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Utilitas

Nearly two thousand years ago Marcus Vitruvius Pollio defined architecture as “Utilitas, Firmitas, Venustas” which Sir Henry Wotton translated in the 17th century as commodity, firmness and delight. As a Modernist of sorts, I also accept the Bauhaus-related adaptation of the Virtuvius-Wotton formula as Commodity + Firmness = Delight, because buildings of a highly utilitarian purpose are often more attractive to me—that is, they attract my attention—than those that try in very self-conscious ways to be beautiful. I didn’t recognize these tendencies in myself until taking the undergraduate architectural history sequence at the University of Oklahoma in the mid-1960s and read the Introduction to Sir Nikolaus Pevsner’s Outline of European Architecture where he says: “A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture.” What a load of hooey!

About the same time, I also encountered H.H. Richardson’s famous comment to his client John Jacob Glessner: “I’ll design anything a client wants, from a cathedral to a chicken coop.” In hindsight, I wonder if the scales have indeed fallen from my eyes insofar as these measures of “success” are concerned. So, when images of this sort pass by, I respond lovingly to their honest integrity (also insofar as I may understand those high falutin words).

shed

The built environment is populated in huge numbers with structures such as this. In fact, cultural anthropologist Amos Rapaport suggests that as much as ninety-five percent of the built environment is unselfconsciously “designed”—yet I am content to accept them as “architecture,” which presumably Sir Nikolaus would not. [I met him once and he otherwise seemed a very nice fellow, though perhaps he’d mellowed from the time that Outline had been written.] Suffice to say, there is much to be learned from the vernacular world.


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