Origins of architecture

It is often assumed that architecture as a profession dates back to the ancient Greeks, the Egyptians or the Romans, and although the origins of the word date back to these times, it wasn’t until much later that the Architect became a recognised profession in its own right.

Vitruvius Pollio (born c. 80–70 BC, died after c. 15 BC), is often considered as the first recognisable ‘architect’, known as a great Roman writer, engineer and builder. However Vitruvius wasn’t strictly an architect and did not conform to our perception of architects today.

After Vitruvius, the term architect fades into history, overshadowed by religious or political figures.

It was the discovery by Florentine scholar Poggio Bracciolini of Vitruvius of the lost great book, De Architectura (‘On architecture’, published as ‘Ten Books on Architecture’) during the early Renaissance period that influenced and inspired the architectural movement and was a significant contributor to developing the architect as a profession in its own right. The book, in part, was an attempt, to summarise the professional knowledge of the day, and to describe the graphic conventions of classical design (1).

Origins of the profession in Europe

The modern day term ‘Architect’ dates back to the mid 16th century, from the French architecte and Italian architetto, originating from the Greek arkhitektn, where arkhi means ‘chief’ and tektn ‘builder’.

‘Architects’ first began to develop as a distinct discipline in Italy during the renaissance period. Until this time, the practice of architecture, as we understand it today, was not a recognised profession, and unlike the painter or sculptor, the designer of buildings did not have a clearly defined place within the trades. There was no standard training for those wishing to engage in architecture, there was no guild devoted specifically to the professional interests of architects, and the men who made the plans for churches and palaces were ranked alongside humble artisans (4).

Evidence of the emergence of the architectural profession as an independent discipline can be seen in 1550 when Giorgio Vasari published the first edition of his history of Italian artists ‘The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects’. This period in history was also one of political, social and economic turmoil, with the last remnants of the Roman empire fading away, the black death devastating a third of central Europe’s population, labour shortages and increase in wages. This resulted in a wealthier and more developed population with newly inherited land, where religion was being questioned and art and education was being revolutionised.

Subsequently, the French writer Philibert Delorme was influenced by the movements in Italy and by the idea of the architect as a profession. He envisaged a self-governing profession of specialists with accepted standards of training and clearly defined responsibilities and privileges. In his Premier tome de l’architecture, published in 1567, he said, patrons should employ architects instead of turning to “some master mason or master carpenter as is the custom or to some painter, some notary or some other person who is supposed to be qualified but more often than not has no better judgement than the patron himself” (5).

Phulibert defined the roles appropriate for the patron, the architect, and the workman and created guidelines for their working relationship. What made Philibert’s view of the profession so much more focussed than his predecessors was that he distinguished between the architectand those who designed buildings, but were not, in his view, architects.

Arguably the first architect practicing in the way that we view the profession today was Palladiowho worked almost entirely in what was the Venetian Republic in Italy. Palladio is regarded as the greatest and most prominent architect of the 16th century. His career was based almost entirely upon the Vicenzan and Venetian nobles for whom he designed palaces and country estates. His reputation was established by his successful entry in the 1549 competition to remodel the city council hall in Vicenza (the so called Basilica), by his numerous villa designs (over twenty are illustrated in his Quattro Libri, published in Venice in 1570) and by his palace projects (7).

What also makes Palladio comparable to the architect of modern times is his experimentation and use of a range of materials to suit individual clients needs. His place in history as an architect is not only based on the beauty of his work but also for the variety of his clients, the varying scale of his buildings and their harmony with the culture of the time.

Architect’s practice varied enormously in the sixteenth century, but it is clear that architectssuch as Palladio and Alessi had a larger number of commissions than their predecessors. Neither Palladio nor Alessi was attached to a court or to great patrons, and they were not obliged to supervise construction, although they often did.

Origins of the profession in Britain

In 1534, Henry VIII declared himself head of the Church of England. At the time the church was the largest land owner in Britain, as well as having great wealth and political power. Henry dismantled or destroyed the majority of significant cathedrals and monasteries across Englandand claimed their wealth and land for himself and the Royal court.

The word architect first appeared in the English Oxford Dictionary in 1563. One of the first Englishmen to call himself ‘architect’ was John Shute, in his 1563 publication The First and Chief Groundes of Architecture. Shute’s origins are unknown, but he seems to have trained as a painter and was sent to Italy in 1550 by his employer, the Duke of Northumberland (2). Shute’s ideas and writings inspired and influenced others at the time and reflected the aspirations of the architectural patrons of the post Reformation era, where there were new land-owning politicians, civil servants and nouveaux-riches such as the Cecils of Burghley and Hatfield and John Thynne of Longleat.

Up until this point the state and church had designed and built its own buildings ‘in-house’ and no individual designers are particularly known. However with the new influx of wealthy landowners, Henry had created, there was now a very apparent need for architects to design and build new homes and landmarks to signify the wealth of these individuals.

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