Firmitas Utilitas Venustas

I’ve been thinking about triangles, balance and Marcus Vitruvius Pollio as I re-read James O’Gorman’s delightful ABC of Architecture.  The tiny and delightful book covers a lot of ground in only 107 pages (a fact attested to by the copious annotated post-its sticking out of my copy in all directions) and is well worth a read by any architect or layperson.

The “A,” “B” and “C,” to which O’Gorman refers are the Vitruvian triad of Structure, Utility and Beauty – the three characteristics necessary for architecture as identified by the first extant book about architecture.  Its popular to refer to Vitruvius as the first architect but as he’s not actually known to have built (or even designed) anything I think its more appropriate to describe him as the first architectural critic.

His De architectura, or Ten Books of Architecture are assigned reading for every architectural history student.  The books are comprehensive, covering a wide range of topics not typically associated with architecture today including Geometry, Astronomy, the concoction of viaducts and war machinery and landscape design.  Whether they are actually read by every such student is less likely (I know I didn’t read them completely, though I still have the book on my shelf).

The one concept that every architect worth his or her salt will recognize is the aforementioned triad …

Firmitas  |  Firmness  |  Structure

Utilitas  |  Commodity  |  Utility

Venustas  | Delight  |   Beauty

… the idea that the design of a building, of architecture,  requires that it be structurally viable, that it serve some useful purpose and that it be aesthetically pleasing in some way.  With structure and utility but no beauty you have a warehouse, with structure and beauty but no utility you have a sculpture and with utility and beauty but no structure you have a well designed hand tool.

O’Gorman’s book takes the concept of the triangle further.  It can, according to him, be represented by the three main types of drawing used by architect to represent a building; a floor plan is concerned with function and shows how the building will be used, a building cross section demonstrates the structural system and the elevation drawing shows the overall apperance and (presumed) beauty.  Likewise it is manifested in the three interested parties in creating a building; the client requires the usefulness, the builder creates the structure and the architect provides the beauty.  I’ll be digging into this more soon, I think.


If it says so on a T-shirt,

it must be true.



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