Architectural Writings

Reflecting on Alberti’s On the Art of Building

Leon Battista Alberti begins his treatise On the Art of Building in Ten Books by mentioning that architecture is made up of two elements: lineamentia or linear characteristics of a building, which is obtained from the mind; and matteria or materials of a building, which comes from nature. Additionally, with regards to the linear characteristics of a building, he argues in the Prologue that one has to rely on logic and their intellect, which is an aspect of human nature. This begs the question that to what extent should architects value human nature for the design and construction of buildings? If a built form is constructed for housing an entire community, how much balance should be maintained in considering a resident’s individual nature and the community’s collective nature?

When it comes to selecting a site for a building, Alberti highlights knowledge of the appropriate climate to be of the utmost importance, and labels it as an “indispensable precaution.”[1] He contests that while any inadequacy in landscape conditions such as land and water can be fixed using skills and innovation, no form of intellectual or physical prowess can overpower the shortcomings of a climatic condition. He points out several examples across the world where the presence and absence of natural phenomenon can impact the locality, such as the lack of rain in Egypt and an abundance of it in Hydaspes during summer. Alberti also mentions that one should investigate other less conspicuous factors or drawbacks of a site condition. Here he highlights Plato’s notion that residents of a location can either benefit or be damaged due to the influence of some higher power or an evil regime. Alberti believes that such influences can drive residents to madness or even self-destruction. It appears that Alberti is making his readers aware of the duality of nature and how it exists across various regions and climatic conditions. Is he implying that one cannot have a holistic knowledge about natural conditions without knowing both sides of a phenomenon? And does this concept of duality relate to the existence of harmony in nature?

Throughout his treatise, Alberti repeatedly highlights the significance of following the natural style of building, whether it is regards to the geometric shape of columns or for constructing all types of vaults. Even with regards to the setting of stones in a vault, he suggests one should imitate the “ingenuity of Nature.”[2] In Book IV, he goes on to suggest that in order to investigate the diversity of building types, the variety in human nature should be taken into consideration. Distinctions among societies on the basis of status, wealth and profession play a role in determining the type of architecture necessary for each category of citizens. While some buildings are sufficient for a society as a whole, others maybe suitable for the leaders and the everyday people. However, this brings into mind the question of accessibility and inclusivity. Is Alberti implying that the common people should not be permitted in the buildings reserved for the elites? Is he not highlighting class differences among societies by distinguishing the functional requirements of each building depending on categorization of citizen?

In Book Six of On the Art of Building in Ten Books, Leon Battista Alberti writes that there are three requirements necessary for all forms of building – functionality, durability and its aesthetic quality – which echoes Vitruvius’ firmitas, utilitas, and venustas. He continues to spend much of the second half of his treatise talking about the third condition mentioned here. According to Alberti, beauty is the most important and worthy of all these requirements for building technology. He cites the significance of beauty by mentioning the abundance of it in nature, namely through natural elements such as flowers and their varied colors. In addition to beauty, Alberti also highlights the significance of ornamentation, and he believes no other artform can act as a protector of built forms as ornamentation can. However, how much truth does Alberti’s bold statement hold? Has the external beauty of heritage sites in war torn nations protected them from being destroyed? Even in countries with no turmoil or unrest, many historical sites and landmarks fall into decay due to lack of preservation efforts. So, to me it seems Alberti’s statement stems from a place of romanticized notion of beauty and aesthetics, and would not be valid even during Alberti’s lifetime. 

Another observation regarding the concept of beauty and ornamentation in Alberti’s writing is that the former is something which is inherent, more related to the nature of the object, while the latter is an additional element. Alberti believes beauty is a characteristic which brings harmony to an object. He remarks that it is very unusual to find something entirely flawless and complete even in Nature, although there is an abundance of beauty to be found in nature. He also mentions that the Greeks took inspiration from nature for innovation in their building technology, while Nature is also a source from which concepts like weight, density, and purity can be derived from. Once again, like in Vitruvius’ text, it seems like the dual meanings of nature is being considered here – one that refers to the environment, and the other referring to a higher power that guides the architect in the art of building. In this multiplicity of meanings, what role does human nature play? If beauty is an inherent quality as per Alberti, then is it also an aspect of human nature, since it is the reason behind harmony?

Alberti takes into consideration opinions of those who may disagree with his theory about beauty being an inherent quality, saying that a building’s aesthetic as well as other qualities may be judged on the basis of “relative and variable criteria.”[3] This relates to the modern way of understanding that beauty can be subjective, and its definition will vary depending on an individual’s taste. Regarding arrangement of various parts of a whole, Alberti places much importance on the concept of concinnitas, which he believes exists more in nature than it does in human bodies. Perfection in nature can be achieved if nature’s products are adjusted according to the rules of concinnitas, which, according to translator Joseph Rykwert, are “decisions that determine the arrangement of a building.”[4] By making these two distinctions between subjectivity of beauty and concinnitas in nature, is Alberti contradicting himself? How can beauty exist as an inherent quality, and also be dependent on precise arrangement of parts of a whole that ensures harmony and unity in a building?

[1] On the Art of Building, p. 9.

[2] p. 86

[3] p. 157

[4] p. 422