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Vitruvius' Fundamental Concepts of Architecture

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Architecture
Wordcount: 4383 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Vitruvius was a Roman author, architect and civil engineer during the 1st Century BC, best known for his multi-volume work entitled De Architectura, known today as, The Ten Books on Architecture. It is a treatise written in Latin and Ancient Greek on architecture, dedicated to his patron, the emperor Caesar Augustus, as a guide for building projects. Probably written around 15 BC, it is the only contemporary source on classical architecture to have survived. Divided into ten sections or “books”, it covers almost every aspect of Roman architecture.

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Vitruvius, like many Roman architects, was skilled in engineering, art and craftsmanship. He covered a wide variety of subjects he saw as touching on architecture. These included many aspects that may seem irrelevant to modern eyes, ranging from mathematics to astronomy, music, meteorology and medicine. In the Roman conception, architecture needed to take into account everything touching on the physical and intellectual life of man and his surroundings. Vitruvius thus deals with many theoretical issues concerning architecture.

In this paper, I have summarised various topics from the books which I personally found interesting, mainly from books I, II and VI. Book I talks about architecture or civil engineering in general, and the qualifications required of an architect. Book II and VI deal with building materials, and domestic buildings respectively.

Education of an Architect

The architect should be equipped with knowledge of many different fields of study. It is by his judgement that all work done by other arts is put out to test. This knowledge should be theoretical as well as practical. He should be educated, skilful with pencil, know the opinions of jurists, and possess knowledge on various fields such as geometry, history, philosophy, music, medicine and astronomy.

The architect must possess drawing skills so that he can readily make sketches to show the appearance of the project which he proposes. Geometry is also of much assistance in architecture, as it teaches the use of ruler and compass. This especially helps in preparing plans of buildings. Although, it is by arithmetic that the total cost of buildings is calculated, and measurements are computed, geometry helps in solving questions about symmetry.

The architect should also acquire knowledge about medicine, on account of the questions of climate, air, the healthiness of sites, and the use of different waters. Without these considerations, the healthiness of a dwelling cannot be assured. In terms of principles of law, he should know those which are necessary for constructing party walls, laws about drains, windows, and water supply.

Fundamental Principles of Architecture

Architecture depends on Order, Arrangement, Eurhythmy, Symmetry, Propriety, and Economy. Order gives due measure to the members of a work and symmetrical arrangement to the proportions of the whole.  Arrangement includes the putting of things in their proper places. Its forms of expression are these: ground plan, elevation and perspective. A ground plan is made by the use of compass and ruler, through which we get outlines for the plane surfaces of buildings. An elevation is the picture of the front of a building, set upright and properly drawn in its proportions. Perspective is the method of sketching a front with the sides withdrawing into the background. All three come of reflection and invention. These are departments belonging under arrangement.

Eurhythmy is the harmony of proportion. It is the beauty in the adjustment of members. This is achieved when the members are of a height suited to their breadth and of a breadth suited to their length. In other words, they all correspond symmetrically. Symmetry is the proper agreement between the members of the work itself, as well as the relation to the whole general scheme, having a certain part selected as standard.

Propriety is the perfection of style that comes when a work is authoritatively constructed on approved principles. It arises from prescription, usage, or from nature. It arises from usage, for example, when a building with magnificent interiors is provided with elegant entrance-courts to relate. There will be natural propriety in using an eastern light for bedrooms and libraries, a western light in winter for baths, and a northern light for studios or other places where a steady light is required.

Economy denotes the proper management of materials, as well as the careful balancing of costs. A second stage of economy is when we have to plan the different kinds of dwellings suitable for ordinary householders, for wealthy clients, or for statesmen in high positions. Therefore, the proper form of economy must be observed in building houses for each and every class.

The Departments of Architecture

There are basically three departments of architecture: the art of building, the making of timepieces, and the construction of machinery. Building is, in turn, divided into two parts. The first is the construction of fortified towns and of works for general use in public places. The second is the construction of domestic buildings for private individuals.

There are three classes of public buildings: for defence, religious buildings, and utilitarian buildings. Under defence comes the planning of city walls. Under religious buildings come the construction of temples, and under utility comes the provision of public meeting places such as theatres.

 All these must be built with due reference to durability, convenience, and beauty. Durability will be assured when the foundations are carried down to the solid ground and materials are used wisely. Convenience is assured when the arrangements of the apartments presents no hindrance to use. Beauty is achieved when the appearance of the work is pleasing and of good taste, and when the members are in proportion.

The directions of the streets: with remarks on the winds

The streets will be properly laid out if precaution is taken to shut out the winds from the alleys. Wind is a flowing wave of air, produced when heat meets moisture, the rush of heat generating a mighty current of air.

By shutting out the winds from our dwellings, we will make the place healthier for all its dwellers. The directions of streets and alleys should be laid down on the lines of division between the quarters of two winds. On this principle of arrangement, the force of the winds will be shut out from dwellings and lines of houses. However, if the streets run full in the face of the winds, their constant blasts rushing in from the open country, and then confined by narrow alleys, will sweep through the houses with great violence. Therefore, the lines of houses must be directed away from the quarters from which the winds blow, so as they come in they may strike against the angels of the blocks, greatly breaking their force. In this way, by turning the directions of rows of houses and the streets away from the full force of the wind, we may avoid unhealthy blasts.

The Sites for Public Buildings

The sites for temples, the forum, and all other public places, are chosen on the basis of general convenience and utility. If the city is on the sea, we should choose a ground close to the harbour as the site for building the forum. On the other hand, if it is inland, the forum should be built in the middle of the town. For the temples, the sites should be on the very highest points, commanding a view of the greater part of the city.

On the Primordial Substance according to Physicists

Water, fire, atoms, air, and earth were thought to be the primordial substances. Atoms were termed by writers as “bodies that cannot be cut up”. These elements when taken by themselves cannot be harmed or cut up into parts, nor are they prone to dissolution, but throughout time they remain the same and retain an infinite solidity. All things therefore appear to be produced by the combination of these elements. Hence, they have been distributed by nature among an infinite number and different kinds of things.


Bricks should not be made of sandy or pebbly clay, or of fine gravel. When made of these kinds, they will be heavy in the first place. Secondly, when washed by the rain as they stand in walls, they go to pieces and break up.  They should instead be made of white and chalky or of red clay, or even of coarse grained gravelly clay. These materials are smooth and durable. They are not heavy to work with and are readily laid.

Bricks should be made in spring or autumn, so that they dry uniformly. Those made in summer are defective, as the fierce heat of the sun bakes their surface and makes the brick seem dry while inside it is not. The shrinking, which follows as they dry, causes cracks in the parts that were dried earlier. These cracks make the brick weak. Bricks will be most effective if made two years before use, as they cannot dry thoroughly in lesser time.

There are three kinds of bricks. The first one, called Greek Lydian, is a foot and a half long and one foot wide. The other two kinds are used by the Greeks in their buildings. Of these, one is called pentadoron, and the other tetradoron. Public buildings are constructed of the former, and private buildings of the latter. With these bricks there are also half bricks. When these are used in a wall, a course of bricks is laid on one face, and a course of half bricks on the other, and they are bedded to the line on each face. The walls are bonded by alternate courses of the two different kinds, since the bricks are always laid so as to break joints. This provides strength as well as attractiveness to both sides of such walls.

There are bricks that when finished and dried will float on water. Their clay is like pumice stone. Therefore, it is light, and after being hardened by exposure to air, does not absorb liquid. Such bricks, being of this light and porous quality, and allowing no moisture into their texture, must therefore float on water, like pumice. These have great advantages in building, as they are not heavy and not spoiled by bad weather.


In walls of masonry, sand must be fit to mix into mortar and have no dirt in it. The kinds of pitsand are: black, grey, red, and, carbuncular. Of these, the best kind is the one that crackles when rubbed in the hand, whereas that which has much dirt in it will not be sharp enough.

Sand sifted out from river beds, sea beach or from gravel has defects when used in masonry. Firstly, it dries slowly. Secondly, the wall cannot be built up without interruption, and such a wall cannot carry vaultings. Moreover, when sea sand is used in walls and these are coated with stucco, a salty efflorescence is produced which spoils the surface. But pitsand used in masonry dries quickly, the stucco coating is permanent, and the walls can support vaultings.

The sand used should be fresh from the sandpits. If left unused for too long once it is taken out, it is disintegrated by exposure to sun, frost etc. and becomes earthy. This sand when mixed is masonry will have no binding power on the rubble and consequently settles. This puts too much load on the walls, which it can no longer support. On the other hand, fresh pitsand although efficient in concrete structures, is not equally useful in stucco, the richness of which will cause it to crack as it dries. River sand however, becomes perfectly solid in stucco when thoroughly worked by means of polishing instruments.


Lime must be burned from a stone which, whether hard or soft, must be white. Lime made of coarse grained stone of the harder sort will be good in structural parts. Lime of porous stone is used in stucco. After it is slaked, mortar is mixed, if pitsand is used, in the proportions of three parts of sand to one of lime. These will be the right proportions for the preparation of the mixture. In using river or sea sand, the addition of a third part composed of burnt brick, pounded up and sifted, will make the mortar of a better composition for use.


The stone in quarries is found to be of different and unlike qualities. In some it is soft, in others it is medium, and in still others it is hard. There are also numerous other kinds, such as red and black tufa, white tufa which can be cut with a toothed saw, like wood. All these soft kinds can be easily worked as soon as they have been taken from the quarries. When left open and exposed, the frost and rime make them crumble. They cannot stand great heat either.

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Travertine and all stones of that class can withstand injury, whether from a heavy load laid upon it or from weather. However, it cannot stand exposure to fire, and it splits and cracks to pieces at once. This is because, in its natural composition, there is a great deal of air and fire, but little moisture and earth. There are also several quarries called Anician, the stone being the colour of peperino. This stone has various good qualities. Neither the season of frost, nor exposure to fire can harm it. It remains solid and lasts for long, as there is only little air and fire in its natural composition, but a moderate amount of moisture, and a great deal of earth.

The stone should be taken from the quarry two years in prior to building, and not in winter, but in summer. Then it should be let it lie exposed in an open place. Such stone, which has been damaged by two years of exposure, should be used in the foundations. The rest, which remains unhurt, will be efficient in those parts of the building that are above ground. This precaution should be observed not only with dimension stone, but also with the rubble that is to be used in walls.

On climate as determining the style of the house

For the ideal designing of private houses, we must plan them according to the countries and climates in which they are built. This is because one part of the earth is directly under the sun’s course; another is far away from it, while another lies midway between these two. Therefore, the designs of houses should adhere to the different natures of countries and to their diverse climates.

In the north, houses should be entirely roofed over and sheltered as much as possible. They should not be in the open, although having a warm exposure. On the other hand, in the southern countries which suffer from heat where the sun is fierce, houses must be built more in the open and with a northern or north-eastern exposure.

Symmetry and modifications in it to suit the site

An architect should give thought to the proportions of his building with reference to a certain part selected as the standard. After the standard of symmetry has been determined and the proportionate dimensions adjusted, the next task is to consider the nature of the site, or questions regarding utility or attractiveness, and modify the plan by reductions or additions, is such a manner that these additions in the symmetrical relations are on correcting principles.

Therefore, the first thing to settle is the standard of symmetry, from which we may not hesitate to vary. The next task is to lay out the ground lines of the length and breadth of the proposed work. Once its size is determined, the construction should follow with due regard to beauty of proportion.

Proportions of the Principal Rooms

Cavaedium is the Latin name for the central hall or court within a Roman house. There are five different types of cavaedium, termed according to their construction as follows: Tuscan, Corinthian, tetrastlye, displuviate, testudinate.

In the Tuscan, the girders that cross the breadth of the atrium have crossbeams on them. A girder is a support beam used in construction. In the Corinthian, the girders and roof-opening are constructed on these same principles, but the girders run in from the side walls, and are supported all around by columns. In the tetrastyle, the girders are supported at the angles by columns. This arrangement relieves and supports the girders, and thus they have themselves no great span to support, neither are they loaded down by the cross-beams. In the displuviate, there are beams that slope outwards, supporting the roof, and throwing the rainwater off. This style is ideal in winter residences, due to its roof opening.

The testudinate is provided where the span is not great, and where large rooms are provided in upper floors. An atrium is an open-roofed entrance hall or central court in an ancient Roman house. Atriums are of three kinds based on length and width. For the first one, the length to width ratio is 5:3, and the second is 3:2. The third is laid out by using the width to describe a square figure and drawing a diagonal in the square. The atrium is given the length of the diagonal line. The height up to the girders should be one fourth less than their width. The rest is the proportion assigned to the ceiling and the roof above the girders.

Dining rooms should have a length twice their width. The heights of all oblong rooms are calculated by adding together their measured length and width and using one half of that sum as the height.

The proper exposures of the different rooms

Different rooms require different exposure, suited to convenience and to climate. Winter dining rooms and bathrooms should have a southern exposure, as they need the evening light. Bedrooms and libraries should have an eastern exposure as their purpose requires the morning light, and books in such libraries will not decay. In libraries with southern exposures, the books are ruined by worms and dampness.

Dining rooms for spring and autumn should face the east.  When windows face that quarter, the sun leaves such rooms at the proper temperature at the time when it is customary to use them. Summer dining rooms should face the north, as this orientation will leave the rooms sufficiently cool for use. The same is true for picture galleries and studios, as the fixed light permits the colours used in their work to last with unchanged qualities.

Architects must ensure that all buildings are well lighted. This is easier to provide with those on country estates, as there are no neighbour’s wall to interfere. Whereas in towns, high party walls or limited space obstruct the light and these make the rooms dark. We, as architects, must design so as to leave places for windows on all sides on which a clear view of the sky can be had, as this will light our rooms. Windows are essential not only in dining rooms and others for general use, but also in circulation spaces such as passages and stairs, as people carrying heavy things very often meet and run against each other in such places.

How the rooms should be suited to the station of the owner

Architects should next consider the principles on which apartments in private houses should be constructed for the householders themselves, as well as those which are common and to be shared with outsiders. The private rooms are those into which nobody has a right to enter without an invitation, such as bedrooms, dining rooms, bathrooms and others. The common rooms are those into which anybody has the right to enter, even without an invitation, such as entrance courts, cavaedia, peristyles, and all intended for similar purposes. Peristyle is defined as a series of columns enclosing a court, or a court enclosed by such columns.

Those who do business in country produce must have stalls and shops in their entrance courts, with crypts, granaries, storage rooms, and such, constructed more for the purpose of keeping the produce in good condition, than for ornamental beauty.

Foundations and Substructures

If underground rooms and vaults are to be built in the house, their foundations should be thicker than the walls which are to be constructed in the upper part of the house. Their walls, piers, and columns should be set perpendicularly over the middle of the foundation walls below, so that they have a solid bearing. If the load of the walls or columns rests on the middle of spans, they may have no permanent durability.

It will also help to insert posts between lintels and sills, where there are piers or antae.  Piers or antae are upright supports for a structure. A post is a vertical element used to support walls or horizontal beams. All of these are designed to sustain vertical pressure. Where lintels and beams have received the load of the walls, they may sag in the middle, and gradually undermine the walls. Therefore, posts set up underneath prevent the beams from damaging such walls.

We can also release the load of the walls by using arches composed of voussoirs with joints radiating to the centre. A voussoir is a wedge-shaped element, typically a stone, used to construct an arch or a vault. This way, if the wood becomes defective in course of time, it can be easily replaced without the construction of shoring. Shoring is the process of supporting a structure in order to prevent collapse, so that construction can proceed.

In houses where piers are used in the construction, when there are arches composed of voussoirs, the outermost piers at these points must be broader than the others. This makes it more durable. We must also ensure that all walls are perfectly vertical, and that they do not lean forward anywhere.

The kind of material to be used does not depend on the architect, as all kinds of materials are not found everywhere alike. It also depends on the owner, whether he likes to build in brick, rubble, or dimension stone. Not only architects, but all kinds of people can recognise a good piece of work. However, the difference between laymen and architects is that laymen cannot tell how it is going to look without seeing the work finished. Whereas, the architect, as soon as he has finished the conception and before he begins the work, he already has a definite idea about the beauty, utility, and the propriety that will distinguish it.

Personal Evaluation

The book covers almost every aspect of architecture, specifically Roman architecture. It is very evident from the book that Vitruvius was much more than just an architect, but also an engineer among many other things.

The book is not only a building guide for architects, but also discusses city planning, fortification, construction of machines, astronomy, music, medical theories, paintings, and information about how to obtain certain colours and from what sources they come, to name a few of the wide range of subjects that Vitruvius has covered. Urban planning principles such as, how to find water, and how to lay out various types of buildings, are all described in detail. However, I decided to leave these out as my primary focus is on architecture.

Books I, II, and VI, were the ones that interested me the most, as these touched the topics that I felt were most relevant for architecture, and do not discuss history, or engineering topics. Books VIII, IX and X are engineering topics and form the basis of Roman technology. Book I was the most theoretically interesting for me, since it describes the proper education of an architect, the rules for architecture (firmness, utility, and beauty), and the ‘departments’ of architecture.

Book II focusses on building materials in detail, which grabbed my attention as well. The book also contains aspects about ecological architecture, such as the orientation of different rooms according to climatic factors, as described in Book VI. In this book, Vitruvius also describes the importance of symmetry and the proportions of rooms. He concludes Book VI with a chapter on foundations and substructures, which I found particularly interesting. I believe that these three books contain almost all the basic information that an architect needs to know and should try to implement them. However, the book lacks illustrations for the complicated geometric figures described throughout the book, although some have been supplied from later Renaissance manuscripts or reconstructed. The book also lacks some aesthetic aspects of design, such as the design of facades. Nevertheless, The Ten Books on Architecture provided me with a profound understanding of Classical architecture.



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