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16 Sept 2020

The Origins of Architecture

Fernando Aliata


The best-known definition of architecture is perhaps that of William Morris: “Architecture is the set of modifications and alterations introduced to the earth’s surface in order to meet human needs, except only the pure desert.” But this is not the definition of the Greeks, nor of the humanists of the Renaissance. Georges Teyssot tells us that, etymologically, “Architecture” is a word composed of two Greek terms that are arché and tektonicos. Tektonicos means carpenter, builder, maker. The other word is arché, that means order, principle, class. Therefore, the architect would be the maker who materializes the order, an order that does not exist in the real world.

Indeed, the Greeks believed that the nature we see is a distorted nature. What we perceive is the distorted reflection of a real nature that is beyond. A concept that we immediately relate to the image of Plato’s cavern. An allegory that tries to convince us that our material world is only the set of shadows cast on the bottom of the cave, since the true reality is outside of us. Hence, architecture is constituted, from this conception, as a sacred discipline whose function is to reconstitute, in our imperfect nature, the ideal nature, the lost origin, that is, the arché. This action is performed in art or architecture through mimesis. Mimesis is usually translated as imitation, but it is not literally imitation, but a tool to act as nature acts. How does the architect or the artist reconstruct that ideal perfect nature conformed by the elementary geometric figures that would constitute the “true” nature? From the taxis. The taxis is the geometric system of grids and regulatory paths that allows harmonically and mathematically placing these solids in space. Columns, walls, openings, all the elements that through this geometric matrix would be absolutely modulated within a system of coded and recognizable parts. Hence, following Summerson, we could assimilate classicism to a code that operates as a language. This memory, generates a particular characteristic in the classicism that implies the possibility of reconstructing the totality by the part. For example, from the drum of a column and its grooves I can know to what order it belongs, what in rhetoric is known as synecdoche. The geometry organized by the taxis allows us that possibility. This is a type of practice that architects from the fifteenth century will develop on their trips to Rome by making reconstructions of the classical ruins from the fragments.

The search for perfection is also found in other arts. When the Greeks made statues, they did not copy a particular person, but instead used the torso of one, the arms of another, the legs of another, because they sought perfection, they wanted to reconstruct the ideal model. But in architecture, which does not copy directly from nature, but is constituted from codified elements, geometry fulfills the role of building a perfect world within the world, it becomes an operation of materialization of the ideal cosmos that is beyond our daily understanding. However, this was not the concept that can be extracted from Plato’s work. The Greek philosopher considered that art was a third category copy. Since if the perfect object is in the ideal world, the object we see is what is reflected distorted in the cave and the object that the artist draws is an object of very low category because it is the copy of the copy. This concept is going to be modified by the Neoplatonists by saying that, through art, it is possible to approach the ideal since art does not copy the real object but tries to approach the lost order, to that order that is beyond and from it rise to perfection.

Beyond this first definition and simplifying to the maximum, we could say that in our architectural world there are two fundamental paradigms: The Classic and the Modern. Classicism that begins in the fifteenth century and that comes to break a previous paradigm much more diffuse, the medieval, and will last practically until the early twentieth century, with the emergence of the modern paradigm. The difference is that, although the Classic paradigm is a more unified paradigm that tends towards homogeneity of criteria, the Modern operates as a succession of overlapping paradigms where not everyone agrees with each other, there are different groups that have certain beliefs that follow certain dogmas: organicists, rationalists, functionalists, they will be divided and therefore there will coexist an important amount of paradigms at the same time. We can say that the Classic paradigm is more durable, more solid and the Modern paradigm is much more permeable and malleable and is subdivided into several sub-paradigms.

The first break or change of paradigm that has to do with this duality of Classic-Modern that we find in the fifteenth century. We can say that at that moment the idea of Architecture begins to be constituted, that is, until that moment we cannot conceive of architecture as we think of it in a modern way. This does not mean that there was no concept to define art, but that the way of conceiving that notion of art cannot be assimilated to what we understand by Architecture.

Little tower between the cathedral and the ducal palace. Piazza San Marco, Venice, Italy. Photograph Fernando Aliata. 

We know that during the medieval period many of the trades and professions of Roman culture disappear. Invasions, insecurity, the destruction of the urban world, makes knowledge fragmentary. This does not mean that, in the field of construction, there were no teachers who were in some way in the conduct of works, which built spaces artistically. But knowledge was concentrated in the guilds. There were groups that knew a certain amount of techniques that were often kept secret, and there were masters of each of those techniques that shared the work in the construction. These masters circulated throughout Europe, in the case of Villard de Honnecourt, a kind of proto-architect at the time of the great Gothic cathedrals that travels through many cities taking note of the buildings and has bequeathed us his famous notebook. This will be very common throughout the history of Architecture and we will see it in the following centuries, in fact, the great masters were acquiring knowledge in this way. They went from work to work to the most important works, requested permission to make drawings, of forms of organization of the plant and elevation, of ornaments. In this way they were instructed, since there were no schools, they simply joined the guild as apprentices and were upgrading.

There was a way of operating that we could call as a fragmentary paradigm. There is a very clear example of this in St. Mark’s Square in Venice. Between the cathedral and the ducal palace, there is a small tower that corresponds to the remains of the old palace that was demolished to then build the famous Gothic building. This sector is quite different from the rest, and shows us how medieval guilds operated. There we see a kind of geometric decoration made with different colored marbles, which the Venetians brought in their travels from many cities that had become ruins, especially from Asia. To this heterogeneous group is added one of the plundering works of the Imperial Palace of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade: The Four Tetrarchs that commemorated a time when the Byzantine Empire was divided into four sub regions, commanded by each of these semi- emperors. The Venetians liked this porphyry made statue, so they brought it in one of their ships and placed it in one of the corners of this tower. What results is a kind of patch-work, that is, there is no homogeneous and general control of the work. Everything is a product of chance, of finding that statue, of finding different marbles and combining them there over time.

This idea of discontinuity is at the base of medieval architecture. Manfredo Tafuri says that when the Prior of a convent wanted to make a new church, a three-nave basilica, for example, he first summoned a guild that made the foundations with its own system of measures and left, then came others, who were from the masons’ guild that built brick and stone walls with other techniques and measurement systems, and finally others came with a different measuring system and roofed. That is to say, there was a vague previous idea of what the building was going to be, a model could be made, but everything was going to be defined by the guilds at the moment of the construction. This way of operating progressively went from absolute heterogeneity to a certain control. If we return to the ducal palace again, we see that the generality represents a certain homogeneity, but if we see the work in detail, we find, for example, that the capitels are all different. That is, the result is not in the hands of one person but of several. Each stonemason artisan makes his capitel, even many times he signs it, and is always different from each other. However, this is not a problem, you can even mix capitels of an ancient classical temple with a sculpture of an Atlantean, played by a medieval artist who has already lost the refined technique, the “grace” of classical sculpture. Or they can combine a column supported on the figure of a lion, which would have been, from the point of view of the tradition of Greeks and Romans, a heresy as we observe in the portico of San Zeno in Verona. This tradition of breaking and mixing, is something that romanticists of the nineteenth century will like, but that, precisely during the age of Humanism that began in Florence in the early fifteenth century, was not something appreciable; in fact, the Italians spoke, in reference to these architectures, as architecture of the barbarians, for example, when referring to the Gothic.

We could date the beginning of the Classic paradigm with Filippo Brunelleschi who, within a very particular context in the Florence of humanism, is considered the first architect. In reality, Brunelleschi builds the figure of the architect as we understand it until today, or as we understood it, at least, during the twentieth century. And, on the other hand, he creates the idea of the project. To project in Italian is “to take out”, “to throw ideas”. It means that a person can think for himself the whole work, outside the guilds.

By then Florence was the laughing stock of Italian cities. The Florentines had built their cathedral with a drum that should contain a dome 42 meters in diameter, a light that could not be covered with formwork, according to the technology of the time. Brunelleschi proposes the idea of lifting the dome without formwork, spin after spin advancing in space. He invents a series of technical rigs and machines to lift weights, in order to build the dome of the cathedral in that way. Brunelleschi says then that he is able to do it but it must be done as he says, he has the idea, the secret. From there, a series of fights take place with the guilds and with the cathedral’s mastery, in the end, he ends up throwing the artisans out of the work and hires some workers who come from Lombardy. When the unions find out about this, they return to the work, but they return as operators, without decision-making power over the work.


To be able to devise and control the entire process, what appears clearly is an instrument that nobody knew as perfectly as Brunelleschi, the perspective to one point. He develops the system of the conical perspective to one point and this represents a great revolution because it allows to accurately represent the work as it will appear in the real world. Then the architect knows how to do the work, he can devise it, project it. No one can modify it; it must follow the natural concatenation of the project that has been thought and fixed on paper. This is the fundamental principle. And the other fundamental issue is homogeneity. Because obviously Brunelleschi does all this, but like most of the humanists of the 15th century in Florence, he is looking at the past, ancient Rome, even makes some trips to Rome to draw the ruins and that way he manages to understand that there is not only a taxis, there is a strict modular organization and a use of elements that constitute a language, but also discovers the question of the necessary homogeneity of the parts.

Alberti, in his famous definition, affirms that Architecture is an art in which all the parts make up a unit such that if we extract one of the pieces, that unit is lost. The facade of the Hospital of the Innocents is the first work that presents this homogeneity. For his contemporaries, and there are several testimonies in this regard, Brunelleschi is rebuilding the architecture of the ancients, is returning to the golden age. Alberti who continues with the Brunelleschian legacy, builds the mediation between the idea and the work through the drawing, that is, the drawing begins to gain an increasing importance. Alberti’s proposal, rather than revolutionary, is the result of applying the classic taxis to the existing. Attempts are made to return to that lost order, even in cases where there is preexistence, regularizing, ordering and rationalizing.

But this truly revolutionary transformation of making will take a long time to generalize and transform the field. Only towards the middle of the 16th century the classical code acquires a substance and vigor such that it completely transforms the western architecture.

Seminar (Extract)

Estrategias Proyectuales, del Clasicismo a la Modernidad

Maestría en Investigación Proyectual


Facultad de Arquitectura Diseño y Urbanismo

Universidad de Buenos Aires



Originally published in Antagonismos Revista de Arquitectura, n° 2. Buenos Aires, 2019.

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