The Four Books on Architecture: Book I

I have now completed my study – for the time being – of Book I of Andrea Palladio’s Four Books on Architecture.  His twenty-nine chapters in the first book discuss the following range of topics:

  • Planning
  • Building materials
  • Foundations
  • Walls
  • Ancient building techniques
  • The Five Classical Orders
  • Abuses
  • Loggias, Entrances, Halls, and Rooms
  • Pavements and Ceilings
  • Heights of Rooms
  • Types of Vaults
  • Dimensions and Ornaments of Doors and Windows
  • Fireplaces
  • Stairs
  • Roofs

For four months, I have studied these topics as thoroughly as I possibly could.  With the assistance of Google maps, Wikipedia, and various bloggers from all over, I have virtually toured across Italy, visiting many Palladio-designed villas and other points of interest which were historically significant to him 450 years ago.  The book has been a lesson in geography, history, geometry, and a little Italian.  I thought Book I’s translation by Robert Tavernor and Richard Schofield from 16th century Italian into 20th century English made the book easy to read, while allowing Palladio’s personality to come through.  Out of these twenty-nine chapters, I generated sixteen articles of my own and I feel I could have written sixteen more.

Overall, Palladio delivers what he promised:

…a brief discourse on the five orders and on those rules which are essential to building.

in the way he promised to deliver it:

I shall avoid being long-winded and will simply provide the advice that seems essential to me…

The one thing I had hoped to find was the one thing I didn’t get: the foundational rules for architectural proportion set by the ancient Roman architects.  I was not expecting there to be so many versions and deviations within the classical orders.  Palladio even admits this:

And though variety and novelty must please everybody, one should not, however, do anything that is contrary to the laws of this art and contrary to what reason makes obvious; so we can see that the ancients also made variations, but that they never departed from certain universal and essential rules of this art, as we shall see in my books on antiquities.

So what are those universal and essential rules of this art?  The answer is not terribly different from what Louis Sullivan affirmed 300 years later.

The laws of nature.

Where the two architects differ is in their interpretation of nature’s laws.

Palladio and the ancient Romans seem to have taken a more literal, physical interpretation of nature in their buildings:

I assert therefore that, since architecture imitates nature (as do all the other arts), it cannot endure anything that alienates and distances it from what nature herself permits; so we see that those ancient architects who began to make of stone those buildings that they once made of wood established a rule that columns should be less thick at the top than at the bottom, taking as their model trees which are always more slender at the top than at the trunk and near the roots.

Sullivan, who shunned the classical rules, nevertheless also believed that nature’s model was at the core of the art of architecture, only his interpretation was a much more abstract, metaphysical approach to the expression of nature in architecture, which he applied to his tall office buildings:

All things in nature have a shape, that is to say, a form, an outward semblance, that tells us what they are, that distinguishes them from ourselves and from each other.

Unceasingly the essence of things is taking shape in the matter of things, and this unspeakable process we call birth and growth.

~ from The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered, Louis Sullivan

While Palladio studied extensively the rules and the proportions of classical architecture and their mathematical and logical bases in nature, Sullivan studied the essence of nature – of life – and applied that understanding to his tall office buildings, which when based on his premise that “form ever follows function,” the skyscraper then takes its place alongside the “Greek temple, the Gothic cathedral, the medieval fortress.”

Where the two might agree is that the ultimate goal of both expressions of nature – whether literal or abstract – is balance.  The goal of proportion is to achieve balance, just as life itself is always striving for balance: for every action, there is a reaction; for every function, there is a form.

Time to rip up Book II.