Principles in Urban Design & Planning: Vitruvius

                                                                                                                  Above: Vitruvian Man

This article is the first in a series covering the fundamentals and theory behind good city design. This post begins with the principles of Marcus Vitruvius Pollo. Vitruvius is remembered today for his foundational work of Western architecture and urban design, De Architectura better known as Ten Books on Architecture. In his vast treatise, he laid out a system of anthropometric proportions which would be utilized in Classical and Renaissance sculpture, architecture, and sculpture and memorialized by DaVinci’s Vitruvian Man.                                                                              Reading Vitruvius’ books, one can’t help but appreciate the elegance of the Vitruvian scale because it acknowledges the  of human form in the greater natural scheme of things. The Vitruvian-sized city is designed around the human end-user. With such ends in mind, Vitruvius devotes the first portion of his work with a description of the qualities of the ideal architect, those being draftsmanship, arithmetic, geometry, reading, history, philosophy, physiology, music, medicine, climate, law, and astronomy. Vitruvius’ belief was that if architects were to design the built environment in which people lived, the architect would need a holistic education in order to understand the various facets of citizens’ lives.                                                                                                                                     Above: The Parthenon

Vitruvius’ worldview breaks architecture into three general elements: Ordering (“taxis”), Design (“diathesis”), and Shapeliness (“oikonomia”). There are further two properties of ordering  in the Vitruvian scheme: Symmetry and Eurythmy. Eurythmy is defined as proportionality within an element of construction and symmetry is defined as proportionality between or amongst elements of construction. There are three other important metrics by which to evaluate a building or plan: soundness (the quality of the foundations and building materials), utility (ease of use and practicality of the design), and attractiveness (pleasantness and elegance to the eye).         Vitruvius goes on at length to explain his methodology for selecting an ideal site for a city. According to him, the place should be elevated, not cloudy, not liable to frost, facing away from areas prone to intemperance (climate), and away from swamps. Much of his thinking was, of course, influenced by the defense concerns of the day and the Greek belief in medical Humorism (the four humors being yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood). Vitruvius also held that the wind patterns of a site should be studied prior to construction so that the streets could be laid out at angles oblique to the wind currents.

                                                                  Above: Netsch Campus at University of Illinois Chicago                                                                                    According to Vitruvius, if the settlement is to be inland the city forum be built in the center of the town but if the city is on the coast, the forum should be directly adjacent to the port. As for the scale of an ideal forum, we are given two rules of thumb: the width should equal 2/3 of the length and the overall size should be proportional to the population of the city. Being a Roman and an inheritor of the great Greek building traditions, Vitruvius expounds on the differences between Greek fora and Italian fora. While Italian fora are preferable because of their 2:3 width/length ratio, 1/4 shorter second story, and allowance for shops, Greek fora are adequate with their square shape, tightly-packed columns, and double story loggias.                                             As the core nucleus of the urbs and vicinity, the forum is situated at the confluence of the various public facilities and a vast array of commercial activity. The forum plays host to the diverse public life that characterizes the city and its environs. As such, Vitruvius prescribes the situation of the jail, senate house, and treasury on the forum. Should the senate house have a square floor plan, the height should be 1/2 of its length. If the senate house is to be oblong (2:3 width to length ratio), Vitruvius says that the height should be 1/2 the sum of the length and width.                                                                                                                                                                       The basilica (a court building) was to be located in the warmest plot of land adjacent to the forum. The width of the basilica itself was to be 1/3 – 1/2 of its length and each of the porticoes (open-air balconies) should be 1/3 the width of the central area. The second story columns of the portico should be 3/4 the height of the lower story columns and the parapet (compartment) between the lower colonnade and the upper colonnade should equal 3/4 the height of the second story columns.        

                                                AboveVitruvian Park, Addison, TX.                                                                                                                     For the placement of public baths, Vitruvius recommends a warm site not facing Northward. In addition, the tepidarium (warm) and caldarium (hot) should face Westward since the common bathing time is midday-evening. To make construction easier and to make the building more efficient, the male and female caldaria should be adjacent and connected to each other so as to share the same furnace.
The town’s amphitheater was to be situated at a “healthful,” non South-facing location. The dimensions of the amphitheater should be such that it is possible to draw a straight line from the center of the stage to the outermost entrance of the theater that touches the edge of each row of seats. In order to achieve this, the backing of each successive rows of seats should never exceed the width of the aisle.                                                                                                                           After providing a very sophisticated understanding of acoustics, complete with a substantial knowledge of chords and harmonies, Vitruvius calls for the placement of echea -bronze vessels that resonate sound- in chambers underneath the amphitheater seats. The echea are to be placed upside down in the chambers, propped at angle with wedges of at least 0.5 feet in height. Along the footing of the seats of the amphitheater, there should be openings measuring 2.5 feet in width and 0.5 feet in height that allow the sound to travel.

                                                                Above: Tablinum                                                                                                                                                    In the private homes of citizens the importance of the atrium is central both physically and figuratively. There are three ideal length/width ratios for the atria: 5/3, 3/2, and (2r^2)^1/2. The height of the atria should be 0.75 of the length of the atria. The alae, the wings or aisles on the side of the atrium, should be built according a sliding scale according to the length of the atrium. If the atrium length is 30-40 feet, the alae should be 1/3 of that length. If the atrium is 40-50 feet long, the alae should be 1/3.5 of that; if 50-60 feet, the alae should be 1/4 of that; if 60-80 feet long, the alae should be 1/4.5 of that; if 80-100 feet, the alae should be 1/5 of that; if 100-120 feet long, the alae should be 1/5.5 of that; if 120-160 feet, the alae should be 1/6 of that; if 160-200 feet, the alae should be 1/6.5 of that; if 200-240 feet, the alae should be 1/7 of that.                                                                                                                                                                        The ancient ‘home office,’ the tablinum was an airy room situated just off the atrium and was used for drafting and study as well as important business. Like the alae, the width and height of the tablinum was dependent upon the width of the atrium. If the atrium was 20 feet wide, the tablinum was to have a width 2/3 of that ; a 30-40 foot wide atrium, the tablinum would have a width 1/2 of that; a 40-60 foot wide atrium, the tablinum would have a width of 2/5 of that. The height of the tablinum would be 1 1/8 of the width of the tablinum.  

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