Rome left a legacy. What will we leave?
When one visits the ruins of vanished civilizations, such as Greece, Carthage, and Rome, one sees them not as whole structures, but as shards of memory and as the detritus of what once was. Their grandeur stems not from seeing them intact but from imagining them as they once were; grandeur lost is more moving than grandeur still extant. This architecture is powerful because of its ability to display dignity despite decay, not in spite of it. These ruins are by all means a legacy. But, will we too be fortunate enough to leave as indelible a mark for future generations?
To answer this question, it is critical to compare the principles of ancient architecture with the realities of modern culture. This divide is perhaps no better illustrated than by one book: De Architectura or The Ten Books on Architecture, written by Vitruvius, a Roman architect and engineer (also infamous for his nepotism). For hundreds of years, from the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution, European architects were governed by this book, their user manual and Bible. His principles of design guided the likes of Palladio for his Venetian villas, Brunelleschi for his Florentine dome, and even da Vinci for his drawing of Vitruvian Man. Yet, despite centuries of tradition, modern architecture diverges from Vitruvius’ aesthetic standards. The globalized world of today with its glimmering skyscrapers, speeding trains, and growing reliance on the Frankenstein of technology bears little resemblance to the Rome of centuries ago. Rome and Vitruvius were steeped in tradition and precedent that modern architecture largely abandons, either rightfully or wrongfully so. But, so complete a break with the past is questionable without examining the past’s strengths and weaknesses. Thus, the question arises: What lessons about modern architecture can be drawn from examining Rome’s architecture?
In De Architectura, Vitruvius identifies the three principles of architecture: firmitas—quality, utilitas—utility and venustas—beauty. For Vitruvius, to attain all three and to pass the test of time is the ultimate signifier of great architecture. But, to fail in this endeavor, through shoddy construction or succumbing to time and the elements, guarantees that a building will be relegated to the dustbin of oblivion.
Unlike modern architecture, the architecture of Vitruvius’s time was governed by strict aesthetic principles. Above all, Vitruvius emphasizes that architecture must relate to the human body, “In the human body there is a kind of symmetrical harmony between forearm, foot, palm, finger, and other small parts; and so it is with perfect buildings” (Vitruvius 14). Vitruvius desires a continuum where well-proportioned and symmetrical humans inhabited equally well-proportioned structures. As the human body attains perfection through harmony, so must architecture. Consequently, the architect becomes less of a freelance designer and more of an interpreter, translating the proportions and elegance of the body into the forms of perfect buildings. As the human body has legs, torso, and head, architecture must have base, middle, and top. As the human body is symmetrical from left to right, architecture must be symmetrical from left to right. As the human body considers each organ in relation to the greater being, architecture must consider each detail in relation to the greater building. Vitruvius emphasizes continuity between man and his world, a place where man has an environment befitting his stature.
Yet, behind this devotion to replicating human forms in architecture, there are the seeds of racial prejudice. “In fact”, writes Vitruvius, “the races of Italy are the most perfectly constituted in both respects — in bodily form and in mental activity to correspond to their valour” (173). There seems to be the following implication: If perfect buildings replicate perfect humans, then humans are the perfect species, no further evolution required. Furthermore, since Roman people are the finest people in the world, Roman architecture must be the finest architecture in the world. To the modern world, the existence of the perfect species (or the perfect anything) is laughable given the basic biology mantra: There is no perfect genotype. (Nonetheless, it may be possible to forgive Vitruvius, assuming that he never took high school Biology.) Vitruvius sees aesthetics as a linear evolution where Roman architecture and Roman culture are the specious pinnacles of progress.
Modern architecture, unlike Roman architecture, does not obey Vitruvian principles of construction and aesthetics. Building materials have changed; sheetrock, fiberglass, and plastic have supplanted stone, earth, and wood. Scale has also grown, the superhighway and skyscraper of today dwarf the Roman road and proud obelisk of yesterday. Unlike Vitruvius, the modern architect probably would not lay claim to racial or aesthetic divinity. The constraints of economy, in tandem with the desire for architectural variety, dictate that modern structures need not model the human form. Unlike Roman structures, which were almost always perfectly symmetrical, modern structures employ symmetry and ornamentation as mere “icing on the cake,” not as critical components in the architectural scheme. In other words, the Roman human to building harmony is no longer a guiding principle.
On the one hand, the absence of aesthetic standards and the wide array of new building materials gives the architect greater autonomy. On the other hand, this same absence permits clutter and disorder. For instance, take Learning from Las Vegas, a 1972 essay by architect Robert Venturi comparing the plan of Rome to that of Las Vegas. Rome, a classical city created over millenia, is built of stone in general adherence to Vitruvius’ principles of perfection. Most Roman structures have a clearly defined base, middle, and top (usually the terracotta roof) and are of similar symmetry, height, style, and scale. Most structures also relate to their urban environment through their density and orientation. The scale is human; the city is a microcosm. On the contrary, Las Vegas, a modern city created virtually overnight, is fabricated of all materials with little planning or care for beauty. Consequently, the highway and city street feel hectic and visually crowded. The presence of a foe brick and stone casino clashes with the glass and metal of a next-door skyscraper. The Moroccan style theater clashes with the Federalist style motel, which clashes with the postmodern fairytale castle. Las Vegas is not alone; rather, its chaos and clutter are merely exaggerations of Main Street and roadside America, which employ the principles of Las Vegas more discretely. Ancient architecture imbued order; modern architecture imbues confusion. Yes, anything goes when buildings may adopt any form or any style from any culture, regardless of Vitruvian principles. But, this variety comes at the cost of aesthetic disarray that would make Vitruvius aghast.
The question then arises: Might it be possible to continue practicing the aesthetic of Vitruvius in contemporary society? Probably not. To start, the scale of architecture and its role in society is different. Monolithic architecture was key to solidifying the legitimacy of Roman rulers and the breadth of Roman conquests. Monolithic architecture does not play a comparable role in our society, where politicians quibble over funding for infrastructure and the arts. The profession of architect is also different. In Vitruvius’ time, the architect was also an engineer who oversaw even the smallest technical detail; for example, Vitruvius devotes much of his book to precisely describing engineering methods to be employed by architects. In our time, the architect is not always an engineer for the complexity of a modern building is far beyond the design abilities of any single person. Whereas Vitruvius’ time saw the concentration of talent and power in the hands of the master architect, our time sees the dispersal of talent and power in the hands of engineers, electricians, plumbers, lawyers, architects, and the rest. In this manner, the construction methods (and materials) underlying Roman architecture are inapplicable to contemporary society.
Society should shape its architecture according to its needs, not the reverse. Architecture, even if it is as refined as Rome’s, should not confine society to the trappings of history and style. As historian Kenneth Jackson writes: “History is for losers. [Preservation] is used as a political tool rather than a tool to preserve buildings.” We cannot and should not emulate Rome because Rome was what it was, and we are what we are. The identity of the one should not restrict the development of the other.
Firmitas—Quality and Utilitas—Utility
Although Vitruvian aesthetics are potentially outdated, his principles of quality and utility are not. Quality and utility transcend culture and time and are just as applicable to our society as they were to Rome’s.
Vitruvius believes the architect is responsible for building enduring structures. He writes: “Stone, flint, rubble burnt or unburnt brick, — use them as you find them […] so that out of them a faultless wall may be built to last forever” (53). Vitruvius believes that any structure, no matter how humble, must be built to last. In this manner, there is continuity, from the humblest wall to the grandest temple; all are to endure the test of time. Furthermore, it is the architect’s duty to factor both beauty and time into construction, so that a wall will be just as beautiful in ten years as it will be in a hundred. This mindset reveals a fixed understanding of beauty; what is valued for beauty today will remain so tomorrow. A faultless wall will remain a faultless wall; a beautiful temple will remain a beautiful temple. A building is thus an investment in quality and taste.
Roman construction methods were based on precedence and tradition. In describing the responsibilities of an architect, Vitruvius writes: “An architect ought to be an educated man so as to leave a more lasting remembrance in his treatises” (6). An architect is responsible for creating a legacy through his proud buildings and lasting treatises, much like De Architectura did for Vitruvius. The treatise serves to maintain a continuum, whereby future architects can learn from their forefathers. The building serves to commemorate one’s era and its leaders for time immemorial. Thus, there is continuity where each generation of architects contributes to following generations, gradually refining architecture.
Although Vitruvius and modern architects seem to share little in common, they both agree that “form follows function” (a phrase ostensibly coined by Chicago architect Louis Sullivan). Vitruvius writes that each building must be constructed in a manner that reflects how it is to be used and where it is to be situated. He goes to immense lengths describing the building materials and methods best suited to each environment. This concern with function mirrors the founding principles of modern architecture. The fathers of modern architecture, like Vitruvius, believed that a noble architecture is the pure expression of function, verticality for the skyscraper, openness for the train shed, airiness for the cathedral, and efficiency for the factory. For them, each building should have an aesthetic form that parallels and expresses its function. Ironically, modern architecture has the same founding principle as ancient architecture. As postmodern architect Robert Venturi writes: “We look backward at history and tradition to go forward” (Venturi et al. 3).
Cause for Concern?
Modern architecture radically differs from Vitruvian principles, in terms of both aesthetics and construction. Roman roads lasted millennia and Roman sewers are still in use; will our crumbling infrastructure last as long? Roman towers of stone withstood the elements for centuries; will our rusting skyscrapers of steel last as long? The Roman forum became legendary; could the same destiny await our “forums” of today, the strip mall, the grocery chain, and the drive-thru? The Renaissance aspired to the grandeur of Rome; what society will aspire to the “grandeur” of our society? Or, will there even be much to aspire to with the twisted piles of fallen metal and the troubled environment our children will inherit?
But, in the end, who am I to judge? The broken statues, pottery, and amphora proudly displayed in our museums were not made with us in mind nor would they be valued by their creators in the shattered state the public now sees them in. The sources of much of our knowledge about Rome stem not from official texts but from the vulgar graffiti scrawled on the walls of Pompeii and the tall tales of the Satyricon, Rome’s equivalent of modern pulp fiction. If anything, this unintentional legacy humanizes past civilizations better than the often pompous monuments of intent. Rome left a legacy, although not always in the places and manner it intended to leave one. Perhaps we too may leave a legacy, although neither through our desire nor our intent. The detritus of modernity may (or may not) be valued centuries from now, if it survives. Twisted piles of rubble and plastic tupperware may (or may not) intrigue future archaeologists as they ask: How did this once prosperous and powerful civilization meet its end? History has a strange habit of reviving old skeletons and turning trash into treasure. Commemoration or oblivion, a future fountain of inspiration or a lasting cause of sorrow, what will become of our globalized world? Only time will tell.
Venturi, Robert et al. Learning from Las Vegas. 1st ed. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1972. Print.
Vitruvius, Marcus. The Ten Books on Architecture. 1st ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1914. Print.