The Spirit of the Architect
Vitruvius was a Roman architect and engineer who lived in the first century BC. He wrote the Ten Books on Architecture, the only architectural text that survives from antiquity. Every architecture student has read them—or should have. Vitruvius emphasizes that the focus of architectural design should be on firmitas (firmness, strength), utilitas (commodity, function), and venustas (delight, beauty). Vitruvius’s writings influenced Da Vinci, Palladio, and Le Corbusier, to name a few of the legions of architects his writings inspired. Transcending time, his philosophy is as pertinent to contemporary design as it was to contemporary design in the time of Augustus.
Last week, I received the AIA Minnesota 2013 Louis Lundgren Award for volunteer service, and as I prepared a short acceptance speech I was thinking about Vitruvius. I kept coming back to the ideas of firmness, commodity, and delight. Based on my own experiences, I have believed for a very long time that design professionals are particularly well suited for nonprofit board leadership. Recently, I have come to see how the two endeavors focus on ideals: one concerning the built world and one concerning the realm of service. In the design professions, we are constantly evaluating information and making sense of it: finding patterns and drawing logical conclusions to meet pragmatic and aspirational needs. Similarly, volunteer service leadership requires this kind of process to address publicly defined and enacted agendas. The duty to serve the common good can apply to shaping both the built world and nonprofit service.
Because I believe design is best deployed as a platform to improve the world, I also believe that the design community must further collective efforts to reshape the world by becoming active in volunteer organizations within our communities. Our critical thinking training on firmness, commodity, and delight can serve to make the world a more just, equitable, and beautiful place for everyone. And isn’t that a good way to maintain continuity with the values put forth by Vitruvius?