Tract I on Architecture


Sir Christopher Wren



ARCHITECTURE has its political Use; publick Buildings being the Ornament of a Country; it establishes a Nation, draws People and Commerce; makes the People love their native Country, which Passion is the Original of all great Actions in a Common-wealth. The Emulation of the Cities of Greece was the true Cause of their Greatness. The obstinate Valour of the Jews, occasioned by the Love of their Temple, was a Cement that held together that People, for many Ages, through infinite Changes. The Care of publick Decency and Convenience was a great Cause of the Establishment of the Low-countries, and of many Cities in the World. Modern Rome subsists still, by the Ruins and Imitation of the old; as does Jerusalem, by the Temple of the Sepulchre, and other Remains of Helena's Zeal.

Architecture aims at Eternity; and therefore the only Thing uncapable of Modes and Fashions in its Principals, the Orders.

The Orders are not only Roman and Greek, but Phoenician, Hebrew, and Assyrian; therefore being founded upon the Experience of all Ages, promoted by the vast Treasures of all the great Monarchs, and Skill of the greatest Artists and Geometricians, every one emulating each other; and Experiments in this kind being greatly expenceful, and Errors incorrigible, is the Reason that the Principle of Architecture are now rather the Study of Antiquity than Fancy.

Beauty, Firmness, and Convenience, are the Principles; the two first depend upon the geometrical Reasons of Opticks and Staticks; the third only makes the Variety.

There are natural Causes of Beauty. Beauty is a Harmony of Objects, begetting Pleasure by the Eye. There are two Causes of Beauty, natural and customary. Natural is from Geometry, consisting in Uniformity (that is Equality) and Proportion. Customary Beauty is begotten by the Use of our Senses to those Objects which are usually pleasing to us for other Causes, as Familiarity or particular Inclination breeds a Love to Things not in themselves lovely. Here lies the great Occasion of Errors; here is tried the Architect's Judgment: but always the true Test is natural or geometrical Beauty.

Geometrical Figures are naturally more beautiful than other irregular; in this all consent as to a Law of Nature. Of geometrical Figures, the Square and the Circle are most beautiful; next, the Parallelogram and the Oval. Strait Lines are more beautiful than curve; next to strait Lines, equal and geometrical Flexures; an Object elevated in the Middle is more beautiful than depressed.

Position is necessary for perfecting Beauty. There are only two beautiful Positions of strait Lines, perpendicular and horizontal: this is from Nature, and consequently Necessity, no other than upright being firm. Oblique Positions are Discord to the Eye, unless answered in Pairs, as in the Sides of an equicrural Triangle: therefore Gothick Buttresses are all ill-favoured, and were avoided by the Ancients, and no Roofs almost but spherick raised to be visible, except in the Front, where the Lines answer; in spherick, in all Positions, the Ribs answer. Cones and multangular Prisms want neither Beauty nor Firmness, but are not ancient.

Views contrary to Beauty are Deformity, or a Defect of Uniformity, and Plainness, which is the Excess of Uniformity; Variety makes the Mean.

Variety of Uniformities makes compleat Beauty: Uniformities are best tempered, as Rhimes in Poetry, alternately, or sometimes with more Variety, as in Stanza's.

In Things to be seen at once, much Variety makes Confusion, another Vice of Beauty. In Things that are not seen at once, and have no Respect one to another, great Variety is commendable, provided this Variety transgress not the Rules of Opticks and Geometry.

An Architect ought to be jealous of Novelties, in which Fancy blinds the Judgment; and to think his Judges, as well those that are to live five Centuries after him, as those of his own Time. That which is commendable now for Novelty, will not be a new Invention to Posterity, when his Works are often imitated, and when it is unknown which was the Original; but the Glory of that which is good of itself is eternal.

The Architect ought, above all Things, to be well skilled in Perspective; for, every thing that appears well in the Orthography, may not be good in the Model, especially where there are many Angles and Projectures; and every thing that is good in Model, may not be so when built; because a Model is seen from other Stations and Distances than the Eye sees the Building: but this will hold universally true, that whatsoever is good in Perspective, and will hold so in all the principal Views, whether direct or oblique, will be as good in great, if this only Caution be observed, that Regard be had to the Distance of the Eye in the principal Stations.

Things seen near at hand may have small and many Members, be well furnished with Ornaments, and may lie flatter; on the contrary, all this Care is ridiculous at great Distances; there bulky Members, and full Projectures casting quick Shadows, are commendable: small Ornaments at too great Distance, serve only to confound the Symmetry, and to take away the Lustre of the Object, by darkening it with many little Shadows.

There are different Reasons for Objects, whose chief View is in Front, and for those whose chief View is sideways.

Fronts ought to be elevated in the Middle, not the Corners; because the Middle is the Place of greatest Dignity, and first arrests the Eye; and rather projecting forward in the Middle, than hollow. For these Reasons, Pavilions at the Corners are naught; because they make both Faults, a hollow and depressed Front. Where Hollows and Solids are mixed, the Hollow is to be in the Middle; for, Hollows are either Niches, Windows, or Doors: The first require the Middle to give the Statue Dignity; the second, that the View from within may be direct; the third, that the Visto may be strait. The Ancients elevated the Middle with a Tympan, and Statue, or a Dome. The triumphant Arches, which now seem flat, were elevated by the magnificent Figure of the Victor in his Chariot with four Horses abreast, and other Statues accompanying it. No sort of Pinnacle is worthy enough to appear in the Air, but Statue. Pyramids are Gothick; Pots are modern French. Chimnies ought to be hid, if not, to be well adorned. No Roof can have Dignity enough to appear above a Cornice, but the circular; in private Buildings it is excusable. The Ancients affected Flatness. In Buildings where the View is sideways, as in Streets, it is absolutely required, that the Composition be square, Intercolumnations equal, Projectures not great, the Cornices unbroken, and every thing strait, equal, and uniform. Breaks in the Cornice, Projectures of the upright Members, Variety, Inequality in the Parts, various Heights of the Roof, serve only to confound the Perspective, and make it deformed, while the Breaches and Projectures are cast one upon another, and obscure all Symmetry. In this sort of Building there seems no Proportion of Length to the Heighth; for, a Portico the longer the more beautiful in infinitum: on the contrary, Fronts require a Proportion of the Breadth to the Heighth; higher than three times the Breadth is indecent, and as ill to be above three times as broad as high. From this Rule I except Obelisks, Pyramids, Col­umns, such as Trajan's, &c. which seem rather single Things than Compositions: I except also long Porticoes, though seen direct, where the Eye wandering over the same Members infinitely re­peated, and not easily finding the Bounds, makes no Comparison of them with the Heighth.

Vitruvius hath led us the true Way to find out the Originals of the Orders. When Men first cohabited in civil Commerce, there was Necessity of Forums and publick Places of Meeting. In cold Countries, People were obliged to shut out the Air, the Cold, and the Rain; but in the hot Countries, where Civility first began, they desired to exclude the Sun only, and admit all possible Air for Coolness and Health: this brought in naturally the Use of Porticoes, or Roofs for Shade, set upon Pillars. A Walk of Trees is more beautiful than the most artificial Portico; but these not being easily preserved in Market-places, they made the more durable Shades of Porticoes; in which we see they imitated Nature, most Trees in their Prime, that are not Sapplings, or Dotards, observe near the Proportion of Dorick Pillars in the Length of their Bole, before they part into Branches. This I think the more natural Comparison, than that to the Body of a Man, in which there is little Resemblance of a cylindrical Body. The first Pillars were the very Boles of Trees turned, or cut in Prisms of many Sides. A little Curiosity would induce to lay the Torus at the Top; and the Conjecture is not amiss, to say it was first a Band of Iron, to keep the Clefts, occasioned by the Sun, from opening with the Weight above; and to keep the Weather from piercing those Clefts, it was necessary to cover it with the Plinth, or square Board. The Architrave con­joined all the Pillars in Length, the Couples joined them cross-ways. I suppose now, that the Ends of the Couples might be hollowed away, as in this Scheme. [The rest is wanting].



Written in the 1670s.