You may not know the name Marcus Vitruvius Pollio but it’s a safe bet you’ll be aware of the drawing that bears his name – Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, says Derek Hays, associate director of Hames Sharley.
Marcus Vitruvius Pollio was also the author of De architectura, a weighty tome that is now more commonly known as The Ten Books on Architecture, a Latin treatise on the practice of architecture, dedicated to Emperor Augustus.
Vitruvius is often erroneously referred to as the first architect – he could be described more accurately as the first Roman architect whose writings on architecture have survived (in those writings he cites numerous references to architects before himself that confirm this).
His personal greatness doesn’t spring from his own excellent designs, rather from his codification of the practice of architecture.
In the time of the Roman Empire, architects practised a much wider variety of disciplines than are described by our modern definitions.
To put it into context, Vitruvius would now be an engineer, landscape designer, surveyor and master planner all rolled into one.
Moreover, etymologically speaking, the word ‘architect’ has its roots in the Greek for ‘master’ and ‘builder’.
De architectura is the only surviving major book on architecture from classical antiquity and is credited with deeply influencing mankind’s greatest thinkers, from Leonardo da Vinci to Michelangelo.
In fact, the next major book on architecture, Alberti’s reformulation of The Ten Books, was not written until 1452 – one and a half millennia after Vitruvius’ seminal work.
In a precursor to what is now known as biomimetics, De architectura stated that architecture should be an imitation of nature.
Skip forward fifteen centuries, and da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man describes our understanding of the proportions of the greatest work of art – the human body – via the fundamental geometric patterns of the circle and the square.
Perhaps most impressively, the book’s main assertions on architecture stand true today – albeit if you allow a loosening of the application.
Vitruvius proclaimed that a structure must exhibit three qualities: firmitatis, utilitatis and venustatis.
These roughly translate into English as stability, utility and beauty, and are collectively known as the Vitruvian Triad.
In a modern context, stability, utility and beauty can be updated with the terms sustainable, beneficial and attractive.
These words effectively describe the nub of what Vitruvius was getting at, but perhaps allow a broader description of how great design outcomes are achieved.
Sustainability’ is often seen as a byword for environmentally or ecologically appropriate; however, the true definition of sustainability also covers the equally important pillars of social and economic sustainability.
In using the word ‘utility’, Vitruvius points to great design requiring functionality to be successful. For me, the word ‘beneficial’ adapts the thinking to a modern context that addresses the requirements of the end users and stakeholders engaged in the design process.
To be blunt, beneficial can also pertain to the need for a financial return on investment that a design requires to be considered great.
Finally, ‘beauty’ is perhaps better defined as attractiveness. It’s a cliched truism that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and for a design to be successful it need not be seen as popularly beautiful. Surely being seen to be attractive is a more valuable outcome than being deemed to be beautiful?
The Venn diagram of sustainable, beneficial and attractive has a sweet spot at its centre that describes every truly great design that mankind or mother-nature has created throughout history.
Looking outside of our own sector in the built environment of buildings and places, examples of how the rules of design greatness stand true are easy to rattle off.
The Dyson vacuum cleaner, Apple’s iPhone and Levi’s iconic jeans are three that spring immediately to mind.
All these are universally recognised as great designs that are attractive enough to dominate their own markets, functionally beneficially enough to generate phenomenal levels of brand loyalty, and with their own inbuilt sustainability that enables them to endure.
Allowing for ever-evolving technology and competitors entering the market with similar products, these three behemoths remain at the top table because their designs remain sustainable, beneficial and attractive or firmitatis, utilitatis and venustatis, as Vitruvius would have put it.