19 November 2013

The beauty of an architect

Vitruvius’ Ten Books on Architecture might be the only texts on architecture that have survived antiquity. Though a lot has changed in the last 2,000 years, Vitruvius’ three basic qualities for designing a building – firmitas, utilitas, and venustas – undeniably did not and one may argue that the final components of each architectural project are invariably plotted from these three cartridges. But whilst the first two, strength and functionality, are intensively discussed and practiced on an academic and professional basis (functionality even got credited with its own ‘style’), beauty, as the most arbitrary of all three basic themes, is rarely directly addressed.

Noteworthily, in the introduction to his second book, Vitruvius writes also in a more anecdotal way about another beauty in architecture: the one of its authors. To depict it, he narrates the story of how the Macedonian architect Dinocrates forced himself into the field of view of his future client Alexander the Great. Frustrated with the limited effectiveness of his recommendation letters, the architect decided to rely on “his good looks and dignified carriage”, which he emphasised by oiling his “finely formed” body and draping his left shoulder with a lion’s skin. Astonished by the architects “very lofty stature and pleasing countenance”, Alexander asked Dinocrates to present himself and to present his megalomaniac project for the shaping of Mount Athos.

In a passive-aggressive manner, Vitruvius “apologizes” to his readers for lacking in physical beauty, but hopes he will win their approval with the help of his knowledge and writings – his intellectual beauty. By doing so, he sums up the testosterone-loaded tale of Alexander and Dinocrates for what it is: the inebriation of a client or (like it’s the case of Vitruvius himself) an audience. A decisive moment that may decide on the faith of a project, hence also a moment of potential humiliation, despair and vulnerability for the architect himself. Even more dramatically spoken: the moment where the client, like a judge, decides on the worthwhileness of the beauty of an author and his œuvre, granting or denying him a certain immortality.

Inevitably, this subject stands as historic evidence for the figure of the starchitect and the iconic building as his signature product, but it also demands for a proper analysis of what are the employed seduction techniques. Body oil and lion skins may indeed be incompatible with todays Zeitgeist, but self-representation and vanity are still the premises for installing a relationship between architect and client, which may even go as far as the love-hate romance between Mies van der Rohe and Edith Farnsworth. Lobbying or “educating the client” may be the less corporal ones. The beauty of the architect is as much part of his project as the beauty of the architecture itself and arguably also based on the same subjectiveness of this label.

Le Corbusier, Willy Rizzo, Paris Match, 1953 Mies van der Rohe, Frank Scherschel, Life, 1957Rem Koolhaas, Wolfgang Tillmans, Fantastic Man, 2007 Zaha Hadid, Bruce Weber, Uomo Vogue, 2009
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