Monday, 9 May 2011

Vitruvius - or why I hate all architects

When Marcus Vitruvius wrote his '10 Books of Architecture' a couple of thousand years ago, he laid the foundations (literally) for every architecture practice that has been created since. There would not - as traditionally there is not in some wonderful ancient cities in Africa - ever have been a profession formally known as 'architect' without Vitruvius distilling the classical principals of building and the Arts associated with it, as inherited from the Greeks.

Ok, I know this sounds as dry as hell, but - like every other form of 'art' - it affects every one of us city-dweller's day to day lives, and if you live in Bath as I do, it affects you very directly indeed. The 10 Books are a weighty single tome as the name suggests, so are ideally suited to use for beating modern architects over the head.

Why is it such a massive book? Because the ten disciplines that Vitruvius dictated to form the training of a classical architect include music (associated with acoustics - tell that to the designer of the Sydney Opera House) and sociology (tell that to the designers of high-rise apartment blocks and 'project' housing schemes), as well as what might be considered the more mundane aspects of building and design such as the selection and preparation of materials, etc.

Then there are the little details such as the choice of flooring material in dining areas. The Romans invented concrete, and it was made from proper slaked lime as a base, with a matrix of various grades of sharp aggregate. It has to be sharp, because they worked out that the only way the crystalline structure which held the material together was formed, was by growing off the crystalline edges of the sand used in the mix. Lime concrete actually improves with age, and there are many 2000 year-old examples of it surviving today which are actually structurally sounder than they were 20 years after they were made.

Then someone discovered that if you added a precise proportion of volcanic ash to the standard lime mix, it would actually improve under sea-water! How bloody clever is that?!

Vitruvius specified the precise constituents and layering for the floor of a banquet hall, topped off with a very fine layer of the stuff, because if wine was spilt on it, it sank and disappeared into the layers, and the red stain would disappear within hours as a result of the chemical action of the calcium carbonate. Also, the servants - who went about bare-footed - would benefit from the antiseptic qualities of slaked lime, keeping them free from athlete's foot, etc.!

Now I know that we cannot turn our backs on the obvious advantages of Ordinary Portland Cement, but couldn't we at least put it to better use? It is only in the last 20 years or so that the use of ordinary cement has been banned in the restoration and conservation of Georgian Bath buildings - why? Because the developers and builders had forgotten all about how to use it and could not be bothered to take the little extra time it needs to use. Most of them still surreptitiously chuck a bit of white cement into the mix when the architect is not looking.

The training for a modern architect is about seven years today, and about three of those years are spent in a practice as cheap labour. In Vitruvius's time, you spent TWENTY ONE YEARS learning before they dared to set you loose on the public.

I once asked an arrogant architect if he had ever read the 10 Books, and he replied, "Yes - and I read them in the original Latin - have you?"

I bet he was lying.


  1. I have a friend who designed many of the monsters in Dubai. I once asked him if the finished products were ever similar to how he'd originally imagined them to be.

    "Always!" he replied angrily. I bet he was lying too.

  2. The last time I mention Roman concrete, Cro told me that the very name means 'from (the island of) Crete', so I'm diving in to stop him saying it again. I've since given it a bit of thought, and remembered that the whole of the beaches of the north coast of Crete have a high proportion of light pumice in them, and this is from an eruption of a massive volcano on the nearby island of Santorini which pretty much wiped out the pre-Roman Minoan population there. This could well be where the Romans first 'mined' the ingredient.

    Now as for cat-litter.... don't get me started.

  3. "Always... but somehow a bit bigger than they appear on my desk..."

  4. Hello Tom:
    Increasingly we wonder if so many of the buildings which spring up overnight, or so it seems, have ever started life on an architect's drawing board. And if they have, well.........!

  5. Not only was he lying, but I bet that his buildings are butt-ugly. I have my own meandering thoughts about architects and sometimes wish that I had a big piece of concrete on hand to bash some sense into them. Oi, my violent streak might have just revealed itself!

  6. Wanker. (Not you dear Tom but that arrogant architect)
    This is a great history of concrete, well apreciated by those such as me who are planning on building in concrete and mud next year. I shall reference 10 Books. Thanks.

  7. I know what you mean, Hattatts.

    The book - as mentioned - comes in handy, Iris.

    Right on both counts, Sarah. Let me know if you need any recipes for your lime-concrete - I have been handling the stuff (and myself) for years.