Utilitas, Firmitas, Venustas


Top: Boullee: Cenotaph to Newton. Bottom: Durand building modules.

“Shall I, like Vitruvius, define architecture as the art of building? No, for this would be to confuse causes and effects. The effects of architecture are caused by light.” Etienne Louis Boullee

“ Architects should concern themselves with planning and nothing else.” Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand

The early beginnings of modern architecture already showed opposing viewpoints as to the correct approach of making buildings. The doctrine of Vitruvius, being Commodity, Firmness, and Delight was distilled like oil and water by two 18th century architects. Etienne Louis Boullee and Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand.

Boullee subscribed to the purity of true geometric forms, like cubes, pyramids and most forcefully, the sphere. He believed the sphere was the perfect, all encompassing expression of architectural form. He was strictly interested in the Delight part of Vitruvius’ doctrine. His work was fantastical, neglectful of program, and unbuildable at the time of conception. The sphere is in some ways a ridiculous shape for architecture, having no easy way to ingress the volume let alone figure out how to fit program into it. Boullee was not an architect interested in practicality, his motives were purely aesthetic. He was a dreamer in a profession governed by the practical needs of constructability and appropriateness of program: firmness and commodity!

Durand on the opposite end based his theories strictly on logic. His ideas proposed that buildings need not concern themselves with aesthetics; aesthetic forms would arise by the correct usage of construction and planning. He also believed in the cylinder and sphere, not as a spiritually perfect form, but as the most efficient and economical mass for design. He advocated the logic of the grid, which promoted regularity and ease of programming. Durand could be argued as lacking in the Vitruvian doctrine of delight.

The paradox of the architect can clearly be seen in the opposing philosophies of these two early pioneers of modern architecture. Boullee is the Spiritualist, hounded by the realities of gravity, economy, and reality, Durand is a Rationalist, hounded by the decadent tastes of his time, dogged by ornamentation, decorum, and the final nail in the coffin of all idealistic architects: the demands and whims of the Client!

Of course in hindsight we can also see the ways these architects betrayed their original conceptions. They were still mainly influenced by the belief that truth in architecture is derived from an adherence to classical forms like the column and the pediment. Boullee actually seemed to deviate furthest from this, the large amounts of bare space on his buildings being some of the first examples of undecorated building. Durand, however logical he was, still adhered to the traditional forms of the neo-classicists. This seems arbitrary now, even if it may not have at the time, and the arbitrary would certainly be something I imagine he would have been fully against.

Boullee and Durand found practical counterparts in the modern era with Le Corbusier and Mies Van Der Rohe, albeit with even more layers of paradox. This is the topic for my next post…..

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