Architects have relied on the Vitruvian Virtues of “commodity, firmness, delight” as the formula for good design for centuries. But, there are some who believe that is time to retire this age-old adage1 and argue that commodity and firmness are really in the same pedestrian category, sort of prerequisites for every building, and what we architects need to focus on is delight or seeking out a deeper meaning for our creations. Before we jettison this triad, it might be useful (or amusing) to reduce it to an actual mathematical formula, an equation:
commodity + firmness + delight = good building
Actually, Vitruvius’ own words in De Architectura libri decem2 (Ten Books on Architecture) were: firmitas (solid), utilitas (useful), and venustas (beautiful). We owe the modern triad to Sir Henry Wotton, who translated (or paraphrased) the Vitruvian ideals in his 1624 work The Elements of Architecture.3
Returning to modern usage, most understand the meaning of the three terms, and good design is commonly accepted as a balance among the three. However, when one of the variables dominates the others, the result might not be so good. For example, facilities managers might prefer an equation like this:
commodity + firmness + delight = job security
While engineers might like:
commodity + firmness + delight = equilibrium
And most non-practitioners and students of architecture might see:
commodity + firmness + delight = stardom
What happens when one of the variables is subtracted from the equation?
firmness + delight – (commodity) = confusion
Or worse yet:
commodity + delight – (firmness) = lawsuit
Taken more seriously, many modernist architects believed that a relationship exists between commodity/firmness and delight. They subscribed to a literal interpretation of the equation, and the formula they religiously followed was:
commodity + firmness = delight
This formula spawned a variety of catch phrases such as Sullivan’s “Form follows Function”, van der Rohe’s “Less is More”, and Kahn’s “What does a brick want to be?” And in the hands of these masters, the formula did indeed equate to delight. But not for most architects.
Perhaps, however, for those architects (like me) who believe that there is a link between the practical and the beautiful, a chemical equation might work better, something like:
commodity + firmness → delight
which is less dogmatic and acknowledges that design is a process, and for aesthetic opinion to form there must be some sort of reaction (for better or worse).
Or, maybe it is time to update Vitruvius’ formula to bring it in step with current architectural thinking. Timeless as it might be, commodity, firmness, and delight does not include a notion of time itself. Higher math, not available in Vitruvius’ lifetime (or Wotton’s either) will furnish the solution:
∫ x(ncommodity+nfirmness) → (sustainable) delight
Although you may have to crack on old textbook to decipher this formula, let’s not be too quick to dismiss the venerated triad.
3 Brussat, David. “Commodity, Firmness, and Delight, or Toward a New Architectural Attitude.” 12/13/2010. https://classicistne.wordpress.com/2010/12/13/commodity-firmness-and-delight-or-toward-a-new-architectural-attitude/.