A well-composed body : anthropomorphism in architecture

  • Scott Drake

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Since the writings of Vitruvius in the first century AD,the use of the human body as a metaphorical and symbolic referent has provided what is perhaps the most prolific trope for architectural theory. The image of 'Vitruvian Man,' with limbs outstretched to touch the circle drawn from its navel,took on particular significance during the Renaissance,as architects such as Alberti,Filarete,di Giorgio,Colonna,and Serlio published their own interpretations of Vitruvius' Ten Books. For these writers,the body,as microcosm,was the best available means for representing the order of the cosmos,the world as a whole. Yet just as the idea of the body as architectural referent was being reinterpreted,the body itself was being transformed by Renaissance anatomy. The unity and integrity of the body was jeopardised as anatomists studied the body through the dissection of corpses. The published results of these studies,the most notable being Vesalius' De Humani Corporis Fabrica,were highly influential,with the anatomical methods of observation and partition emerging as the fundamental tenets of modern science. Several centuries later,the transformation of the body from a symbol of the world to an object amenable to scientific observation and control was all but fully realised,as the discoveries of Pasteur were put to use in the conquest of disease. These changing medical conceptions of the body led to concomitant transformations of the sense of self,as the body as object was increasingly divorced from the operations of the mind,in both its conscious and unconscious forms. This thesis will examine how these changing conceptions of the human body have been interpreted within architectural theory since Vitruvius. Beginning with the idea of ornament as trope of sacrifice,it will examine how interpretations of the relation between the body as whole and as part have affected ideas of architectural composition. Further,it will examine the ethical implications of the trope of building as body,such that a building which reflects the proportions of a 'well-composed' body (Francesco di Giorgio),is itself an injunction to 'composure,' or appropriate behaviour. It will argue that modern architecture,while rejecting classical anthropomorphism,was nonetheless influenced by ideas and practices arising from anatomy. Then,in contrast to the object-body of anatomy,the thesis will examine phenomenological and hermeneutical conceptions of the body,which interpret the body as lived. From Merleau-Ponty's study of perception to Scarry's reading of the significance of pain,the contribution of the body to the sense of self will be explored,giving rise to a renewed conception of anthropomorphism as the manifestation not only of human form,but of human sentience. Further,to the modern fragmentation of both the body and architecture will be opposed integrative strategies of selfhood,such as the formation of narrative identity (Ricoeur),the engagement with a community through practice (MacIntyre),and the idea of the 'monstrous' body (Frascari). These strategies will be used to explore ways in which the form of the body can be understood other than in purely material terms,and how this is translated into architecture.
Date of Award1 Jan 2003
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Canberra

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