Popular Science Monthly/Volume 38/December 1890/Architecture and the Environment

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THE natural conditions that are essential for successful building have never been better set forth than in a letter written by the consul Pliny to his friend Gallus in the early part of the first century of our era, in which he describes his newly-finished villa of Laurentinum.

"You are surprised" he writes, "that I am so fond of my Laurentinum, or (if you like the appellation better) my Laurens; but you will cease to wonder when I acquaint you with the beauty of the villa, the advantages of its situation, and the extensive prospect of the sea-coast. It is but seventeen miles from Rome; so that, having finished my affairs in town, I can pass my evenings here, without breaking in upon the business of the day. There are two different roads to it: if you go by that of Laurentum, you must turn off at the fourteenth mile-stone; if by Ostia, at the eleventh. Both of them are, in some parts, sandy, which makes it somewhat heavy and tedious, if you travel in a carriage, but easy and pleasant to those who ride on horseback.

"The landscape on all sides is extremely diversified; the prospect in some places being confined by woods, in others extending over large and beautiful meadows, where numberless flocks of sheep and herds of cattle, which the severity of the winter has driven from the mountains, fatten in the vernal warmth of this rich pasturage. My villa is large enough to afford all desirable accommodations, without being extensive. The porch before it is plain, but not mean, through which you enter into a portico in the form of the letter D, which includes a small but agreeable area.

"This affords a very commodious retreat in bad weather, not only as it is inclosed with windows, but particularly as it is sheltered by an extraordinary projection of the roof. From the middle of this portico you pass into an inward court, extremely pleasant, and thence into a handsome hall, which runs out toward the sea; so that, when there is a southwest wind, it is gently washed with the waves which spend themselves at the foot of it.

"On every side of this hall there are either folding-doors or windows equally large, by which means you have a view from the front and the two sides, as it were, of three different seas; from the back part you see the middle court, the portico, and the area; and by another view, you look through the portico into the porch, whence the prospect is terminated by the woods and mountains which are seen at a distance. On the left hand of this hall, somewhat farther from the sea, lies a large drawing-room; and beyond that a second of smaller size, which has one window to the rising and another to the setting sun; this has likewise a prospect of the sea, out, being at a greater distance, is less incommoded by it. The angle which the projection of the hall forms with this drawing-room, retains and increases the warmth of the sun; and hither my family retreat in winter to perform their exercises: it is sheltered from all winds except those which are generally attended with clouds, so that nothing can render this place useless, but what, at the same time, destroys the fair weather.

"Contiguous to this is a room forming the segment of a circle, the windows of which are so placed as to receive the sun the whole day; in the walls are contrived a sort of cases, which contain a collection of those authors whose works can never be read too often. Thence you pass into a bedchamber through a passage which, being boarded and suspended, as it were, over a stove which runs underneath, tempers the heat which it receives and conveys to all parts of this room. The remainder of this side of the house is appropriated to the use of my slaves and freedmen; but most of the apartments are neat enough to receive any of my friends.

"In the opposite wing is a room ornamented in very elegant taste: next to which lies another room, which, though large for a parlor, makes but a moderate dining-room; it is exceedingly well warmed and enlightened, not only by the direct rays of the sun, but by their reflection from the sea. Beyond is a bedchamber, together with its anteroom, the height of which renders it cool in summer; as its being sheltered on all sides from the winds makes it warm in winter. To this apartment another of the same sort is joined by one common wall. Thence you enter into the grand and spacious cooling-room belonging to the bath, from the opposite walls of which two round basins project, sufficiently large to swim in. Contiguous to this is the perfuming-room, then the sweating-room, and next to that the furnace which conveys the heat to the baths; adjoining, are two other little bathing-rooms, fitted up in an elegant rather than costly manner; annexed to this is a warm bath of extraordinary workmanship, wherein one may swim and have a prospect, at the same time, of the sea.

"Not far hence stands the tennis court, which lies open to the warmth of the afternoon sun. Thence you ascend a sort of turret, containing two entire apartments below; and there are the same number above, besides a dining-room which commands a very extensive prospect of the sea, together with the beautiful villas that stand interspersed upon the coast. At the other end is a second turret, in which is a room that receives the rising and the setting sun. Behind this is a large repository, near to which is a gallery of curiosities, and underneath a spacious dining-room, where the roaring of the sea, even in a storm, is heard but faintly; it looks upon the garden and the gestatio which surrounds the garden. The gestatio is encompassed with a box-tree hedge, and, where that is decayed, with rosemary; for the box, in those parts which are sheltered by the buildings,_ preserves its verdure perfectly well; but where, by an open situation, it lies exposed to the spray of the sea, though at a great distance, it entirely withers.

"Between the garden and this gestatio runs a shady plantation of vines, the alley of which is so soft that you may walk barefoot upon it without any injury. The garden is chiefly planted with fig and mulberry trees, to which this soil is as favorable as it is averse to all others. In this place is a banqueting-room, which, though it stands remote from the sea, enjoys a prospect nothing inferior to that view: two apartments run around the back part of it, the windows whereof look upon the entrance of the villa, and into a very pleasant kitchen garden. Hence an inclosed portico extends, which by its great length you might suppose erected for the use of the public. It has a range of windows on each side, but on that which looks toward the sea they are double the number of those next the garden. When the weather is fair and serene, these are all thrown open; but if it blows, those on the side the wind sets are shut, while the others remain unclosed without any inconvenience.

"Before this portico lies a terrace, perfumed with violets, and warmed by the reflection of the sun from the portico, which, as it retains the rays, so it keeps off the northeast wind; and it is as warm on this side as it is cool on the opposite; in the same manner it proves a defense against the southwest; and thus, in short, by means of its several sides, breaks the force of the winds from whatsoever point they blow. These are some of its winter advantages: they are still more considerable in summer; for at that season it throws a shade upon the terrace during all the forenoon, as it defends the gestatio, and that part of the garden which lies contiguous to it, from the afternoon sun, and casts a greater or less shade, as the day either increases or decreases; but the portico itself is then coolest when the sun is most scorching that is, when its rays fall directly upon the roof. To these, its benefits, I must not forget to add that, by setting open the windows, the western breezes have a free draught, and by that means the inclosed air is prevented from stagnating. On the upper end of the terrace and portico stands a detached building in the garden, which I call my favorite; and indeed it is particularly so, having erected it myself. It contains a very warm winter room, one side of which looks upon the terrace, the other has a view of the sea, and both lie exposed to the sun. Through the folding-doors you see the opposite chamber, and from the window is a prospect of the inclosed portico.

"On that side next the sea, and opposite to the middle wall, stands a little elegant recess, which, by means of a glass door and a curtain, is either laid into the adjoining room, or separated from it. It contains a couch and two chairs. As you lie upon this couch, from the feet you have a prospect of the sea; if you look behind, you see the neighboring villas; and from the head you have a view of the woods; these three views may be seen either distinctly from so many different windows in the room, or blended together in one confused prospect. Adjoining this is a bedchamber, which neither the voice of the servants, the murmuring of the sea, nor even the roaring of a tempest can reach; not lightning, nor the day itself, can penetrate it, unless you open the windows. This profound tranquillity is occasioned by a passage which separates the wall of this chamber from that of the garden; and thus, by means of that intervening space, every noise is precluded. Annexed to this is a small stove-room, which, by opening a little window, warms the bedchamber to the degree of heat required. Beyond this lie a chamber and antechamber, which enjoy the sun, though obliquely indeed, from the time it rises till the afternoon. When I retire to this garden apartment, I fancy myself a hundred miles from my own house, and take particular pleasure in it at the feast of the Saturnalia, when, by the license of that season of festivity, every other part of my villa resounds with the mirth of my domestics; thus I neither interrupt their diversions nor they my studies."

This remarkable letter was written in a civilization different from ours, when society and culture were developed in another spirit; yet the principles it so clearly illustrates are as much in force to-day as they were then, and the lessons it teaches as important to us as they were interesting and profitable to the friend to whom they were addressed. It matters not that the description is of a building erected more than eighteen hundred years ago, which has long since passed from the face of the earth. The truths involved in its construction are as real to-day as when the letter was freshly written, and, great as is its archaeological interest, its chief merit is the admirable way in which it describes the model dwelling. Pliny was not an architect, but he was a man of keen observation, a student of nature, and possessed of sound common sense, which he never exercised to better advantage than in the erection of this building. His description shows us that utility is the chief consideration, first, last, and all the time, that should be observed in constructing a house. Coupled with this are the conditions imposed by the environment, the taking advantage of the natural situation, the direction of the wind, the heat of the sun, the requirements of temperature and climate, all of which must receive due attention in good and economic building. Ornamentation, decoration, design, aesthetic effects, and other elements which are popularly supposed to compose architecture, are either neglected altogether or put to one side as matters which may receive attention after essential things have been considered. The Romans were fond of ornament, they loved to overload their structures with decorations of all kinds, and the number of statues employed in some of their public buildings was prodigious; but Pliny's letter shows that there were at least some among them who looked at architecture through the lens of common sense, and it is to them we must go in our search after truth.

Adaptation to its use was the chief element in Pliny's villa, the basis on which it rested, and the plan on which it was designed. There was no insistence on the beautiful or the elevation of artistic form to the chief place, but everything was arranged as convenience dictated or sense suggested, and all was in consequence admirably suited to the requirements of the owner. It was in these things that he found satisfaction, while if any part was arranged with elegance, so much the better; but as long as he was comfortable, as long as his windows opened on refreshing views, as long as every advantage was taken of the shade in summer or the heat of the sun in winter, as long as there were convenient and accessible places of retreat as well as ample rooms in which to entertain the guests, there was no fault to be found, and, as the owner was satisfied, who could complain?

The pleasure that Pliny derived from his villa is in striking contrast to the dissatisfaction that is expressed with modern buildings of all kinds—not dwellings alone, but stores and offices, churches and public buildings; with those erected in an inexpensive way, and those on which unlimited sums have been expended. The fault-finding is not a subdued murmur, but is general and outspoken, and, in the absence of any other object, is aimed at the architect, sometimes with a vigor that should be sufficient to arrest his attention. And the architects are largely to blame; for, as the leaders in the architectural movement, they naturally have a fuller acquaintance with the subject than a man who builds but one house in a lifetime, and, if they do not correct errors in construction, it is difficult to see who else is to be held responsible. The reasons for this state of things are obvious. Every man who undertakes to build a house seeks to make it a model dwelling in which the faults of every other building he is acquainted with will be corrected, and everything arranged to suit his ideas of comfort and utility. He begins with welldefined views, knows exactly what he wants, and lays them before the architect. The latter undertakes to please his client as best he may and prepares—a design. Possibly the plan is in accordance with the programme laid down, but it is by a picturesque exterior, a pleasing elevation, a beautiful drawing, that he hopes to captivate the eye and fancy of his customer. Other architects have made their reputation by their exteriors, and the most successful of all has obtained his fame by some great structure whose facade surpasses in beauty any offered by his competitors. Like a flock of sheep blindly following the leader, they go on preparing design after design, such as it is supposed the client will like, until an immense portfolio of pictures will be accumulated which may be very pleasing to look at, but which are simply drawings intended to catch the eye. The plan, the arrangement of the parts of the house, the convenience of the occupants, and all similar questions are too frequently left to be filled in afterward, and made to fit the exterior instead of the exterior being made to express them.

Architecture, in fact, has ceased to be an art, and has become a fashion. We have styles in architecture just as we have styles in dress, and the changes in public taste are as capricious in the one as in the other. The rule of fashion is the most arbitrary and idiotic form of government to which human beings have ever submitted themselves, and it is not less so in architecture than in dress. Our buildings are put up now in one style, now in another, not because one is more suited to the purpose of the structure, not because it is better adapted to the climate, not because it more freely expresses our culture and our civilization, but because we want a change—because our streets are growing monotonous, because we must alter our structures to conform to the new style, and thereby give evidence of an improved taste and furnish profitable work for the architect and good jobs for the laboring man. As to what is behind all this—the structure itself, the part which calls the façade into being, to which it is really not more than a lid or screen to shut out inquisitive eyes—it does not matter. An Italian front does not necessarily imply an Italian house, nor a Moorish façade suggest the rich, luxurious, sensual life of the south. Variety is indeed the spice of life, and it is an admirable idea to give a diversity to our streets and erect ornamental façades to our buildings; but when we pass over all thought of convenience, of utility, of adaptation to natural conditions, and judge of buildings solely because one is better looking than another, we have passed the dividing line between sense and absurdity.

From the modern point of view it is a misfortune that buildings must be used. Were they only intended to be looked at, could they but be preserved in glass cases in the galleries of some gigantic museum, there would be no complaints, no fault-findings, no grumblings. If houses were not to live in, architects could pursue their occupations without inconvenience, and design fronts and windows and turrets and all sorts of knickknacks to their hearts' content. Unfortunately, this ideal state can never be realized; and, as people must conform to the designs of architects—must have turrets where they do not want them, windows where they are least needed, and all sorts of beautifications because they are in the latest style—there is constant conflict between builder and occupant, between architect and client. Nor could anything else be expected when buildings are judged solely by their æsthetic appearance. The history of architecture carries the comforting assurance that structures can be both beautiful and useful; and, in fact, in the best buildings the two elements are so closely united as to be scarcely distinguished. In our time, however, attention is paid to only one of them, and it is, therefore, impossible to obtain satisfactory results.

Writers on architecture make a broad distinction between construction and architecture, claiming that they are two different things, and that, while all architecture is construction, all construction is not architecture. Never was a difference productive of more perverted ideas. A factory is not architectural, because it is plain, unadorned construction. Put on some ornament, add a fancy roof, a cornice, and a balcony, and it at once becomes architectural, though none of these things have aught to do with the uses of the building, but frequently conflict with them. Such a definition may be maintained in order to have certain limitations, but it is clearly absurd to say that a building only properly comes within the province of architecture when certain adjuncts are added to it which, while they may increase its aesthetic appearance, detract from its usefulness.

The history of architecture is the story of the attempt of man to adapt his life to the environment in which he is placed. The Abipone under his mat, the Assyrian in his thick-walled house of brick, the Roman in his conveniently arranged villa, the mediæval baron in his castle, the French monarch in his richly appointed palace, are but so many instances of the influence of climate and geological conditions, nature of the soil, products of the land, extent of intercourse with other peoples, temperature, rainfall, manner of living, and many other phenomena which have caused the evolution of various grades of society, and which thus express themselves in visible form. In Assyria the buildings were of clay, because that was the only substance the land afforded. In Greece they were of stone, because it was abundant and easily obtained. The mediæval baron intrenched himself in a heavily guarded fortress, because the country was in an unsettled condition and was infested with freebooters. A change passed over society; laws were enforced, police regulations made, society became settled and calm, fortifications disappeared, and in their place arose châteaux and pleasant villas that were admirably suited to a free and peaceful life. Each style, in fact, originated in the various operations of natural conditions; each form had an evolution of its own, that had as definite and as readily ascertained causes as those which produced the evolution of any other form of culture. Reason and common sense, usefulness and intention, were the great factors on which—all architecture rested; and when these things were neglected—when an arbitrary decree of fashion or the development of a new "taste" became the criterion by which all buildings were judged architecture fell. This calamity occurred with the introduction of the Renaissance in the fifteenth century, and its results are still apparent.

Natural conditions are apt to be forgotten in this busy life of ours. We have no time to spend in applying the problems of perspective to architecture as did the ancient Greeks when they used curved lines instead of straight, in order to correct the distortion caused by distance. Our crowded cities, where land has reached fabulous prices per foot, afford no opportunity for taking advantage of the conveniences of an ample site. But, though we may not be able to concern ourselves with such matters, there are a multitude of other details that can be attended to which are now more or less neglected, and which, were they intelligently treated, would remove much of the present reproach from our architecture.

For many hundred years architecture has been occupied with solving problems presented by Nature. In earlier times life was comparatively simple, and artificial needs were few and easily satisfied. Now, however, we have countless mechanical contrivances that have entered closely into our lives, and the problems of architecture take a different range. Steam and electricity have revolutionized society. They have brought the furthermost parts of the earth into intimate connection. Our lives are one continuous hurry, and the laggard is soon left behind in the rapid march of progress. In the cities land is scarce and valuable, and room is only to be had by expanding upward instead of laterally. Inventive genius has supplied us with elevators, steam heat, electric light. Questions of public safety, correct sanitation, guards against fire, protection against burglary, safe means of rapid ingress and egress, have formed other conditions. The spread of manufactures, the making of artificial building materials, as iron and glass, have given us new forces. New methods of business and the constant and rapid introduction of new occupations have presented fresh, problems with which to deal. The increase of great corporations, the building of railroads, new forms of transportation by water, the changes of life in every state, have caused new difficulties for the architect, all of which must be correctly solved if we are to make any true progress.

In our houses, stores, office-buildings, hotels, homes, factories, machine-shops, depots of construction, warehouses, churches, dwellings, and places of amusement, there is a constant need for the application of new ideas and the devising of new methods. The work that is before our architects is immense, and the way in which they apply themselves to it will largely influence our future advancement. Yet in the face of all this the battle of the styles waxes furious; and if one obtains a handsomer building than his neighbor, he is told not to complain of its inconveniences, but to be satisfied that he has got so much. There never was a time when the need of a practical architecture was more pressing than now, and there never was a time when it was so persistently neglected.

And what is a practical architecture? Is it one in which beauty is sacrificed to utility, where plainness is to be preferred to ornament, where art is subordinated to engineering? Not at all; we can have beauty and utility, art and engineering, all in one building, and still be practical and in line with good architectural work. It is true that many "practical" buildings are extremely ugly, and many great works of engineering eminently hideous. It is small wonder at times that there is a revulsion against the practical and a demand for more of the beautiful; but the error here is as great as when beauty is sacrificed to utility. Use is by no means synonymous with ugliness, and it is quite as important to combat such a view as to condemn beautiful things because they are useless. Practical architecture does not imply any compromise between the two elements, but it does imply a strict application of common sense to all material-things. There is no reason why architecture should be denied the treatment from the point of view of sound sense that is given to every other department of thought and progress; it is too closely connected with the necessities of life to be made the victim of absurdity.

There is scarcely a limit to the number of examples of the neglect of natural conditions that may be gathered from the architecture that prevails among us. In the search for the beautiful, the demand for impressive facades, the taste for complicated ornament, and a most singular appreciation of the odd, the grotesque, and the ugly, there is little attention paid to matters which seem self-evident and are of really vital importance. Windows are arranged to suit a symmetrical facade, whether they are just what are needed for the rooms or not, and, even where it is possible, little attention is given to the direction of the sunlight in order that the living-rooms may receive the full benefit of the natural warmth, nor are those rooms where it is not needed, or minor offices, relegated to the exposed side. The most important external feature, the door, is seldom adjusted to the climate. Even in large office-buildings, hotels, and churches, where there should be ample space for every structural convenience, the door is frequently of cramped dimensions, and, instead of being preceded by a porch, which would be an integral part of the architecture, and which is absolutely essential in our long, cold, damp winters, is boarded up with "storm-doors" that are not only hideous in design but an actual obstruction. With the rapid increase in the value of land which has taken place in all our large cities in late years, a wild fear lest any inch be wasted has resulted in a compactness of plan that is frequently painful. The housekeeper longs for the roomy closets and ample storerooms of the old buildings; the fine hall that once formed an imposing and appropriate entrance has given place to the narrow entry through which it is frequently impossible to carry the larger articles of furniture. The same difficulty is experienced in the sharp, frequent turns which characterize so many stairways. Bedrooms are pushed into corners where they seldom have the benefit of pure, free air and the heat of the sun, for no other reason than that space is required for ample reception-rooms and state apartments, which, though used comparatively seldom, are treated as the most important part of the house.

The same indifference to the true ends of building are to be noted in public edifices as well as in private ones. Offices are small and frequently without light. In many churches it is impossible either to see the preacher or to hear him, and some of our public halls are not much better, while, as a crowning touch, the seats are placed so close together as to render them the very acme of discomfort to all but dwarfs. Nor are these structural differences the only ones that call for improvement. There are a multitude of modern contrivances that are yet in an undeveloped state. Questions of drainage, of heating, of artificial light, of elevators, of protection against fire, of ventilation, and the very means of supporting life, are not seldom denied us in structures that astound us by their size and which have cost vast sums. It is not because these things are expensive that they are neglected, nor because they are out of the range of our mechanical powers, but because they are looked upon as adjuncts to the buildings to be taken up at some later time and are then never given the strict attention they require. A draughtsman who has prepared a design that captivates him by its beauty, and seems destined to win a much-desired prize by its mere art superiority over other drawings, is too apt to forget that, after all, he has neglected the consideration of utility; and that on the perfection of the adaptation of the structure to human needs must depend its real value, its true measure of success.

The Great Pyramid of Egypt, which is among the most ancient monuments in the world, has survived for thousands of years because each stone had a definite place, in which it was set with the greatest care. It owes its size and its endurance to a strict attention, on the part of its builders, to small things, and the exercise of an almost limitless patience. It teaches a profound truth, that in architecture no single thing is too unimportant to be treated in the best way; and, though we need not seek to erect buildings whose permanency will be of the type of the Pyramid of Cheops, we can at least apply to our structures the same care for the minor parts, believing that, as the members are, so will the whole be.

Architecture must express the life of any people in order to be successful. It is this which makes former styles so admirable, and it is this element that is so sadly wanting in our own. We must not make our lives conform to our buildings, but our buildings must conform to our lives. They must express not only our culture and our tastes, but the land in which we live and the environment in which we are placed. This can never be accomplished by erecting buildings for their exterior only, and until our architects learn to treat the plan and disposition of the building as the chief part of the structure we can never hope to be rid of the discomfort that makes so much of our daily life unbearable. The Gothic builders achieved success, not because their buildings were beautiful only, but because they filled every natural requirement. It is impossible to delude ourselves with the thought that we are equally successful simply because we happen to live in a house with a Gothic front, but which subjects us to hourly annoyances by the total absence of the conveniences and necessaries of modern daily life.


Botany, said Prof. Marshall Ward, in the British Association, ought to he taught in schools because of the interest which the subject arouses in the mind of a child and the ease with which it can be taught. The study cultivates and stimulates those powers of accurate observation and comparison and conscientious recording of results so much needed by all, and which come naturally to children who are not too much under the bane of a mere instruction system. The value of such teaching is not to be measured by the number and kind of facts remembered, any more than historical knowledge consists of being able to remember the dates of battles and other events. The elements of botany afford to the teacher the cheapest, the cleanest, and the most convenient means of cultivating in young children the power of observation and comparison direct with nature, and afterward teaching them to generalize.