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The Journal of Architecture Volume 2 Winter 1997

What Vitruvius Said

Richard Patterson

Department of Architecture, De Montford University, Leicester LE1 9BH, UK

Vitruvius’s De architectura has long been subject to critical commentary on the grounds that its language is irregular and even untranslatable, that its technical treatment of the Orders is incomplete and inconsistent, and that its organization does not present its technical material in the most coherent way. Yet, it has also been referred to as the origin of the theoretical basis of architecture through its citation of Greek metaphysical concepts as the grounding principles for an architectural science. This paper argues that Vitruvius’s substantial contribution lay not in theoretical speculation but, through the invention of technical discourse, in the introduction of critical values to ‘technical’ matters and, through the submission of technical matters to the dynamic of language, in the constitution of technology as a developmental process. . . . the analysis of codes perhaps offers an easier and surer historical de nition of a society than the analysis of its signi eds, for the latter can often appear as trans-historical, belonging more to an anthropological base than to a proper history. Roland Barthes Image Music Text that it alone, amongst the treatises on architecture mentioned in classical writings, managed to survive into the modern era. In the practice of architecture, however, its in uence has been relatively modest. During the Renaissance, it was the later and derivative commentator Palladius Rutilius Taurus Aemilianus (ca. AD 400) who was more frequently referred to.1 Then, as in all periods, architects sought inspiration from authors whose language and style addressed their own preoccupations, interests, and orientation. There was obviously something attractive to the Renaissance mind about the way in which Palladius limited his discourse to the reduced scope of what we might now refer to as the technical. Perhaps for this reason, aside from a certain in uence on the language and concepts of John Dee’s ‘Preface’, Vitruvius did not appear in English until the early nineteenth century.2 De Architectura’s in uence was, however, more substantial as a model of a certain textual strategy. 1360–2365

We cease to think when we refuse to do so under the constraint of language, we barely reach the doubt that sees this limitation as a limitation. Friedrich Nietzsche The Will to Power Vitruvius’s De architectura (ca. 30 BC) is the oldest surviving treatise on architecture. Amongst ancient works concerned with technical topics, it was singular in its project to ground that a complex set of technical practices categorized as ‘architectural ’ in abstract, predominantly Greek metaphysical principles. It is for this reason, it has been suggested, © 1997 E & FN Spon

What Vitruvius said Richard Patterson

Discursive yet intermittently systematic, relativel y open, and formally critical, Vitruvius codi ed a discourse which led to what we now call ‘science’ and ’technology’. Indeed, he may be said to have constitituted ‘technology’, if by ‘technology’ we mean a mode of thinking about making things which is motivated by, and subject to criteria originating in discourse ‘external’ to the issues which such manufacture conventionally presents. Technology, far from being a natural outcome of the character of things, is the result of a certain codi cation. It is the result of a system of protocols, governing presentation and justi cation. This is not to say that technology operates without knowledge, but that this ‘knowledge’, both as know-how and propositional knowledge, is used but intermittently and, indeed, vicariously. Technology is not grounded in the autonomous objects pursued by science and has no isomorphic version as ‘theory’. It is an eclectic device of human creation; its laws are conventional and convenient; its being, furtive. The...
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