Architectural Theory
By Bernd Evers

July 28, 2003 /
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This book charts the fascinating history of architectural theory from the Renaissance to the present day.


The discussion of architectural theory has its roots in Vitruvius'
"De architectura libri decem" (Ten Books on Architecture). As the oldest treatise on architecture to survive in its entirety from pre-Christian times, Vitruvius' work is not simply a unique source off information about the architecture of antiquity and its principles, but has become the foundation for all writings on architectural theory since the Renaissance.

P.XLI. Woodcut
Homo ad quadratum
Vitruvian man in a square, Vitruvius III, 1.

Grouped by nation and epoch, the writings of Leon Battista Alberti, Andrea Palladio, Marc-Antoine Laugier, Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, John Shute, Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Robert Venturi, Aldo Rossi and Rem Koolhaas are just some of those discussed in the book, their theories lent visual expression by a wealth of illustrations.

Leon Battista Alberti (1404 - 1472), who authored the treatise on the art of building, "De re aedificatoria libri decem", which laid out the most important architectural theory of early modern times, was originally a humanist; not an architect. 

The idea of writing a treatise about architecture seems to have come to Alberti during scholarly discussions about Vitruvius' ancient treatise at the court of Lionello d'Este in Ferrara, in the company of fellow humanists and the educated higher nobility.

Page 214. Woodcut

To illustrate Alberti's chapter "Des cisternes, ensemble de leur usage et utilité," the French edition depicts a town embedded in a hilly landscape with dams and aqueducts to ensure the towns water supply.

In his own day, as well as once again in 20th century France, Jacques-Francois Blondel's (1705/08-1774) architectural theory provided a role model for a rationalist approach to architecture, with its campaign against self-indulgence and illogical decoration in architecture, as had been witnessed in early 18th century Rococo and in Art Nouveau around 1900.  

Cross-section of Notre Dame in Dijon
Engraving by N. Ransonnette

Like many other important architects of the Revolutionary period Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (1736-1806) attended the influential school of Jacques-Francois Blondel.

With its opulent text and pictures, the treatise "L'Architecture considérée sous le rapport de l'art, des mineurs et de la législation", is one of the most demanding examples of a tradition that, in a particular way, was to become so established in the 20th century. 

In verbose language, dripping in pathos, he presents a world-embracing architectural vision that knows no social barriers in terms of different estates, but that sets out to structure society according to activities, in a monumental and highly visual way by means of architecture.

Engraving by N. Ransonnette
The saline town of Chaux: plan of the cemetery

The immense round shape of the central room of the terrifyingly dark building should bring lofty thoughts to mind.

The publication of "The First and Chief Grounds of Architecture" by the miniaturist John Shute (d. 1563) must be considered the earliest literary evidence of an exploration of Classical architecture in England.  Shute's importance lies less in his independent deliberations on architecture and more in the fact that he introduced the discussion on Classical architecture to England through his book on columns, which was published four times.

Woodcut Fol. VI.
Illustration of the Doric column order with Herculean Atlas

In addition to his activities as a sculptor and wax moulder Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach (1656-1723) familiarized himself closely with the theory of architecture.  The set of oblong engravings that make up "entwurff Einer Historischen Architectur" is one of the most unusual and original works in the history of architectural theory. 

After commemorative coins, findings from ruins, descriptions of journeys and Classical traditions, Fischer goes to reconstruct temples, palaces, mausoleums and the squares of ancient Greece and Rome, whilst also introducing the architecture od Egypt and Asia.  

Fascicle 1, pl. II. Etching
Reconstruction of Salomon's Temple

Like many theoreticians of architecture, Fischer von Erlach places the "perfect" structure, Salomon's Temple, at the beginning of his treatise, showing above all the huge substructure.

Le Corbusier's (1887-1965) influence on the theory and practice of architecture and town planning in the 20th century cannot be overestimated.  Through the publication of his building projects and plans as well as through his extensive theoretical work, virtually no other architect has had such a provocative and standard-setting impact on the discourse of Modernist architecture. He wanted to open "eyes which do not see" - one of his famous statements - to the beauty of Modernist engineering and technology.

His book "Toward a New Architecture" turned him into an immediate international celebrity and is still today an excellent reference book for the gesture and content of modern architecture propaganda.

Maison Ozenfant
View of sketch of the facade with elevation governors.

The Wasmuth Portfolio (1910), one of the most beautiful and influential publications of modern architecture, contains nearly all of Frank Lloyd Wright's (1867-1959) projects up to that time, whether executed or not. 

In his introduction, Wright explained his agenda for an organic architecture for a democratic society. He criticizes architecture since the Renaissance as corrupt and inorganic. He calls to the art and architecture of modern times for a return to the "Gothic spirit."
In addition he adds it is the responsibility of America to , more than any nation, create an architecture in the spirit of democracy.

Pl. XXXIII a. Pen and ink drawing
Administrative building for the Larkin Company in Buffalo (1902-1926, torn down in 1950

The office functions were directed toward the interior of a high room which was covered by a glass roof and surrounded by four-storied galleries.

Robert Venturi's (b.1925) study "Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture" was published by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1966.  It introduced an epoch-making change and influenced the development of architecture more than any other treatise in the last third of the 20th century. 

The second book that he wrote together with Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour, "Learning From Las Vegas", is of similar importance.

In the introduction of "Complexity and Contradiction", Venturi acknowledges that he wishes to offer a critique of architecture and justify his own work.  His premise is not objectivity, but rather artistic licence; he examines those aspects of architecture which interest him, namely, complexity and contradiction.

"I am a Monument"

Venturi's proposal for designing a monument in "Learning from Las Vegas".  No symbolic form, just a box with a sign pointing itself out.
The book discusses, in 89 concise essays, the most important treatises on architecture from the Renaissance to today.

The authors explore the origins of each treatise and examine the motives that have prompted architects over the past 500 years to set their ideas down on paper.

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Last updated: December 19, 2013

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