Vitruvius Redux

When the ancient Vitruvius attempted to capture the essence of architectural quality many centuries ago, he arrived at a tri-partheit formula: “firmness, commodity and delight.” To very roughly translate that into today’s terms, every building or project should be evaluated on the basis of “Will it last? Will it work? Will it please?”

Naturally, the first two criteria are by far the more objective. Has anyone yet placed a value on the ultimate life span of a wood-frame building (let alone a hybrid, such as today’s “podium” style multifamily dwelling)? Clearly there are specimens of eighteenth century wood frame buildings still standing today. “Firmness,” therefore, even in wood construction, suggests a potential existence in the multiple century range.

“Working” is the next most subjective category of Vitruvius’ trinity. While the last decade has seen a raft of adaptive re-use projects, which capitalize on the “firmness” of some stout building stock that can be re-jiggered to support a new use (say a factory being converted to live/work lofts—we’ve all seen that: where the new use is informed and colored by the historical use, and are all better for it), the definition of “working” is subject to at least the indiscriminate whimsy of fads and trends. As Paul Simon said, after all, “One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.”

But the Vitruvian quality that really rocks our world is that of delight. Who can possibly define what this means? If ever anything were firmly ensconced in the eye of the beholder, this is it. What makes something “pleasing”? Can it be measured? At a recent seminar I attended, the considered answer to this question ultimately boiled down to, “I can’t tell you what it means, but I know it when I see it.”

Oh sure, there were half-hearted attempts to draw measurable stats from things such as scale, proportion and balance; but when have any of those things ever been objective? It’s like trying to get a room of disparate age groups to agree on a musical style. (For extra credit here, try asking a Beatles’ fan about Paul McCartney’s work with Wings.)

We multifamily architects like to believe we don’t design to trends, but c’mon, we’re not really fooling anybody with that discussion, are we? To really reach the hot button of what turns the customers on, we must listen to them, on any wavelength they care to communicate. “What’s hot in kitchen design? What defines the post-Obama household? Who drives the decision making in an “alternative” household formation?

Sheesh. We are trying to have an “ear to the tracks,” I promise you. But with the triumph of diversification as a value, and an ever-splintering customer base, the deal points for lease signings are growing more and more customized to the individual, and less likely to be accommodated by a “one-size-fits-all” approach. I predict more and more communities will grow to resemble just that—in the traditional sense, a blended community where many distinct individuals will work together to form bonds that are mutually beneficial—all within the same physical domain.

We will keep listening. Every new trend brings a new challenge, and with it, new ideas from those who will stretch enough to consider that which, yesterday, was uncomfortable.

What’s your delight?

(Daniel Gehman is principal at Thomas Cox Architects. He can be reached at