The Indicator: Thinking Architecture… in c. 25 BC

1684 Depiction of Vitruvius (right) presenting De Architectura to Augustus. Via Wikipedia

Browsing Lapham’s Quarterly, I came upon an interesting little article under the heading, “Practice and Theory.” Then I noticed the date, c. 25 BC, Rome—hardly current for online content. I soon realized I was reading a passage from Vitruvius’ On Architecture, one of those texts in the canon of western architecture that I should be familiar with—or at the very least know about. The former I make not claims to. I’m afraid the latter is more the case.

This might come as a shock, but I have not actually read his entire ten-volume treatise. On another note of disappointment, the man’s life remains obscure and I have no intention of making it any less so here. Be that as it may, the passage reproduced here seems relevant in this era of increasing specialization, professional insularity, technology- and theory-driven practices, and unstable business models.

More after the break.

The architect should be equipped with knowledge of many branches of study and varied kinds of learning, for it is by his judgment that all work done by the other arts is put to test. This knowledge is the child of practice and theory. Practice is the continuous and regular exercise of employment where manual work is done with any necessary material according to the design of a drawing. Theory, on the other hand, is the ability to demonstrate and explain the productions of dexterity on the principles of proportion.

It follows, therefore, that architects who have aimed at acquiring manual skill without scholarship have never been able to reach a position of authority to correspond to their pains, while those who relied only upon theories and scholarship were obviously hunting the shadow, not the substance. But those who have a thorough knowledge of both, like men armed at all points, have sooner attained their object and carried authority with them.

Composite Roman order. Courtesy Codex xcix

In all matters, but particularly in architecture, there are these two points: the thing signified, and that which gives it its significance. That which is signified is the subject of which we may be speaking, and that which gives significance is a demonstration on scientific principles. It appears, then, that one who professes himself an architect should be well versed in both directions. He ought, therefore, to be both naturally gifted and amenable to instruction. Neither natural ability without instruction nor instruction without natural ability can make the perfect artist. Let him be educated, skillful with the pencil, instructed in geometry, know much history, have followed the philosophers with attention, understand music, have some knowledge of medicine, know the opinions of the jurists, and be acquainted with astronomy and the theory of the heavens.

Avery Library, Classics Collection. Courtesy Columbia University Special Collections”]
Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (b. ca. 80/70 BCE). De architectvra. [Rome?: s.n., 1486 or 1487

It may not be as concise as Peter Zumthor’s slender, cloth-bound volume, Thinking Architecture, but it is similarly personal and revealing of one person’s thoughts (many thoughts) about the implications of spatial practice and on humanity and on the self. For Vitruvius, it may have all emerged out of his diagram, today known as Vitruvian Man.

Vitruvian Man, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice. Via Wikipedia

, a weekly column focusing on the culture, business and economics of architecture, is written by Guy Horton. The opinions expressed in are Guy Horton’s alone and do not represent those of ArchDaily and it’s affiliates. Based in Los Angeles, he is a frequent contributor to Architectural Record, The Architect’s Newspaper and other publications. He also writes on architecture for The Huffington Post. Follow Guy on Twitter.

Cite: Horton, Guy. "The Indicator: Thinking Architecture… in c. 25 BC" 10 Feb 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed 22 May 2015. <>
  • Dan
  • Philip

    I am surprised as the Ten Books is surely essential reading. I used it for years with my students and only a few weeks ago I showed a contractor the advice for Terrazzo in the text!

  • Henry

    The irony of the Vitruvian Man is that it is based on Plato’s philosophy of essentialism, which is completely detached from reality. Essentialism most notably influenced renaissance architects like alberti and modern architects like corbusier with his modular. Evolutionary biology clearly makes Plato’s philosophy a non sequitur when it comes to designing for a biological species. You can’t derive proportions for a building from a man that according to Plato has never and can never exist. What’s more, the philosophy of essential has little regard for the arts, and philosophers like Plato regularly looked down on people who worked with their hands.
    So while I agree with Vitruvius’s statement that architects must possess both practical and theoretical knowledge, it is unfortunate that the most recognized figure that bears his name is based on a philosophy that rejects the other half of his argument. Thanks for posting this and drawing attention to the other half of his argument.