Sunday, February 25, 2024

Mimicry of Design

By Jean Salgados | May 16, 2022

At the height of the Roman Empire, there lived an architect by the name of Vitruvius. This genius set the standard for Roman architecture, and his teachings brought into modernity during the renaissance period through Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Vitruvian Man.’ So who is this ancient figure, and how did he inspire a movement thousands of years after his passing?

Vitruvius, his only name, was born in the century before the common era, during the time of Julius Caesar. Little is known about Vitruvius’ life other than the numerous accounts of his full name. A record found showed him mentioned as Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, a writer of a revised abridged work of Vitruvius’ works Marcus Cetius Faventius named his as simply Vitruvius Polio. He was a military engineer during the height of the Gallic Wars. By his personal accounts, he claimed to have seen conflict waged in Africa, Hispania, Gaul, a territory stretching from France to Germany and Northern Italy, and Pontos, the southern coast of the Black Sea.

His most notable work, however, is the De Architectura, or the Ten Books of Architecture. The work is a treatise written in Latin on architecture, dedicated to the emperor Augustus. It is, unfortunately, the only known surviving literature from ancient antiquity. In this treatise, Vitruvius famously asserted that a structure must exhibit these three qualities: Firmitatis, Utilitatis, and Venustatis, or Stability, Utility, and Beauty. Let’s focus on his third point, Venustatis, which is said to be the more complex of the three.

When talking about architectural beauty, we have plenty of examples around the world. Gardens by the Bay in Singapore is perhaps one of the most striking examples of aesthetic architecture, but why is that? Vitruvius states in his treatise that a timeless notion of beauty could be learned from the “truth of nature”, and that nature’s designs were based on universal laws of proportion and symmetry. The human body according to him was a “living rule book” containing fixed, and faultless laws set down by nature. But what about nature in general?

Biomorphism is an idea that looks into the shapes and models of naturally occurring objects and beings. This concept is adopted in every discipline that involves design, and with good reason. Going back to Vitruvius’ reasons for Venustatis, we should look to nature to find proportions and symmetry that satisfy this ‘Beauty’. Even though Geoffrey Grigson coined the term “biomorphism” independently of Vitruvius, it is clear that for our works to be observed for posterity, our designs need to take inspiration from what is naturally occurring in nature.

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