3 January 2014

The Death of the Architect in the Nineteenth Century

The following was submitted to the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design as part of the Architectural Theory elective in Fall 2013, taught by Professor David Leatherbarrow.

The milieu of architectural practice, over two thousand years of documented architectural history, has oscillated between a series of positions that are “unique and in flux, but underlying their uniqueness [they] share certain structural characteristics”. (1) These structural characteristics are often traced back so that the contemporary architect is read as a formation of renaissance ideals, operating in a profession designed in the 19th century, within construction processes formulated in the 20th century, attempting to meet the demands of the 21st century. (2)

One such structural characteristic that persists today is the “artificial schism between creation and execution”, signified in the modern era by the design and executive architect. (3) While it is difficult to locate the exact moment in time that the construction process was fractured into two, to some extent there have always been two parallel professions—the artist and the craftsman. If history though has been largely defined by two different professional strands, that of the artist (relying on ethical knowledge) and the scientist (relying on technical knowledge), since the end of the 19th century a third category, that of the socially engaged architect (relying on theoretical knowledge) has been present. To quote Sir David Chipperfield: “It is not an unreasonable presumption that the aim of good of architecture is to serve the public good and that most architects work with that intention” (4) however this in itself has not been a universally held ambition of the architectural profession since its’ inception.

In this paper the notion of an 'architect' will be followed from “two supremely eminent theorists in the history of European architecture—Leon Battista Alberti and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc”. (5) To further quote John Summerson, these two figures “constructed towers of thought—the lighthouses, let us say—at points in history where such towers were very particularly needed”. (6) Further architectural treatises will be drawn upon where necessary to further elucidate the changing attitudes of the architectural profession. It is hoped that in so doing it will be demonstrated that, in the 19th century, as the Enlightenment ended the new architectural profession that emerged was one that was barely recognisable from the 15th century it claimed as its antecedent.

The birth of the architect

The profession of architecture, as it is understood today, was formulated as recently as the 19th century, however its routes can be traced all the way back to antiquity. As Spiro Kostof observes, “the presence of architects is documented as far back as the third millennium before Christ” whilst “graphic conventions of architectural practice make their appearance even earlier [in] the seventh millennium [BCE]”. (7) These original architects, as documented by Vitruvius, were not concerned simply with erecting buildings but also astronomy, magic and healing; in the words of Plato they “contributed knowledge, not craftsmanship”. (8)

The Ten Books on Architecture
(Dover Publications, 1998)

On Architecture (De architectura, 20 BC) is the most influential text ever written on architecture and is the oldest surviving written record on the subject; its influence is in part applicable to the interpretation of various different translations throughout history. As McEwen points out "Vitruvius was looking at a rather larger picture” but that: "If Romans eventually came to view the entire world as the princep's temenos (to recall the terms of Dio Cassiu's fictitious debate), it was because of architecture. Not architecture in the modern sense that, conventionally at least, limits its references to building. It was, rather, because of the tripartite whole of Vitruvian architecture—building, gnomics, and machines.”(9) 

Within De architectura Vitruvius “creates a portrait of the architect as a person of broad learning and various talents … [and] All subsequent theories of architecture’s basic values have been obliged to grapple with the simple wisdom of Vitruvius’ statement." (10) While certain advice presented by him is too antiquated or prosaic to service contemporary demands—for example, examining the livers of slaughtered cattle to determine the suitability of a proposed site—one assertion has exercised a tenacious hold on the architect: he set in place a triad of commodity, firmness and delight, which remains to this day “even if [they] have been updated to reflect contemporary concerns with use/function, technology/tectonics, and aesthetics/beauty”. (11)

The hands of the architect

According to Rykwert, when Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472) set about writing On The Art of Buildingin Ten Books (De re aedificatoria, 1452) he was “consciously setting out on a fresh enterprise." (12) In the books, Alberti does not simply prescribe a set of conditions upon which all architecture must be formed based solely on descriptions of the past or the immediate present as Vitruvius does in De architectura but instead he sets out a new future for architecture. This is not to say that he does away entirely with Vitruvius. On some points Alberti “echoes Vitruvius…almost word for word”, (13) he too sets out a broad skillset that all architects must master, and he still writes about machines of war, timepieces and city planning, just as Vitruvius did. (14) It is perhaps unsurprising that Alberti would demand that architects demonstrate command of such a wide knowledge base, being the “quintessential renaissance man” and author of books on not only architecture but also on painting, sculpture, a topographical account of Rome, the monuments of Rome, poetry and two books on mathematics. (15)

On the Art of Building in Ten Books
(MIT Press, 1991)

With our modern mindset, reliant on classification systems that subdivide and order information, (16) it is at times easy to forget that when Alberti was writing, buildings were not placed into particular epochs or styles. Rather there was a continuum of buildings and building projects; just as there were a series of renaissances throughout history, not just the commonly held belief that there was a singular renaissance. As such, while we are perhaps more comfortable depicting Alberti as a Classicist—in much the same way that Viollet-le-Duc is classified today as a devote follower of Gothicism—for him there could be no distinction between the ancients and the “moderns”. To think he prioritises the “ancients” is a mistake, one as profound as thinking that Viollet-le-Duc had no interest in the works of ancient Greece or Rome. (17) Perhaps the similarities between Alberti and Viollet-le-Duc run deeper than it would first seem, especially if you were to reduce them to stereotypes that favour one style of architecture over another. Summerson writes that Viollet-le-Duc was the first to show that the modern architect must “analyse the masterpieces of the past, reduce them to a process of argument, then apply [that] argument to his own problems" (18) however it may be that this claim is in fact owned by Alberti.

There are of course differences between the two authors; the separation of over four hundred years makes it almost impossible for there not be. Chief amongst these is the fact that the two men were writing for two very different audiences. De re aedificatoria is aimed at the “respected families” who make up the clients and patrons of architects operating in the fifteenth century, whereas Viollet-le-Duc’s Lectures were intended for a captive audience of students interested in architecture (and whom presumably wished to pursue it professionally). In both cases these were educated audiences, interested in the liberal arts, however for Alberti these liberal (gentleman) “arts” were very distinct from the “art” of building. (19) Furthermore, as De re aedificatoria is written for clients it can be assumed that Alberti is attempting to construct an argument wherein architecture is an idealised profession that is key to all building work and that patrons, upon which architects depended for their living, need to employ architects, not simply skilled craftsmen. The message is clear: undertaking a building project in the 15th century, as it is today, is not one that a client should take lightly, or else their reputation could be severely damaged.

At the start of De re aedificatoria Alberti makes it clear that there is a distinction between the architect and the carpenter (the craftsmen or builder): “the carpenter is but an instrument in the hands of the architect”. (20) This is quite possibly the earliest example of a “them” and “us” relationship being established between architects and builders, or other professions, a position that still plagues the built environment and construction industry to this day. In making this distinction Alberti inadvertently sets up a power relationship wherein the “hands of the architect” (the workmen) are seen as being secondary to the mind of the architect that guides them. For Alberti these “hands” are participatory, part of a collaborative act of building. He makes this clear when describing how a building is a form of body, and that this is the product of thought (dependent on the “power of reason”) and Nature (dependent on preparation and selection), both of which,  on their own, “would not suffice without the hand of the skilled workman to fashion the material according to lineaments”. (21) Design may be prior but this does not give it primacy over construction methods, materials, location or a raft of other important considerations when undertaking the act of building.

To think then that Alberti prioritises the architect over the carpenter is to make the same mistake that assumes he prioritises the ancients over the moderns. Nevertheless within 50 years the architect was placed upon a pedestal atop the construction tree. This is best epitomised by the adulation showered upon Michelangelo Buonarroti (14751564), who was referred to as being “divine” during his own lifetime. Of course Michelangelo was a universal man of the Renaissance—there is an argument to say that he was the exemplary Renaissance man—but he denied competence in anything but sculpture. Ascanio Condivi observes that “for all that Michelangelo had no equal in all these matters [architecture], none the less he never wished to follow the profession of architect." (22) This is not to say that he did not devote himself to the pursuit of architecture, as demonstrated by his works. He was not content to simply understand “the principle branches of architecture” but he was interested in “everything that might in any way serve the profession, for example making tie-ropes, scaffolding or platforms, and similar things; and in this way he was good as those who have no other profession”. (23) It is perhaps easy to overlook how he was interested not only in the design of architecture, but also its’ execution, and that if it wasn't for this dual interest he would never have achieved what he did.

The interest in the execution of buildings continued beyond Michelangelo, with Francesco Borromini's (1599–1667) curious ‘book’, The Full Relation of the Building of theRoman Oratory, which presents a full account of every room, including their function, design, construction and appearance. Chapter Four, “Of other very necessary matters”, is of particular interest as it gives a detailed account of plumbing systems designed by Borromini, including his wider ambitions for a comprehensive waste management system that were not completed, due to a lack of funds. (24) Borromini acknowledges that this forthright approach may be unusual when he writes: “Excuse me reader, if I have sullied your ears…places that are otherwise worthy of esteem are rendered impracticable through the lack of such care." (25) Borromini’s book presents a modest view of the architect, as someone who is simply the hand of the client who must “serve a congregation of souls so humble that they [may hold] back [his] hand in adornment; consequently in many places [he may have] to obey their wish more than [his] art”. (26)

In opposition to this we can place Borromini’s contemporary, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) who, in 1665, “was invited to Paris by Louis XIV to work on the Louvre, his fame travelling before him, in one of the earliest examples of an architectural star system”. (27) The foundations of this system were arguably the misread power relationships of De re aedificatoria, written 213 years earlier, and would persist for centuries; today architects are still struggling to come to terms with a diminished position of authority.

The artistic heart and the scientific mind

If the Renaissance was characterised by a body of knowledge resting in an individual, the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries witnessed a “body of knowledge” that was interdisciplinary in its concerns, with the redefinition of classical knowledge categories. Writing in his Ordonnance for the Five Kinds of Columns (1683) Claude Perrault (1613–1688) states that “There are three kinds of architecture: ancient architecture as taught to us by Vitruvius, ancient architecture as we study it in the works of the romans, and modern architecture as we have it in the books that have been written for the past 120 years." (28) Perrault, who also achieved success as a physician and an anatomist, brought a scientific mentality to the study of architecture, with his comparative analysis of ancient buildings and application of other 16th and 17th century scientific and philosophical observations on the profession. In presenting a set of guides for column types (and their subsequent ‘styles’) Perrault is part of a wider trend from this period wherein architects began to shed their reliance on technical requirements, viewing this technical knowledge as something which is universally held, and is in fact reliant on common sense.

Etienne-Louis Boullée (1728–1799) goes further than other architects of this period and does away completely with Vitrvuius’s definition of architecture as the art of the building, claiming that “there is a flagrant error in this definition. Vitruvius mistakes the effect or the cause." (29) Whilst Boullée does acknowledge the importance of technical knowledge, in particular the necessity of building safely before building attractively, for him: “In order to execute, it is first necessary to conceive." (30) The late 18th century and early 19th century brings to a climax a slow but violent separation within the architectural profession that sets design and execution in conflict with each other, not collaborative partners as intended by Alberti. All that remains for architects is the ethical knowledge, that of beauty, however this is highly dependent upon the prevailing attitudes of the day. As such, architects can be seen retreating to grand projects and country homes, where art can reign supreme, and a position that would remain until the work of figures such as Tony Garnier and Le Corbusier in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (31)

“The turn away from Vitruvian tradition by nineteenth-century rationalists, which subsequently evolved into modernist functionalism," (32) is best depicted by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814–1979). Often painted as a highly rational figure of the 19th century, it would be more accurate to describe him as a man of contradictions. He was undoubtedly a great and progressive theoretician, but there is no escaping that his built work was, in the words of some architectural historians and critics, ordinary at most, failing to live up to his own ambitions. He was also a highly emotional figure, quarrelling with the institutions of his day throughout his entire career. “Although [for some] his excessive rhetoric is best discarded, his passion for buildings is not" (33) and this is clearly on display in his Entretiens sur l’architecture (Lectures on Architecture), released as two Volumes in 1863 and 1872.

Lectures on Architecture
(Dover Architecture, 2011)

Early on in his Preface to Volume I, Viollet-le-Duc describes a 19th century professional landscape that is not at all unfamiliar to that of the 21st century: “In the present day “specialities” alone are recognised. … Each is confined within a narrow sphere, beyond which he cannot pass without losing a great part of his importance in the eyes of the public." (34) The architectural profession must take some responsibility for this narrowing, as seen in the shedding of the technical knowledge by Perrault and Boullée.

The origins of architecture as a formalised profession in Europe can be found in the wake of considerable economic growth in the 18th century and the emergence of both new building typologies and larger buildings. At this time the aristocratic patrons of the previous era were being replaced by building committees of “middle-class laymen”, in turn forcing architects into more clearly defined roles, and forcing them to sell their ideas in direct competition with their peers. (35) Furthermore, the skills required to erect these buildings were “too diverse and technical for the old habits to deal with” so new specialists began to emerge alongside a new breed of general contractors and professional builders. (36) At the forefront of the specialisation in building were figures including SirWilliam Chambers (1723–1796) and Sir John Soane (1753–1837). (37) Soane, in particular, put it that “the business of the architect is to make the designs and estimates, to direct the works and to measure and value the different parts; he is the intermediate agent between employer and the mechanic”. (38)

The death of the architect

By the time that Viollet-le-Duc is writing and practising the narrowing of professional spheres in the eyes of the public—the clients and real paymasters of architects—was well underway. It something he clearly resents, claiming that “it is evident that my range seemed too wide, seeing that it has been so vehemently contested." (39) He would perhaps cite this is one reason for his professional struggles and clashes with the various different institutions of his day. Viollet-le-Duc maintained a “belief in the chantier or building site, as the centre of the architectural process, encouraging direct collaboration between architect, builder, craftsman and client in order to create a built environment responsive to individual and social requirements, has obvious present-day implications." (40)

Viollet-le-Duc’s frustrations are repeated in the 21st century when: “Those who argue that the individual architect determines what the building will be, and all such issues of practice, clients, and collective action concern how the design will be implemented, are simply separating content from method, form from means, while overlooking the integral balance necessarily struck between them.” These are very different frustrations to those which are found in the architectural treatise’s of Alberti, Borromini or Perrault and would seem to signify that the position that follows the 19th century is something different, and that the old ways of doing things are no longer relevant, despite the protestations of figures such as Viollet-le-Duc. An architect operating in the 19th century may be recognizable to one from the 15th century but only in outline and shadows, the core of what they do and what they believe in has changed. (41)

Architects today are still living with this legacy. The method that is often seen as being the ‘salvation’ of architecture, but to which momentum is constantly moving away from, is “design as social construction, or design as negotiation" (42) wherein the built environment “emerges from collective action”. (43) It is this which Alberti is describing in De re aedificatoria and to which architects have been trying to find their way back to for the past two hundred years.


The following was submitted to the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design as part of the Architectural Theory elective in Fall 2013, taught by Professor David Leatherbarrow.

1. Dana Cuff, Architecture: The Story of Practice, (1992). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p. 157.
2. Butcher, L., The Architecture of the Profession, (2011). The University of Manchester.
3. Joshua Prince Ramus, “Building a theatre that remakes itself”, TEDxSMU2009, Dallas, October 2009. TED, Joshua Prince-Ramus: Building a theatre that remakes itself”, 2010 [Online] Available at: [Accessed: 15th December 2013]

4. Sir David Chipperfield, “Searching for Substance”, Royal Gold Medal Presentation & Speech, 10th February 2011. RIBA, Royal Gold Medal Website, 2011 [Online] Available at: [Accessed: 15th December 2013]
5. John Summerson, Heavenly Mansions and other Essays on Architecture, (1963). New York: The Norton Library, p. 135.
6. Ibid.
7. Kostof, S., The Practice of Architecture in the Ancient World: Egypt and Greece, in Kostof, S., (ed.) The Architect: Chapters in the History of the Profession, (2000). Berkley, CA: University of California Press, p. 3.
8. Plato, Politicus 360 BCE cited in Ibid.
9. McEwen, I., Vitruvius: Writing the Body of Architecture, (2003). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p. 299-300.
10. Spector, T., The Ethical Architect: The Dilemma of Contemporary Practice, (2001). New York: Princeton Architectural Press, p. 35.
11. Till. J., Architecture Depends, (2009). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p. 28.
12. Rykwert, J. Introduction in Alberti, L., On the Art of Building in Ten Books, (1988). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p. ix.
13. Spector, loc. cit. Henry Wotton, in his 1624 Elements of Architecture took up a similar position: “The end is to build well,” he wrote “Well building hath three conditions: Commoditie, Firmenes, and Delight … the place of every part, is to be determined by use.” Following Wotton, Sir William Chambers, in his 1791 A treatise on the Decorative Part of Civil Architecture, “expressed much the same idea, arguing that beauty should be justified in terms of the utilitarian benefits it bestows on man’s well being.” Ibid., p. 39.
14. City planning remains the last of these three that architects demonstrate some sphere of influence, however the emergence of city planning as a separate discipline for architecture in the later 19th and early 20th century is rapidly diminishing this role.
15. Rykwert, loc. cit. The Vitruvian description of an architect would easily describe Leon Battista Alberti.
16. Once we have ordered information we then find it easier to rank it and discard what we see as being least important.
17. Benjamin Bucknall, in his Preface of his 1877 Translations of Viollet-le-Duc’s Lectures on Architecture, makes this clear when he writes for that Viollet-le-Duc “…none of the various forms of Architecture can lay an exclusive claim to artistic excellence.” Viollet-le-Duc. E., Lectures on Architecture, (1987). London: Dover Publications., p.1
18. Summerson, Ibid., p. 141.
19. There is a difference though in saying that the two are distinct, rather than separate.
20. Alberti, Ibid., p. 3. He goes on to add: “Him, I consider the architect, who by sure and wonderful reason and method, knows both how to device through his own mind and energy, and to realise by construction, whatever can be most beautifully fitted for the noble needs of man, by the movement of weights and massing of bodies. To do this he must have an understanding and knowledge of all the highest and most noble disciplines. This then is the architect.”
21. Ibid., p. 5.
22. Michelangelo, Life, Letters, and Poetry, (1987). Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 65.
23. Ibid., p. 64.
24. This book appears to offer an honest summation of the difficult processes involved in executing a building in the 17th century. The legacy of a text such as this can be found today in books such as Witold Rybczynski’s The Biography of a Building: How Robert Sainsbury and Norman Foster Built a Great Museum.
25. Borromini, F., Borromini’s Book, The Full Relation of the Building of the Roman Oratory by Francesco Borromini and Virgilio Spada, (2010). London: Oblong Creative, p. 95.
26. Ibid., p. 65.
27. McNeill, D. The Global Architect: Firms, Fame and Urban Form, (2009). New York: Routledge, p. 1.
28. Perrault, C., Ordonnance for the Five Kinds of Columns, (1993). Santa Monica: Getty Center, p. 72.
29. Boullée, E., Essai sur l’art, in Rosenau, H., Boullée & Visionary Architecture, (1976). London: Academy Editions, p.83.
30. Ibid.
31. Also important when considering Etienne-Louis Boullée is that his Essay on Art is one of the first examples of the “Public” being explicitly mentioned. This arises in a discussion on the careers of young architects: “Let us imagine now that a young Architect makes some progress and begins to make a name for himself and to win the confidence of the Public.” Ibid.
32. Spector, op. cit., p. 39.
33. Ibid., p. 45.
34. Viollet-le-Duc., op. cit., p.5.
35. Wilton-Ely, J., The Rise of the Professional Architect in England, in Kostof, S., (ed.) The Architect: Chapters in the History of the Profession, (2000). Berkley, CA: University of California Press, p. 195.
36. Saint, A., The Image of the Architect, (1983). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, p. 57. It also reflects a wider societal trend wherein the Arts and Sciences are separated, or better defined as various different sub-categories.
37. “They stand at the head of a vast diversification and fragmentation in building organization which has gathered pace from that day to this.” Ibid. Whilst professional builders like Thomas Cubitt offered early versions of ‘design and build’ services. Osborne House, built directly for Victoria and Albert in 1845-50 by Thomas Cubitt, is one example which used these ‘design and build’ services without an independent architect. Other professional builders included William Cubitt and Company, C.J. Freake and William Willett. They ran “capable” architectural offices within their businesses. Ibid, p. 60.
38. Ibid., p.  1. Soane is often recognised as the first ‘modern’ architect however that title could in fact go to Inigo Jones who was operating in the 16th to 17th centuries. “Significant as Jones is as the first true architect in the modern sense, his career is unrepresentative of the general current of English architecture until the later half of the 18th century, when the idea of a single figure, responsible for both design and supervision, began to be widely accepted. Until then the architectural scene was characterised by the continuing importance of the gentleman-architect.” Wilton-Ely, Ibid., p. 183.
39. Viollet-le-Duc., loc. cit.
40. Architectural Design Profile: Viollet-le-Duc, 1980. London: Rizzoli. p. 1
41. It is perhaps tragic, particularly from the perspective of architects, that just as the profession of architecture was beginning to explicitly embrace the notion of ‘society’ in shaping its’ goals that arguably the role of the architect entered into a quickening death spiral that would result in its’ diminished position today. There is limited mention of society in De re aedificatoria: “what part of the state, what class of citizen owed more to the architect, since he is responsible for every comfort: was it prince or private citizen, religious or secular institution, business or leisure, or individuals as opposed to mankind as a whole?” Alberti, op. cit., p. 5.
42. Cuff, op. cit., p. 10.
43. Ibid., p. 13.