, Vitruvius explained why this is so. When he surveyed the range of knowledge that the architect must possess, he observed, “…perhaps it will seem wonderful to inexperienced persons that human nature can master and hold in recollection so large a number of subjects.” He then continues: “When, however, it is perceived that all studies are related to one another and have points of contact, they will easily believe it can happen. For a general education is put together like one body from its members.”21

Some missing members can be filled in, but others must be present if the body is to have vitality, and that calls for a third architectural treatise. The topic that seems most missed today concerns the subject that moved Alberti to revise Vitruvius’ treatise, namely, the position architecture occupies in the moral structure of the universe. That topic formed the central core of both treatises, the one that gave coherence to all the other topics. Vitruvius’ universe was pagan, Alberti’s Christian, so Alberti had to revise Vitruvius’ treatise. Ours is different again, although like theirs, it is stable, coherent, rational and moral. Like theirs, it rests on the foundations of natural law. Nevertheless, it differs in that the moral framework of our political structure exists outside an established institutionalized religion. Still, in ours as in theirs, for Vitruvius, for Alberti, for Jefferson and for us, a building is a form given to a moral proposition. When architecture is not a moral proposition, it is mere fashion.22 The current renewal of traditional and classical architecture and urbanism is often dismissed as mere fashion. Only theory’s formulation of the moral content of architecture in the reality of the present day can refute that charge and support an enriched restoration and renewal of traditional and classical architecture and urbanism.


1. Vitruvius, De architectura, ed. and trans., Frank Granger (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press; Loeb Classical Library, 2 vols., 1933–35), is a standard en face edition; The Ten Books on Architecture, trans., Ingrid Rowland, with commentary by Thomas Noble Howe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) is a useful addition. For a recent study, see Indra Kagis McEwen, Vitruvius: Writing the Body of Architecture (Cambridge, Mass., and London: MIT Press: 2003).
2. On the Art of Building in Ten Books, trans., Joseph Rykwert, Neil Leach and Robert Tavernor (Cambridge, Mass., and London: MIT Press, 1988); written about 1452, first printed ed. 1485.
3. The complete, illustrated treatise of Antonio Averlino, called Filarete, from 1462, remained unpublished until a facsimile edition of one manuscript with translation appeared as Filarete’s Treatise on Architecture, trans., John R. Spencer, 2 vols. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1965).
4. Less a treatise than accumulations of notes and drawings from 1475 until his death in 1501, distributed in various manuscripts, it is accessible in Francesco di Giorgio Martini, Trattati, ed., Corrado Maltese, 2 vols. (Milan: Polifilo, 1967).
5. Philibert de l’Orme, Traités d’architecture: Nouvelles inventions pour bien bastir et à petits fraiz (1561), Premier Tome de l’architecture (1567), repub. (Paris: Laget, 1988).
6. Cesare Cesariano, trans. and commentary on Vitruvius, 1521, ed., Arnaldo Bruschi, Adriano Carugo and Francesco P. Fiore (Milan: Polifilo, 1981). Sebastiano Serlio’s treatise appeared serially, beginning in 1537, with Book IV devoted to the orders. The entire treatise is now available in English: Sebastiano Serlio, On Architecture, trans. and commentary, Vaughn Hart and Peter Hicks, 2 vols. (New Haven and London: Yale, 1996–2001).
7. Andrea Palladio, The Four Books on Architecture (1570), trans., Robert Travenor and Richard Schofield (Cambridge, Mass., and London: MIT Press, 1997).
8. Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola, Canon of the Five Orders of Architecture (1562), trans., with commentary by Branko Mitroviç (New York: Acanthus, 1999). Claude Perrault, Ordonnance for the Five Kinds of Columns after the Method of the Ancients (1683), trans., Indra Kagis McEwen (Santa Monica: Getty Center, 1993).
9. Marc-Antoine Laugier, An Essay on Architecture (1753), trans., W. and A. Herrmann (Los Angeles: Hennessey & Ingalls, 1977).
10. Dora Wiebenson, Sources of Greek Revival Architecture (London: Zwemmer, 1969).
11. David Watkin, Morality and Architecture (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977); 2nd ed. as Morality and Architecture Revisited (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).
12. Geoffrey Scott, The Architecture of Humanism, 1914 (New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1999).
13. See, for example, Henry Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, The International Style, 1932 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1966), p. 95. A number of manifestos from 1903 to 1963 have been conveniently collected in Ulrich Conrads, ed., Programs and Manifestoes on 20th Century Architecture, trans., Michael Bullock (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1970).
14. See Herman Geertman, “Teoria e attualità della progettistica architettonica di Vitruvio,” in Le project de Viturve, Actes du colloque internationale . . . 1993 (Rome: École Française de Rome, Palais Farnèse, 1994), pp. 7–30; and Mark Wilson Jones, Principles of Roman Architecture (New Haven and London: Yale University Press., 2000), esp. pp. 38–45.
15. See Samir Younés, The True, the Fictive, and the Real: The Historical Dictionary of Architecture of Quatremère de Quincy: Introductory Essay and Selected Translations (London: Papadakis, 1999).
16. Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand, Précis of the Lectures on Architecture (1802–05), trans., David Britt (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2000).
7. Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1966).
18. See, inter alia, Peter Eisenman, “The End of the Classical: The End of the Beginning; the End of the End,” K. Michael Hays, Architecture Theory since 1968 (Cambridge, Mass., and London: MIT, Press 1998), pp. 524–538, from 1984. He finds that the “underlying purpose” of representation in architecture “was to embody the idea of meaning; [of] reason . . . to codify the idea of truth; [and of] history . . . to recover the idea of the timeless from the idea of change,” which he then dismisses as fictions that have persisted from the fifteenth century down to the present, even in modernism, only to dismiss the fictions as simulacra, leading to the position: “Architecture in the present is seen as a process of inventing an artificial past and a futureless present.”
19. Adolf Loos, “Ornament and Crime,” Conrads, op. cit., pp. 19–24; the date of the 1910 lecture is often given as 1908; it was first pub. 1913. The AIA definition from 1906 is given in Joan Draper, “The École des Beaux-Arts and the Architectural Profession in the United States: The Case of John Galen Howard,” The Architect: Chapters in the History of the Profession, ed., Spiro Kostof (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 209–37, 217.
20. See in particular Demerti Porphyrios, Classical Architecture (London: Academy Editions, 1991) and Léon Krier, Architecture: Choice of Fate (Windsor, Berks.: Papadakis, 1998).
21. Granger, ed., op. cit., I, i,12.
22. At the conference at the University of Notre Dame where I made that statement, Michael Carey added the important proposition that, when it is mere fashion, architecture can easily become a form of cynicism. See my article “The Humanity of Monumental Architecture,” American Arts Quarterly, vol. XIX, no. 1 (Winter, 2002), pp. 9–14ff.