Thursday, July 8, 2010

Commodity and Delight.

The lovable George Carlin.

George Carlin has a hilarious standup routine where he takes the Ten Commandments and distills them into two. It got me thinking about the holy trinity of architecture by Vitruvius: commodity, firmness and delight. Now, really when you think about it, commodity and firmness basically speak of the same thing. They are both dealing with pragmatic concerns. Commodity includes the logical development of program, economy, and integrated systems within the building. Firmness deals with the structural soundness of the building. These are both logical and necessary concerns. A truly successful building should operate efficiently, economically and structurally. So in the tradition of George Carlin I propose we combine these two rules into the all encompassing word of Commodity. Commodity is a much broader word than firmness. It’s a definition that can successfully imply structural integrity.

Delight speaks of the aesthetic will of the architect. It talks of the more intangible practice of creating beauty. Delight is the effort by the architect to integrate all the pragmatic concerns into a visual language that has rhythm and harmony. This is elusive, indefinable, and (removed of context) seemingly arbitrary. Therefore the rule known as Delight could not possibly be combined with Commodity because they do not share similar motivations.

Too much Delight? Frank Gehry.
The impossibility of artistic bias. Walter Gropius House.

Some of the so called Functionalists of the early twentieth century would argue that a building created in perfect commodity would be by it’s very nature delightful. They would say that aesthetic concerns are outcroppings of logical building. If a true pragmatic functionalist were writing this article right now he/she could go further than me. He or she could pair down the Vitruvian triad to only one rule: Commodity. I love the functionalist ideology, and I believe in it as well, but I also acknowledge that it is next to impossible to be completely impartial when designing a building. The aesthetic will of the architect will present itself no matter how hard one tries to repress it. What is fascinating about the Functionalists is that their aesthetic vocabulary (which they think they didn’t have) is actually a creation of functionalist symbolism. Only in hindsight do visual cues begin to emerge in these harsh buildings that attempt to be free of rhetoric and artistic will. Still, I think it is a noble direction to strive in. I believe in the power and posterity of the universal over the individual.

Robert Venturi's diagram of the Functionalist Vitruvian method. (From Learning from Las Vegas).

So, discounting the Functionalists, there are two basic tenets of architecture; Commodity and Delight. The architect must walk a tightrope between aesthetic and pragmatic concerns. This is the dual nature of the architect. By our very nature we are conflicted individuals. We are unsatisfied with total logic. We are unsatisfied with the complete freedom awarded to the fine artist. We are hypocrites towards our own desires. Long live the dual natured architect!

Now for some comedy:


  1. I'm enjoying the blog, Andrew. Keep it coming!

  2. Thanks, man! That means a lot.

  3. I'm wrestling with these issues now for a piece on architectural design priorities. I appreciated your thoughts and was quite grateful for the reminder of Venturi's Vitruvius-Gropius twist. Then i clicked on the link, looking for a little comic relief from George, and got this:
    "This video contains content from WMG, who has blocked it on copyright grounds. Sorry about that."

    I've been seeing that message at Youtube more often these days. Artists or those holding their copyrights are rationally evaluating even snippets of their works as 'commodities' they should be getting incomes from.

    The pop connotation of "commodity" has changed significantly since Sir Henry Wotton's version of Vitruvius came out in 1624 (as noted in Wikipedia's page on De Architectura). By the time of the architectural Neo-Classicists, Neo-Classicists of economics were already prepping "commodity" for the commodity markets and "utility" was taking its place.

    The Joseph Gwilt English translation, online at the LacusCurtius [get it?] site of UChicago's Bill Thayer, likely reflects economics' influence on these words. Part 2, Chapter 3, Book 1 starts out, "All these [building types] should possess strength, utility, and beauty."

    Economic "utility": now there's a word for you to do some reductions with. Anything that can benefit a human being has utility, and it doesn't have to be measurable.

    Aesthetics and irrationality can both be useful and valued by people. Neurophysiologists are even able to give rough measures of relative benefits compared to monetary gains. See, for example, several recent op-ed articles or blog posts, online, or his latest book, Pleasure, by David J. Linden.

    So, the Vitruvian trinity could be reduced even further to just a singular unity, say, "All [buildings] must embody utility", with both durability and aesthetics implied. No need to mention "delight". Any benefit can delight someone. The deaths of those one is indoctrinated to believe are one's enemies, will delight. But still ain't pretty.

    But would such a reduction help or hurt architecture? I suspect hurt. Keeping aesthetics as a distinct injunction likely helped the art in architecture survive and be revived after the Modernists / Functionalists / International STYLISTs tried to get us all to better appreciate, and love most, the unornamented (ie. less complicated) forms of machines and basic geometry.

    That was extremism. What Vitruvius, and many ancients, seemed to appreciate better than many of us moderns is the rule of moderation and balance.

    Vitruvius could and did list many other essentials of architecture. Chapter 2, "THE FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLES OF ARCHITECTURE, 1. Architecture depends on Order (in Greek τἁξις), Arrangement (in Greek διἁθεσις), Eurythmy, Symmetry, Propriety, and Economy (in Greek οἱκονομἱα)." (From Gutenberg online edition). But in describing the essentials of buildings, he chose to use a triad, a concept of stability in itself, and then call for balance in that.

    On the other hand, do aesthetics even need to be mentioned? As you suggested and then illustrated with the Gehry pic and its caption, architects, like most folks, have an "aesthetic will" that may need more control than encouragement, if only for the sake of first getting the more basic necessities of a design program out of the way before they can "play".

    I'm still not sure which way to go on this. You?