Ideas That Shaped Buildings

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In Ideas That Shaped Buildings, Fil Hearn identifies and codifies into theoretical systems the operative tenets of architectural theory from ancient Rome to the present. With this strikingly original synthesis of architectural history and theory, he constructs an intellectual armature on which virtually any architectural concept, past or present, can be positioned. Dealing mainly with the treatises that have been highly influential historically, he organizes their concepts thematically and analyzes their development through time. Straightforward and concise,
Ideas That Shaped Buildings is readily accessible to architecture students, practicing architects,
and the general public -- indeed anyone interested in understanding the design rationale of buildings. Its overarching message is that, far from being constricting, proper knowledge and application of architectural theory is enabling and inspiring, and makes creative freedom possible by providing the conceptual awareness needed to devise a design.After an introductory history of the development of architectural theory, the text is divided into four parts. The first deals with issues relevant to all theories of architecture. The second, treating theory from antiquity to 1800,
focuses on the prescriptive conventions inherent in the classical tradition. The third, treating theory after 1800, focuses on the inspirational principles prompted by rationalist perceptions of the Gothic tradition. The fourth, treating theory since 1965, deals with rationales beyond rationalism and the influence of computers on design method and design formulation. The concepts discussed are illustrated with theoretical drawings and images of actual buildings.

The MIT Press

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Hearn is a good tour guide." Michael J. Crosbie
Architectural Record

The MIT Press

"The product of many years of classroom experience, this compendium is likely to become a much assigned text..." Publisher's Weekly

The MIT Press

"There has long been a need for this book, and it should sell well for many years."
Peter Kaufman Library Journal

The MIT Press

"Tutors and students will be blessing Fil Hearn for his little book... compact,
erudite, literate." Jeremy Melvin Architects

The MIT Press

Publishers Weekly
The comparative compactness of this book belies its grandly ambitious attempt to synthesize 2,000 years of Western architectural theory. For Hearn, an art and architectural history professor at the University of Pittsburgh, the Roman temples of Vitruvius and the postmodern Las Vegas of Robert Venturi form part of a coherent whole, sustained by a long and complex intellectual tradition, a shifting set of articulate reactions to a set of fundamental human circumstances. He finds further that design and architectural theory, more than most disciplines, have been dominated by a fairly small set of theoretical treatises, which form the bases for the four sections and 16 chapters of Hearn's work. These texts, and the ways in which designers and builders have reacted to them over the centuries, are described with the kind of terse thoroughness that speaks of a daunting command of the subject. Moving freely between Alberti and Le Corbusier, between the columnar order and the Dymaxion house, Hearn transmits a clear sense of the endless interdependence of theory and practice. But the most surprising thing about this volume is how deftly it incorporates-despite its "return to fundamentals" approach-the intellectual and technical developments of recent decades. Hearn's holistic approach allows a warts-and-all discussion of postmodernism's weaknesses that is also able to clearly describe its achievements. And the already pivotal impact of computer modeling on design is not only recognized, but broadly contextualized. The product of many years of classroom experience, this compendium is likely to become a much assigned text in both introductory and advanced architecture and design programs. And if Hearn's clipped no-nonsense style sometimes demands close attention, the reader can be assured that Hearn is never deliberately obscure, something that can hardly be said of every book in architectural theory's expanding field. (Jan.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This book summarizes, in readable terms, 2000 years of "ideas that shaped buildings," or architectural theory, from the Roman Marcus Vitruvius Pollio to the modernist Robert Venturi and beyond. Hearn (director, architectural studies, Univ. of Pittsburgh) divides the book into four sections, opening with a history of architectural theory and then moving chronologically from antiquity to today. There has long been a need for this book, and it should sell well for many years. It is well illustrated, well researched, well reasoned, well written, and refreshingly free of cant, obscurantism, and the unnecessary encumbrance of unwarranted scholarship. Perhaps a later edition could address non-Western subject matter, a growing area of concern to all of us. Hearn has a classical bent: even the postmodern chapter relies on the classical theory of rhetoric to explain the latest theories of meaning in architecture. This is unfortunate, as this treatment obviates the very exciting, contemporary avant-garde of architectural theory, which is grounded in a variety of European Marxist and Neo-Marxist critiques of social formation. Nevertheless, the book, which is aimed at general readers as much as architecture students, is highly recommended to general public libraries as well as specialized academic collections. In fact, if a library owns just ten or 20 books on architecture, this could easily be one of them.-Peter Kaufman, Boston Architectural Ctr. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780262582278
  • Publisher: MIT Press
  • Publication date: 11/1/2003
  • Pages: 372
  • Sales rank: 1,047,725
  • Product dimensions: 5.37 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Fil Hearn is Professor of History of Art and Architecture and Director of Architectural Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.

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Read an Excerpt

Ideas That Shaped Buildings

By Fil Hearn

The MIT Press

Copyright © 2003 Millard F. Hearn
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-262-58227-9

Chapter One

Of Architecture and Architects


Theorists from Vitruvius on have exalted the role of architecture and the architect in human society. Vitruvius did not dwell at length on the matter, but in the context of hypothesizing an origin for architecture he offered the art of building perhaps the highest encomium it has ever received. After attributing to the discovery of fire the origin of society and language, he accorded to the invention of architecture the status of generator of civilization. From architecture, he asserted, all the other arts and fields of knowledge were descended. By implication, then, the architect is one of the prime contributors to the shaping of civilization. By defining the importance of the art of building in this way, Vitruvius raised the writing of architectural theory above the level of technical manuals to that of intellectual discourse bordering on philosophy. Subsequent theorists had to subscribe to similar characterizations in order to maintain the same lofty status for their treatises, but their different circumstances prompted them to employ somewhat different formulations.

Because Alberti's mission in writing his treatise was to revive the antique tradition, it was necessary for him to make classical architecture important to others as well. Hence for him the role of theory had to be one of advocacy-as it has remained to this day. For that reason Alberti felt impelled to cite the benefits to society of beautiful, well-planned buildings: they give pleasure; they enhance civic pride; they confer dignity and honor on the community; if sacred, they can encourage piety; and they may even move an enemy to refrain from damaging them. By the same token the architect through his work bestows benefits: he is useful both to individual clients and to the public. Through the design of military machines and fortifications he may be more useful to the defense of society than the generals; and as an artist and theorist he is an ornament to his culture.

For as long as the classical tradition reigned as the sole desirable mode for architecture, these assertions did not need to be restated or defended. But near the end of the eighteenth century, when a theorist such as Quatremère de Quincy could assert that the orders need not necessarily be the basis of design, a new way of defining the role of architecture became appropriate. Quatremère saw architecture as a mode of expression, parallel to language and similar in nature. Like language, it is not only a means whereby human society is formed but is also a cause of its formation. Like language, architecture evolves and with that evolution comes to serve a progressive social purpose. Hence architects and architecture can be the instrument of social improvement.

That outlook got a new spin when Gothic became the conceptual ideal. Pugin, for instance, cited this one particular style of building, the medieval architecture of the pointed arch, as not only evocative but also supportive of a virtuous society. The medieval architect, by implication, had been the instrument of that virtue. Ruskin, imputing similar virtue to Italian Gothic, maintained that good architecture inspires the citizens who have incorporated it into their daily lives, because it expresses and at the same time reinforces the highest values of their society. It contains the most palpable evidence of their historical experience, endowing the surrounding landscape with the cultural meaning that makes nature poetic. Moreover, it manifests the inner spirit of a people, witnessing to their distinctive identity. The architect assumes the burden of realizing all these important missions. When he is successful, he has contributed to and improved his society.

For Viollet-le-Duc, who preferred to involve himself in architecture without benefit of metaphysics, the architect provides rational designs to meet practical needs. Architecture, for him, is the product of logical analysis, providing for a functional need with a suitable structure while employing appropriate materials. His views are akin to Ruskin's but without the romantic sentiment. Together the two theorists provided the basis for a magnified esteem, current during the early decades of the twentieth century, of the social value of good design and the architect's role in creating it.

Paul Scheerbart, envisioning in 1914 a virtually transparent architecture with curtain walls of glass set in minimal ferroconcrete frames, offered one of the most radical assessments. He recognized that while living and working in transparent buildings a person would have to shed the sense of being cocooned that traditional architecture provides. That person would also have to be willing to function with the environment in full view, and in full view of those on the outside. Such an alteration of circumstances would require nothing less than a fundamental change of behavior and a modification of prevailing notions of privacy. It would radically redefine the way people had related to architecture for more than two thousand years. For Scheerbart, then, architecture is capable of playing a role in society that would profoundly change how people live and relate to each other. He had, on the other hand, no particular notion of the architect's place in all this other than to assume that the designer can and will recognize and take advantage of all the new opportunities presented by modern technology.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, and Le Corbusier shared an exaggerated notion of the profound effect that good architectural design and the architect who created it could have on society. For Le Corbusier it was largely a case of solving problems to create a more healthful and efficient built environment. To a considerable extent he subscribed to the same notion as Scheerbart, namely that through spare, lean domestic design one could correct the indolent, materialistic inclinations he deplored in nineteenth-century society and perceived in its architecture. He was fully aware of the implications for lifestyle that are inherent in his architectural design, and he tended to idealize the impact that an architect of such inclinations could exert upon his society. His urban design schemes, centered on widely dispersed glass and concrete towers and surrounded by long ribbon buildings of similar construction, were abstractions based on generalized concerns for physical health and circulation and little else. They were environments to be shaped by a single intelligence, granted total control over a large area.

Gropius's notions were nearly the same; indeed, he and Le Corbusier both trusted in modern industrial technology to sweep away the ills of the past, especially the horrors of the nineteenth-century industrial city. More than the other two leaders of modernism, however, Gropius put his faith in the creation of material environments in which all artifacts, not just the architecture, would be well designed. They would not only be tasteful and efficient; they would also be industrially produced, and in a manner that would make them economically available to most of the population. He regarded the function of an architect as that of a social benefactor.

Wright, having early imbibed from Japan the Zen Buddhist concept of the oneness of humankind with nature, was always more concerned than the other two pioneers of modernism with using architecture to help people establish a philosophically healthier relationship to nature. Toward this end he devoted special concern to the siting of his rural buildings in nature and also to designing the natural environment surrounding his urban buildings. He regarded his architecture as capable of helping people adopt a saner lifestyle, and as an architect he thought of himself as the one who would show the way. His Broadacre City project-made with the Taliesin Fellows in the mid-1930s-integrated the amenities of both city and country in a thinly populated regional plan. The architect of such a community would implicitly both design and control the environment. Consequently, just as Plato's republic was to be headed by a philosopher-king, Wright's Broadacre City would have to be governed by a philosopher-architect.

Of the three, it was Le Corbusier whose ideas about the role of the architect enjoyed the greatest influence, especially in the area of city design. Conceived with altruistic motives for housing the many, his urban schemes were dominated by a concern for providing healthful environments, light and airy, in which circulation by modern modes of transportation would be maximally efficient. Through such improved design he thought it would be possible to transform urban life for the better.

As it turned out, Le Corbusier's exalted aspiration for the role of the architect signaled the high-water mark of the modernist movement's professional ambitions. The apartment tower schemes constructed according to his model ended up exerting upon the occupants an impact exactly opposite from the one he had imagined. Not only did the structures not revitalize their alienated and dehumanized occupants, but they even atomized the very communities they were meant to unify. In acknowledgment of their failure, the dramatic intentional demolition of such a complex in St. Louis in the 1960s did more than any other one event to deflate the exalted regard for the architect and the social role of architecture that modernism had fostered. Since then, statements on those twin themes have been little more than asides interpolated into the explanations of designs in monographs and professional journals.

Nowadays the professional is more likely to present him- or herself as a nonintrusive interpreter of the client's needs, functioning principally as a facilitator for their realization. If the reality of performance is more active than that, it is one in which the designer's creative freedom is exercised more with the way the structure is formulated than with the way the building is to be used, that is, with the means rather than the ends. If the present-day architect does not still claim to improve society through good design, he or she may nevertheless produce an unanticipated new cultural icon in the course of developing a radical structural solution to the practical needs of the client. Be that as it may, the diminution of the role of the architect in architectural theory is real, and it has been accompanied by a parallel diminution in both the advocacy and the comprehensiveness of architectural theory itself.


Vitruvius regarded the architect's ability as so central to the enterprise of building that he made the architect's education the point of departure for his entire treatise. He certainly expected that the training would be practical as well as intellectual, each of those aspects being equally necessary as well as indispensable to the other. The practical he felt no need to describe, whereas the intellectual he discussed in considerable detail. At another point in his text he expressed pride in his education and gratitude to his parents for having provided it. So the curriculum he delineated in the opening book may have been pretty much what he had received and found useful in his own career.

The subjects he prescribed are not far removed from a liberal arts curriculum in present-day institutions. They include eleven disciplines. Drawing is needed in order to make sketches. Geometry helps one to employ a rule and compass in making a design and also to figure proportions. Optics is useful to determine the quality of light in buildings. Arithmetic is needed to calculate costs and dimensions. History helps one to explain features of famous buildings to clients. Philosophy provides the basis for cultivating personal virtues. Physics is needed to understand the laws of nature. Music, as an intellectual rather than a practical pursuit, helps one to acquire mathematical theory (related to acoustics) and to tune weapons. Medicine is useful in judging the health conditions of building sites. Law informs one about regulations related to building. And astronomy helps one to understand the harmony of the universe. Although each of those subjects is individually important, he recognized that each informs the others as well. He was quick to admit that he was no scholar and that one need not be an expert in any of the subjects. Rather, he felt it important to grasp the principles involved in the various disciplines so that they can be employed in a pragmatic way.

It is hard to fault such a curriculum and general outlook for the education of an architect. The difference in concept between this and what is prescribed today is not great, even if the particular subjects are not the same, but ironically the similarity probably has little or nothing to do with the fact that Vitruvius articulated its scope. It has more to do with the gradual return to a cultural situation in which a holistic view of the needs of society combined with the technological demands of construction is roughly parallel to that of ancient Rome.

From Alberti's standpoint, such a curriculum could not be provided in one institution or cultural circumstance. Functioning in a context in which the medieval curriculum of the seven liberal arts still survived virtually intact, Alberti posited a prospective architect closer to the realm of the scholar than to that of the builder. Indeed, in writing his treatise he was carrying on a campaign to gain acceptance of the visual arts as pursuits belonging to the intellectual realm. For him it was important to gain recognition for the architect as a scholar and gentleman rather than merely the craftsman he had long been in Italian society. Thus did Alberti get cornered into asserting a greater importance for theory than practice in the architect's education and regarding his profession as more that of an artist than a builder.

Alberti's outlook prevailed, with two telling consequences. The most direct is that for as long as the classical tradition dominated in European architecture, the education of the architect was more artistic and theoretical than practical. Official academies were eventually founded in the seventeenth century to propagate exactly this regimen, and they dominated the preparation of young architects for at least two more centuries to come. The less direct consequence was that, lacking a venturesome technological training, European architects did not develop any important structural innovations during the era when this philosophy of training prevailed. Although rich in formal invention within the rubric of classicism, their practice remained largely static in matters related to technology.

Viollet-le-Duc is the theorist who wanted to bring the education of the architect into the modern age.


Excerpted from Ideas That Shaped Buildings by Fil Hearn Copyright © 2003 by Millard F. Hearn. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface: Architectural Theory Is Everybody's Business
Introduction: Contours of Theoretical Development 1
I Underpinnings (Relevant to All Theory) 23
1 Of Architecture and Architects 25
2 Standards of Judgment and Design Justifications 39
3 The Uses of the Past 53
II Conventions (Theory before 1800) 79
4 Images of the Ideal and Classical Design Method 81
5 The Orders: Evolving Rules for Formal Beauty 97
6 The Alternative Aesthetic: Breaking the Rules 137
7 Proportion: The Orders and Architectural Spaces 161
III Principles (Theory from 1800 to 1965) 177
8 Rational Design Method 179
9 Generative Planning as the Basis of Design 193
10 Honest Structure as the Framework of Design 223
11 Truth to the Medium: Using Materials 255
12 Decoration and the Integrity of Design 271
13 Restoration: The Care of Inherited Buildings 281
14 Design of Cities 289
IV Convolutions (Theory since 1965) 303
15 Rationales beyond Rationalism 305
16 New Directions in Design Method 323
Conclusion 335
Time Line of Treatises 337
Bibliography 343
Credits 351
Index 355
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