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History Seminar I:

Western Architectural Theory from Antiquity to the Renaissance

Professor Alberto Perez Gomez

14th, October, 2011

Menatallah M.A. Hamdy


On the Art Of Building in ten BOOks

‘The origin of building came from the need to settle down to rest in a safe, suitable and agreeable place. Allocating different places for different uses within the settlement, build roof as shelter from sun and rain, walls to support the roof, make openings to allow entry for social gatherings and let in sunlight and breeze, while letting out unwanted moisture and vapor.’

Book I


The first book is concerned with the design and planning part that takes place before the building process. The Art of Building is said to consist of six elements: 1) the locality, defined as the land surrounding the prospective building, known today as the site; 2) the area, defined as any surface within the building ‘on which our feet may tread’, including open and enclosed spaces; 3) compartition, which is dividing up the area into smaller area for different uses, so that the building maybe considered as ‘being made up of close fitting smaller buildings’; 4) the walls, includes all vertical structure that rises from the ground upwards in order to support the weight of the roof, or which acts as screens to provide privacy for different parts within the buildings; 5) the roof, the uppermost part of the building which ‘fends off the rain’, as well as whatever is ‘extended in length and breadth above our heads’ such as ceilings, vaults, arches; and finally 6) the openings, defined as anything within the building ‘affording entry or exit to man or thing’.

He proceeds to explain the main merits and vices of each of those elements, starting by the locality and area. Alberti prefers those which are easily accessible all year round for provision, and which are of moderate climate, and arguing that valleys and lowlands are the worst for fear of floods, violent winds and unhealthy air. ‘The next most convenient are the sunniest parts of snowy countries or the most moist shady zones of arid sun burnt regions.’ Internal volumes (compartitions) of the building, he says, must reflect the same degree of grace and beauty as that apparent from the outside, but must differ in shape and size, ‘variety is always the most pleasing spice’ and ‘Just as in music where the deep voices answer high ones, and intermediate ones are pitched between them, so they ring out in harmony, a wonderful sonorous

balance of proportion results, which increases the pleasure of the audience and captivates them; so it happens in everything else that serves to enchant and move the mind.’ Of columns, he argues that we must not feel obliged to follow the classical tradition but must ‘strive to produce our own inventions, to rival or if possible, to surpass the glory of theirs.’ Alberti believes that columns were first made to support roofs, but thinks that ‘it is remarkable that mortals, once they had developed a passion for nobler things, grew concerned to construct buildings that would be permanent, and as far as possible immortal.’, hence the use of such tough stone as marble to build them. After that he argues that roofs or coverings are the best way to protect and prolong the life of a building and therefore must be fabricated with meticulous care, to ensure that rain water never finds its way through the roof buy constantly maintaining and checking it, saying that ‘nor have so many Buildings been destroyed by Fire, Sword, War, by Multitude of Enemies, and all other Calamities put together, as have tumbled down for no other reason that of human neglect.’

The part about the stairs is rather interesting, because he considers stairs to be either a ramp or steps and, unlike in the case of columns, he uses the classical ways as reference. In building ramps, he observed, the ancients built them approximately one to six parts to maintain an easy and gentle climb; while of steps he says that they always preferred an odd number in steps of temples, to ensure entry with the right foot which was considered more religious. Resting places (landing) the best architects placed on the seventh or ninth step, Alberti speculates that this represents the number of planets or the heavens. Their importance:

for the weary, the infirm to rest, and to give a place for those who happen to stumble on ascending to check their fall, and to recover and gather themselves.

Book VI

On Ornament

Ornament may be defined, according to Alberti, as a ‘form of auxiliary light and complement to beauty’; whereas beauty is fundamental or inherent while ornament is an addition or attached to that beauty. Building, he says, enjoyed her first gush of youth in Asia, as the kings with no lack of resources competed in building enormous works until the competition led them to the folly of building the pyramids. This art flowered in Greece, who began their work by examining the works of the Assyrians and the Egyptians, from which they realized that the artist’s skill attracted more praise than the king’s wealth. Eventually the art of building reached her glorious maturity in Italy.

Beauty and ornament in everything are attributed to the inventing intellect, the hands of the craftsman, or from nature. Book VI is mainly a recount of different ways to move large stones from one place to another or to great heights using pulleys, wheels and leavers; then he explains how revetments are made by three layers of plaster and plaster and preferably fixed with wooden splints rather than the more protruding brass nails. The roof is a prominent part of the building, is usually adorned at the gables (pitched roof), eaves (attics) and corners; using spheres, garlands, statues, and so on.

Apertures (openings) are also considered an ornament, since they lend dignity and gracefulness to the appearance of the work. However, false apertures are often used for decorative and strengthening purposes. There are two kinds of false openings, the engaged: which stands as part of the wall where it appears as if half of it is concealed behind the wall; and the detached, which stands completely separate from the wall like those of a portico. The column however is the principal and most prominent form of ornament, its vertical grace and dignity makes it a beauty to look upon even if standing alone.

Book IX

Ornament to Private Buildings

Frugality and parsimony should be adopted when decorating buildings, a subject that Alberti feels strongly about, he thinks vigorous laws should be made for people who over decorate their buildings, that they ought to be punishable by court, and all extravagance on part of the citizen ought to be prevented and checked.

Plato, in his Leges, praised those responsible for such laws; in his opinion, no one should produce a

picture more splendid than was kept by his ancestors in their temples. It was also forbidden for the temple

to be adorned with more than one picture which one painter might take one day to complete.

‘Demosthenes cried up the Manners of the ancient Athenians, much beyond those of his Cotemporaries; for he tells us, they left an infinite Number of public Edifices, and especially of Temples, so magnificent and richly adorned that nothing could exceed them; but they were so modest in their private Buildings, that the Houses of the very noblest Citizens differed very little from those of the meanest; by which means they effected, what is very rarely known among Men, to overcome Envy by Glory.’

Spartans believed that glory was deserved by those who have adorned their city not by buildings but by valor (which is the active involvement of men in their society through work and wisdom, and that which is similar to vertu, which shapes directs and conditions their actions once acquired through a well rounded education) to a point that roofs were built with only an axe and doors with only a saw. Agesilaus wondered at square rafters in the houses he found in Asia, he laughed and asked the People, why if the

Germans were careful not to finish their buildings

trees had grown naturally round do they square them?

for fear of envy of their possessions by the less fortunate, which might cause unnecessary quarrels. Valerious had a house in Rome high up on an Esquiline, but to avoid envy he tore it down and rebuilt it on the plain. While Octavian was so upset by over extravagance that he demolished a villa for being too lavish, the villa is believed to be of his own granddaughter’s.

Everything is best when it is tempered to its own importance’ states Alberti. The more public parts of

a building, those which receive guests, like the façade and the vestibule, must be more decorated and

adorned, but not overly so. He believes those who spend slightly more on decoration are better than others

who spend so much on the bulk of the building that they cannot afford to decorate it, which can only mean they spend too much and built too big a building than needed.

Thucydides said ‘we build great works, so as to appear great in the eyes of our descendants’

Alberti concludes that one should not spark envy in others by building extravagant and ostentatious buildings, yet he acknowledges one’s natural desire for praise of judgment and the skill with which one’s building was made by workmen. Ornament therefore must be realized in its principal and primary form, which is lineaments, consequently drawing much praise to the internal divisions and compartitions of the building which the guest experiences upon visiting.

The palace of the king or the house of the senate is what should be made most handsome; the vestibule in particular should be dignified and splendid, to the owner’s status and importance, with a well-lit portico with many magnificent open spaces. However the architect should be cautious that a private building must never be mistook for a public one; otherwise he would have failed his duty: ‘The temporal ought to concede to the sacred in dignity as far as reasonable’. In a private house modest materials should be used elegantly and elegant materials modestly; precious materials should be used sparingly in most dignified places like jewels on a crown. Sacred building must be so designed that nothing could be added to enhance its majesty or cause greater admiration, while private one should be so treated that it is not possible to remove anything from it because everything has been put together with great care and dignity, while profane public buildings must be somewhere midway the previous two.

Stairways, he felt, disrupt the quietness of the house, noted that the ancients always avoided these obstacles, as he called them, and strived towards horizontal distribution of space

Suburban herotus (literally meaning garden) combines the delight of a villa and the dignity of a city house, close enough to the city for business matters, yet far enough for healthier environment and purer air.

Upon entering the building, Alberti says, visitors should feel the place welcoming and greeting them, and let the inside of the building so eloquently designed that the visitors hesitate before leaving one part that arouses delight and joy, unable to decide whether they should leave this one behind to venture further, for a possibility of an even more beautiful part. The ancients, he says, used to create patterns of labyrinths in their portico floors on which children would play. On the short side of the wall it was customary to have only one window, while on the long side the ancient preferred three windows, but this number can be increased as needed as long as it is odd. The main door was usually adorned with Ionic columns, windows with Corinthian and the rest with Doric.

‘Extravagance I detest! But I am delighted by anything combining ingenuity with wit and grace’

It is surely most appropriate for a portico or a dining hall to be painted or sculpted with, portraits and events worthy of recollection, however he disapproves all of these being put together in a crowded and overwhelming manner, explaining that gems and pearls when stacked together lose their preciousness and become rather dull and overwhelming. He recommends creating separate frames in appropriate and noble situations along the wall, but again not too many, for paintings or sculpture. This kind of ornament should not be made by the moderately skilled as in the previous case; highly skilled artists and craftsmen should be sought out for this task. Of the different types of subject matter for painting, he says that ‘Wherever man and wife come together, only portraits of handsome dignified men should be hanged’, it was believed that this has great effect on the mother’s fertility as well as the appearance of future offspring; while paintings of springs and streams maybe of considerable benefit to the feverish.

Gardens are the most delightful part of the building, made to enjoy the sun and the shade, and should always be festive with little streams placed in unexpected places. The ancient gardeners apparently flattered their masters by spelling out their names in fragrant herbs and shrubs.

Concinnitas, that ambiguous entity; present in all laws of beauty; the main object of the art of building, and the source of her dignity, charm, authority and worth. Whether extracted or drawn from the number and nature of all parts, or imparted to each by sure and constant method, brings together all parts and elements into a single body, according to true and consistent agreement and sympathy. Therefore this entity, concinnitas, must share some part of all its composing elements, while its absence appears in the form of conflict and disunity between the different parts of the body. It flourishes most in nature, ‘one might call it the spouse of the soul and of reason’. Its natural form produces absolute perfection, and without it the critical sympathy and consonance between the parts of the body would be lost and beauty becomes unattainable. This sympathy and consonance is achieved through number, position and outline dictated by concinnitas.

The ancients looked to nature for concinnitas, they noticed that numbers were even or odd, so they used both in different places: the bones (structure) of a building were never odd, because they observed that all creation had an even number of limbs or feet so that weight could be distributed evenly; while openings they always made odd in number, for nature gave us two ears, two eyes, two nostrils and a single mouth in the middle.

Odd numbers: The number five, divine and found in many forms not least of which is the human hand; the number seven, obviously favored by the creator, being the number of the planets; whereas the number nine, is that of the orbs nature set in the sky.

Even numbers: some philosophers maintain that the number four was consecrated to divinity, and that most solemn oaths should be based on it; the number six was considered perfect among few others because 1+2+3=6; and Aristotle thought the number ten, the all perfect decade, was the most perfect because 1 3 +2 3 +3 3 +4 3 =10 2 . Architects have used these numbers extensively, especially in temples, but they were careful not to exceed the even number ten or the odd number nine

‘The work ought to be constructed naked, and then clothed later; let the ornament come last; only then will you have the occasion and opportunity to do it later without any form of hindrance.’ Ornaments, he explains, should be made by many hands of moderate skills; I suppose to ensure the work load is better carried out, with consistent but attainable quality and unity. While dressing the building the artist should be careful not to appear as if he were trying to cheat the building from its own concinnitas.

An architect must ponder upon his work thoroughly and beforehand, consider the size and importance of the work and the impression he wants to convey, and consider if ill managed how obvious, patent and lasting a testimony of his folly he will leave his fellow men. A great matter is architecture, nor can everyone take It and he who wants to call himself an architect must be of great ability, passion, high educated, wide experience, and most importantly serious, and of sound judgment and council.

The best of architecture is that which is appropriate to the necessity and utility; that which is admired by the elite for its innate beauty, concinnitas, yet not condemned by the poor for its ostentatious ornament. A sensible balance only a true architect can achieve. He must never stop studying, be it from the wisdom of old masters or from the highly praised examples of the ancients that can still be found, he must also apply himself in the skilled crafts, as well as those arts which are vital to architecture: painting and mathematics.