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Ebook Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism by Rudolf Wittkower read! Book Title: Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism
The author of the book: Rudolf Wittkower
Edition: W. W. Norton Company
Date of issue: September 17th 1971
ISBN: 0393005992
ISBN 13: 9780393005998
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Language: English
Format files: PDF
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'Architectural Principles’ has had a profound impact on thought about proportion by simply being written with conviction and confidence. The use of extensive referencing and built architectural precedents has proved its worth. So much so that it is still relevant more than half a century after its first publication. Wittkower proves the central role of mathematics for renaissance theory and the integration of the interior and exterior parts of the building into this system of universal harmonic ratios.

Wittkower’s unchallenged text1 outlines the fundamental architectural practices within the period of 1450-15802 with special attention towards Leon Battista Alberti (1404 – 1472) and Andrea Palladio (1508 -1580). The book concerns itself with uncovering the intricate mathematical relationships between Music, Mathematics and the Arts. These architects firmly believed in a universal scale which created proportional harmony throughout the universe. Alberti states that ‘the key to correct proportion is Pythagoras’ system of musical theory’3. Renaissance artists firmly adhered to the Pythagorean concept ‘All is Number’… Architecture was regarded by them as a mathematical science which worked with spatial units. It is perceived that ‘high Renaissance masters by their pre-occupation with, and interpretation of, Vitruvius’4 became servants to this theory and were therefore ‘practitioners rather than thinkers.’5 Wittkower states that ‘the architect is by no means free to apply to a building a system of ratios of his own choosing, that the ratios have to comply with conceptions of a higher order and that a building should mirror the proportions of the human body.’6 For Alberti, Architecture appears to have been an eminently political activity, he considered architects to be the safe keepers of culture, creating the conditions for social and intellectual progress.7
Alongside Vitruvius, Palladio also recognized Alberti as an authority on questions about building.8 He also benefitted from the experience that had been gained from a hundred year’s development of renaissance theory. We can deduce from his Quattro Libri that his belief was to revive the tried and trusted constructional principles of classical antiquity.9 Daniele Barbaro saw architecture not as an isolated discipline but ‘as one of the innumerable manifestations of the human mind all of which follows the same laws.’ 10 Palladio used the same rules as Alberti followed, although he accepted that ‘variety and things new may please everyone… the ancients did vary, yet they never departed from some universal and necessary rules of art’11
Many critics began to oppose this standard classical theory. According to Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797) beauty hadn’t ‘anything to do with calculation and geometry.’12 Proportion was to him solely ‘the measure of relative quantity, a matter of mathematical inquiry and indifferent to the mind’13 He couldn’t understand the relationship renaissance architects had with the human body, he claimed that ‘certainly nothing could be more unaccountably whimsical, than for an architect to model his performance by the human figure, since no two things can have less resemblance or analogy, than a man, and a house or temple.’14 Lord Kames (1696 – 1782) claimed ‘objects of different senses have no resemblance, nor indeed any relation to each other’ He argues that judgment of proportion lies with the percipient and that ‘if the eye were an absolute judgment of proportion one should not be happy but in one spot, where the proportion appears agreeable.’15 These controversial thoughts sparked a new wave of thinking about proportion and the way in which we interact with our surroundings.
The influence of the writing of Palladio and Alberti were staggeringly influential, but as we can see people began to question the legitimacy of their claims of a universal scale. Wittkower with ‘Architectural Principles’ documented the rise and demise of this theory. In fact this book can be compared with that of Palladios ‘I quattro libri dell’architettura’ or Alberti’s ‘De re aedficatoria libri decem’ as an influential contribution to the world of architectural theory.

The publication of ‘Architectural Principles’ in 1949 came at a time when publications on proportional systems ‘increased to such an extent that it [had] become virtually impossible to keep check on them.’16 Henry A. Millon describes the book as having a ‘unique attention on societal meaning of proportion in the renaissance for people in the renaissance.’17 After WWII Architects were looking at ‘Palladian buildings to find something to believe in… Something that stood above what they were doing themselves.’18 This uncertainty about the built environment was widespread after the war. In fact Peter Reyner Banham (1922 - 1988) ‘suggested that the book had an evil effect because many architects interpreted it to mean that they should follow humanist principles in their work.’ 19

In fact most Architects took it to ‘mean that they should take Humanist principles as outlined in the book as an example of the kind of principles they should look for.’20 Wittkower suggests that young Architects ‘may well evolve new and unexpected solutions’21 The book had an impact on Architects in the latter half of the 20th century. They attributed societal values to architecture in the form of proportion and proportional systems. These modular systems emphasized the ‘lesson[s] of Rome’ and the importance of regulating layouts. They were not too unlike the renaissance masters in that they felt ‘they [were] a party to [an] ingenious failure.’22 Like the Italians of the 15th century these modern architects felt ‘emboldened by their flourishing urban culture [and] they set out to match the intellectual and artistic achievements of the ancients.’23Their inspiration can be attributed to the annoyance they had that contemporary architects which were ‘not in pursuit of an architectural idea, but simply guided by the results of calculation (derived from the principles which govern our universe.)’24 Le Corbusier suggested that ‘there is a comparable beauty in stone that has been hewn by a sculptor and a ‘mechanical organ.’25 He went to great lengths to formulate the modular system of universal proportions based on the golden section and the human scale.26

Wittkower ‘not only effectively rationalizes artistic will but he also offers a powerful alternative to the then current argument in favor of the golden section, which he dismisses for leading to irrational, hence incommensurable numbers, alien to an ‘organic, metrical and rational’ renaissance mindset.’27 However, according to Henry A. Millon, Wittkower ‘found it no more than worthy for individual architects to try to recapture some of the values scale, proportion, and unity bring about.’28 The late 20th century presented a notion which Lord Kames had introduced in the 18th century, that of vision. Gyorgy Kepes proposes the plastic image. He explains that ‘it exists through forces in interaction which are acting in their respective fields… an enclosed system that reaches its dynamic unity by various levels of integration; by balance, rhythm and harmony.’29 These qualities share a resemblance to that of the harmonic proportions idealized by the renaissance artists. It seems that instead of an external force assembling ratios to please the renaissance mind instead ‘it is the nervous system which organizes impacts from the outside.’30 The latter part of the last century introduced the concept that the senses which are perceived through architecture are purely psychological.

The text has documented the transition of a purely practical and functional architecture which was set on defined rules set out by ancient minds, to today’s conceptual designs which ‘must be derived from man himself and his perception of the natural world’31. Although set within the limited scope of the 15th and 16th centuries. Wittkowers text possesses a strong command on modern architectural theory. Its influences have affected architectural thought since its publication. The text which still hasn’t been matched or challenged will continue to resonate through the architectural world due its concise and well written passages and unquestionable referencing. The contents of which will still be relevant to further generations. As we have seen that the concept of an all empowering harmonic scale has been questioned by countless architects.



1 Alina A. Payne, "Rudolf Wittkower and the Architectural Principles in the Age of Modernism", Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 1994: 4.
2 Henry A. Millon, "Rudolf Wittkower "Architectural Principles in the age of Humanism": Its influence on the development and interpretation of modern architecture ", Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 1972: 84.
3 Rudolf Wittkower, Architectural principles in the Age of Humanism (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1971), 33.
4 Ibid., 13.
5 Ibid., 30.
6 Rudolf Wittkower, Architectural principles in the Age of Humanism (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1971), 101.
7 Bernd Evers, Architectural Theory From the Renaissance to the Present (Cologne : Taschen, 2011), 12.
8 Ibid., 62.
9 Ibid., 64.
10 Rudolf Wittkower, Architectural principles in the Age of Humanism (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1971), 67.
11 Ibid., 70.
12 Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks, 2008).
13 Rudolf Wittkower, Architectural principles in the Age of Humanism (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1971), 151.
14 Rudolf Wittkower, Architectural principles in the Age of Humanism (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1971), 152.
15 Ibid., 153.
16 Henry A. Millon, "Rudolf Wittkower "Architectural Principles in the age of Humanism": Its influence on the development and interpretation of modern architecture ", Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 1972: 86.
17 Ibid., 83-91.
18 Ibid., 86.
19 Henry A. Millon, "Rudolf Wittkower "Architectural Principles in the age of Humanism": Its influence on the development and interpretation of modern architecture ", Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 1972: 90.
20 Ibid., 90.
21 Rudolf Wittkower, Architectural principles in the Age of Humanism (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1971), 154.
22 Le Corbusier, Towards a New Arcitecture (Thousand Oaks: BN Publishing , 2008), 158.
23 Leland M. Roth, Understanding Architecture,Its Elements, History, and Meaning (Colorado: Westview Press, 1993), 317.
24 Le Corbusier, Towards a New Arcitecture (Thousand Oaks: BN Publishing , 2008), 31.
25 Jean-Louis Cohen, Le Corbusier (Cologne: Taschen, 2004), 10.
26 Ibid., 11.
27 Alina A. Payne, "Rudolf Wittkower and the Architectural Principles in the Age of Modernism", Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 1994: 7.
28 Henry A. Millon, "Rudolf Wittkower "Architectural Principles in the age of Humanism": Its influence on the development and interpretation of modern architecture ", Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 1972: 86.
29 Gyorgy Kepes, Language of Vision (New York: Dover Publications , 1995), 4.
30 Ibid., 4.
31 Henry A. Millon, "Rudolf Wittkower "Architectural Principles in the age of Humanism": Its influence on the development and interpretation of modern architecture ", Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 1972: 87.


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