There are many standards by which architects base their practice, but there is one shared by most that has been unshakable for millennia. During the height of Ancient Rome, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, otherwise known as Vitruvius, wrote his thoughts on architecture commonly known as ‘Vitruvius architecture’ in his Ten Books. Many important insights were gathered in Vitruvius ten books on architecture, and the one that has perhaps best stood the test of time is his three criteria for a piece of architecture, otherwise known as the Vitruvian Triad: Venustas, Utilitas, and Firmitas. Here, we’ll explore all three.
Vitruvius Architecture’s Firmitas
Firmitas (solidity/strength) is a building’s ability to remain durable after extended use and exposure to the natural elements. Over time, architects have been able to calculate with greater levels of exactitude the expected life spans of their buildings. Certain materials lend themselves to greater durability – as well as the illusion of durabilities – such as marble, concrete, and brick. Firmitas can also be gauged by the age of a building: if a building has lasted several decades without major renovations, it has proven itself to be a reliable and credible structure. Some larger projects today are built to last 500+ years, attesting to the importance of one of the three major claims of Vitruvius architecture.
Vitruvius Architecture’s Utilitas
Utilitas (usefulness) is a building’s ability to appropriately predict and respond to the needs of its intended inhabitants. The importance of usefulness is made evident by all the program types buildings can acquire – hospital, school, house, office. Each of these programs requires a unique relationship to the site, as well as specifically sized rooms and conditions. In 1896, Louis Sullivan interpreted the concept of usefulness in architecture with his famous statement, “Form follows function.” He wrote this while considering the near future of skyscrapers, and determined that tall buildings would have to pay special attention to daily use and function if they were going to be critical elements of the urban city.
Vitruvius Architecture’s Venustas
Venustas (beauty) is a building’s relationship to its context’s standard of aesthetics. This element can be made apparent in the use of attractive materials, the level of craftsmanship, and the attention to detail (how a wall meets a floor, for example, has been a serious concern for architects concerned with beauty). Venustas used to be a requirement for the majority of newly constructed buildings prior to the 20th century, but became less of a focus in building design after that point. Some say this is due to the increase in mass production – which requires easy-to-reproduce building elements – while others suggest that the general population grew too disinterested in architecture’s potential for beauty as they were introduced to supplementary architectural elements such as elevators and air conditioners. Fortunately, some architects today still put Vitruvius Architecture’s Venustas at the center of their goals throughout the entire design process.