Washingtonian Vitruvianism


By Leonardo G. Torosian
McGill University, Class of 2018
ANCA Leo Sarkisian Internship Participant, 2017

When I saw Washington for the first time, last month, the first thing that struck me was the omnipresent neoclassical architecture superimposed on the Cartesian layout of the city.

“When I saw Washington for the first time, last month, the first thing that struck me was the omnipresent neoclassical architecture superimposed on the Cartesian layout of the city.”

It was during the late 18th and 19th centuries that many of the foundational buildings were built in Washington. To reflect the bond between the newly formed United States and Athenian democracy, the founding fathers of this country tried to imitate Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman architectural styles and elements.

In some cases, such as the U.S. Supreme Court building, which resembles a monumental marble temple, the result is pleasant to the eye. In other cases, only the building’s first floor facade has a colonnade supporting the entablature, reminding the spectator of its Roman influence. The upper stories and the sides are comparatively neglected, presenting only plain brick, which leads to an overall eclectic result. But, as a whole, the overly symmetrical and blatantly orderly city of Washington, with its enormous columns and oversized entrances, makes me feel as though I am walking in downtown Rome at the time of Jesus’ sermons in Galilee.

Realizing the extent of the Washingtonian street grid system (called “centuriation” in ancient Rome), and the prevalence of the neoclassical architectural style on Capitol Hill, I immediately thought of Marcus Vitruvius, the 1st century BC Roman architect whom Da Vinci referred to when drawing the Vitruvian Man. He proposed three principles for good architecture and argued that an architect who does not consider those three fundamentals is a bad architect.

The following were the three concepts necessary for good architecture: Firmatis (Durability), Utilitas (Utility), and Venustatis (Beauty).

Firmatis is about building so that the edifice stands robustly and is in good condition forever, like the giant granite, marble, and sandstone blocks used extensively in the District of Columbia. Utilitas is about utility, usefulness, and functionality, which D.C. exemplifies perfectly because the public buildings fulfill and embrace the functioning needs of their occupants and public servants. Venustatis is about building by taking into consideration the aesthetics of the construction. The way to respect this golden rule is by taking into consideration the general beauty, the golden ratio, the symmetry, and the craftsmanship; by using attractive materials; and by paying attention to the small details.

The principle of Venustatis was a requirement prior to the 20th century, but it has since been progressively discarded in favor of Utilitas, perhaps because of the ascent of architectural utilitarianism. The latter was prominent after the 1860s and slowly took over during the rise of industrialization, during which abundant ornamental details, such as cornices and eaves, were abandoned. The Washingtonian landscape, with its symmetrical shapes and triangular pediments, respects Vitruvius’s “De Architectura” almost perfectly.

Organizations that succeed have a common characteristic: they implement the Vitruvianntriad. Firmatis, Utilitas, and Venustatis work the most effectively when in unity. The ANCA, unlike other similar institutions that would naively concentrate only on Utilitas, takes the high road. If there were something called Vitruvian politics, the ANCA would be the model nonprofit version. If there is one thing this group of highly educated individuals is good at, it is their astonishing capacity in institution-building. They build, and they build firmly (Firmatis). They build so the institution lasts a thousand years: Those who buy a house for their interns, for example, are looking decades into the future. Furthermore, their job has a direct consequence on the furthering of our issues and the promotion of U.S.-Armenia relationship (Utilitas). Moreover, they stand up for the right reasons; they are graceful in their actions and generous in their time and allocations (Venustatis).

The institution I intern with is a proud institution: We have SMART goals, we use media efficiently, we build coalitions, organize communities, and engage policymakers. I couldn’t be prouder to be here, doing this; it is the greatest honor of my life.

Working for an institution that believes in a Free, Independent, and United Armenia and stands by Firmatis, Utilitas, and Venustatis is all I could ask for.

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