Durability, utility, beauty

I post fairly often on the design of everyday objects, looking especially for genuinely useful things that are also a pleasure to use, hold, or see. Now, I find myself getting thoughtful postings from someone at Tumblr — a side effect of my having to join Tumblr in order to get at some racy male photography that I have since posted  — the 8/1 posting Firmitas, utilitas, venustas being about guiding principles for the mind, eye, and hand of the architect: that is, about the design of very large everyday objects.

I have no link to this posting, only the mailing, so I’ll reproduce that in full for its interest in the principles of good design, and the pleasure of its writing, which is both personal and analytical. (I don’t know who the writer is. The posting is unsigned — the e-mail reply address is merely welcome@tumblr.com — and I see other identification of them, so Tumblr cognoscenti are presumed to know who the voice of the site is. Grr.)

The text under the line. Then some comments and illustrations.

Firmitas, utilitas, venustas: These are the central pillars of, well, #architecture, according to Roman architect Vitruvius in the early 1st century AD. These are the principles that should guide the mind, eye, and, ultimately, the hand of the architect. The original translation would convey this as firmness, commodity, and delight. Another translation into more contemporary English would have them as firstly, durability: that a building should stand up robustly and remain in good condition; secondly, utility: it should be suitable for the purposes for which it is used; and finally, beauty: that it should be aesthetically pleasing. There are many definitions, understandings, and theories of what makes architecture, or what separates it from construction. What is easily understood is that architecture is a testament to our ability to create forms and landscapes as compelling as those provided by the natural world — and that you very rarely feel as present as when you walk the streets of a new city and marvel at the shapes, forms, and styles that surround you.

But why not leave it to the experts? Le Corbusier, a renowned 20th-century architect, once wrote: “You employ stone, wood, and concrete, and with these materials you build houses and palaces: that is construction. Ingenuity is at work. But suddenly you touch my heart, you do me good. I am happy and I say: This is beautiful. That is Architecture”.

We could be here all day, quite frankly. The Cambridge Dictionary simply defines it as the art and science of designing and making buildings, or the style of a building. In reality, it is both the process and the product of sketching, conceiving, designing, planning, and constructing buildings and other structures. As a result of the cultural and aesthetic value of architectural works, they have typically come to be understood as works of art. It is a practice that stretches back to the prehistoric era — and is a medium through which cultures on all of the globe’s seven continents express themselves.

The earliest surviving text of architectural theory is the 1st century AD treatise De architectura, by the aforementioned Roman architect Vitruvius, who gave us his theory of firmitas, utilitas, and venustas. His proclamation on the definition of architecture ignited a debate that continues to this day. For Leon Battista Alberti, centuries layer, beauty is an objective quality of buildings to be found in their proportions. Then in the 19th century, Louis Sullivan, an architect of skyscrapers, declared that “form follows function;” this is the notion that structural and aesthetic questions are entirely subject to functionality.

Today, architecture rightly finds itself grappling with urgent questions of sustainability amid an ever-escalating climate crisis. This is the principle that a building or structure should only ever be constructed in a manner that is environmentally friendly, and does not extract or exploit from its natural environment to any excess. This also means considerations of the production of its materials, its impact on the surrounding environment, and its reliance on non-sustainable power sources for heating, lighting, cooling, waste management, and water. These questions remain urgent and as yet unresolved.

So #architecture is a complex but compelling question. It is endlessly fascinating, and it is true that wandering the streets of cities, towns, and villages provides abundant visual and intellectual interest. We are glad to see it trending today, put simply.

Happy Tuesday

The writer then provides 8 examples, with some illustrations of bad design mixed in with illustrations of the good: 1 a spooky Halloween house (not further identified); 2 an example of brutalism / ecobrutalism (not further identified); 3 a colorful residential street in Bridgetown, Barbados; 4 wooden architecture on Kizhi Island, Karelia; 5 a modern skyscraper in the Shiodome district of Minato, Tokyo; 6 the Underhill house in the village of Matinecock, Oyster Bay, Long Island; 7 a mosque ceiling (not further identified); 8 Nun Court, London. Here I show only example 1 (bad), then examples 3 and 4 (good, in very different ways).

1 The spooky house:

(#1) Presumably not designed to be a Halloween house, but as a piece of Victorian domestic architecture; covered with fussy useless ornamentation and perilous balconies everywhere, all in dark, looming wood and iron

3 The Barbados street

(#2) Cheaply made, very pleasant facades, deliberately closed to public view and protected from the brutal sun, but presumably with simply designed interiors

4 The Karelian wooden architecture

(#3) Made from easily available local timber, designed to hold the heat, and beautifully ornamented with Russian onion-dome elements, so culturally evocative


6 Responses to “Durability, utility, beauty”

  1. J B Levin Says:

    I’m pretty sure the last photo is of Церковь Преображения Господня (Church of the Transfiguration) on Kizhi. Google Maps isn’t allowing me to capture the photos, though I guess I could screen-shot its display, but this might get you to them (sorry about the ridiculous URL).


  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    I have now become quite testy about Tumblr Person’s refusal to provide details about the examples, in a way that would *set them in their context of use*, which I’ve pretty much had to guess at (not always successfully). The contexts in which everyday objects — no matter how small, no matter how large — are used, and the functions they serve in those contexts, are all-important in judging them.

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