The House and the Human Heart

The House and the Human Heart

What qualities make a house satisfying, comfortable, and even rewarding to live in? Surprise! We find the finest answer in a book written 2,030 years ago: De Architectura, by the Roman architect Vitruvius.

“The ideal building has three elements,” Vitruvius wrote. The first English translation, written in the 17th century, rendered these as “firmness, commodity, and delight.” The better words in modern English would be: “sturdy, useful, and beautiful.”

These standards are forever. They apply perfectly today.

But a great many modern American homes fail to live up to Vitruvius’s classic ideals.

A sturdy home is one built with solid, long-lived, sustainable materials. It shouldn’t start to look shabby and aching for renovation after ten or twenty years. It should offer its occupants a feeling of solid enclosure, protection against the elements, and shelter from punishing maintenance costs. And we’d naturally expect a sturdy home today to use energy and natural resources as sustainably as possible.

A useful home is designed so that no space is wasted, and human activities can flow naturally and efficiently from one room to another. Architects talk about a “hierarchy of spaces,” which sounds complicated but really isn’t. A kitchen flows into a dining area, which opens onto a living area, which extends itself onto a porch for outdoor living when the weather invites. These spaces should seamlessly merge into one another, just like the progression of an evening dinner with friends.

A beautiful home of course defines itself in the eye of each beholder. We don’t always all agree on what architectural beauty is. It may be more helpful to go back to that early English translation: “delight.” We experience it when we walk into a small house and find, unexpectedly, a soaring ceiling that lifts our spirits; or in a beautifully crafted detail on a porch railing; or an overall  harmony of visual rhythms and proportions.

Interesting, isn’t it, how these qualities are exactly as essential to our well-being and satisfaction on a 21st-century island in Puget Sound as they were in Vitruvius’s Rome.

Building technology has changed radically, but the fundamental truths of firmitatis, utilitatis, et venustatis—sturdy, useful, and beautiful—are as eternal as the human heart.

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