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buildings and the body

buildings and the body The anthropologist Mary Douglas once remarked that, for psychologists and psychoanalysts, everything symbolizes the body; for sociologists, the body symbolizes everything else. In as much as our bodies present a thousand usefully intimate and immediate metaphors, we are all sociologists. The analogy with buildings is, however, a distinctively ancient and durable one, which has been of great rhetorical utility to architects and anatomists, among others.

The ‘essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one thing in terms of another’ ( Lakoff and Johnson), and buildings have provided two metaphors essential in the history of Western understandings of the self. The first derives from an even more ‘fundamental’ one: our conception of our bodies as containers, of our skins as the boundaries between inside and out. We constantly use ‘in’ and ‘out’ figuratively in our speech. Because of the form of our bodies, too, we apply metaphorically (think in terms of) ‘top’ and ‘bottom’, and this is where buildings are particularly apt containers; Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) noted dream-work's propensity to correlate body-parts with house-parts, including the attic with the mind.

The second metaphor makes reasoning itself a form of construction; we ‘build’ arguments, and ‘demolish’ those of others. Again, metaphorical ‘constructions’ of thinking are not confined to buildings (our ideas can also be ‘flowering’ plants, for example), but the architectural analogy is one of specific historical importance. Implicit since antiquity — first explicitly addressed by René Descartes (1596–1650) and subsequently institutionalized, notably by Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) — has been philosophy's identification of thinking with building (Wigley). Today the metaphor is of greater instrumental importance than ever, not least to architects surveying the theoretical ground in the wake of ‘deconstructivist’ philosophy (a term taken from Martin Heidegger's Abbau, 1889–1976).

Buildings in minds and bodies

The building–body metaphors of enclosure and construction have given rise to vivid formulations of the workings of the mind. Robert Hooke (1635–1703) — who, as a natural philosopher and architect, was well placed to understand the metaphors — used both in 1680, to describe memory. It is a ‘repository of ideas formed partly by the senses, but … no idea can be really formed or stored up in this repository, without the directive and architectonical power of the soul’; his attribution of architectural power to the soul is a variant of one of the most potent manifestations of the building–body analogy, the conventional praise of God as the architect of creation, and of its microcosmic emblem, the human body. In 1717, Andrew Snape (1675–1742), a divine, preached sympathetically about madness and how the force of the ‘labouring imagination’ can burst the ‘thin partitions and enclosures, that keep ideas separate’, resulting in a tragic jumble.

Architectural ruin became a common way of conceptualizing insanity, as real ruins became popular attractions for eighteenth-century tourists playing at melancholy. The fragility of this image, however, belies the comforting sturdiness of that on which it was, ultimately, drawing: God builds, as good architects must, for commodity, firmness, and delight (as the Vitruvian canon was first rendered in English). In Micrographia (1665) we can trace Hooke's search for a word to describe, metaphorically, the structures in cork that he saw under the microscope: pores? boxes? He happily hit upon the old architectural term ‘cell’, which evoked, not just their uniformity and distinctness, but the evident strength of their slender partition walls. Two centuries earlier, on the other hand, the architect Leone Battista Alberti (1404–72) unreflectingly used the natural architecture of the body in his treatise On the Art of Building (1452), as an example of belts-and-braces prudence worth emulating: ‘with every type of vault, we should imitate nature throughout, that is, bind together the bones and interweave flesh with nerves running across every possible section: in length, breadth, and depth, and also obliquely across.’

Alberti's verbal description is evocative, but imprecise. Not least of the reasons why the anatomical investigations of the next, sixteenth century were so epochal was the way in which their new, figurative ‘construction of an interior body-space’ (Sawday) was enabled by new illustrative technologies (including linear perspective) and conventions, which permitted the rendering of three-dimensional forms in two dimensions. In this way, information about the spatial organization of the body's internal volumes was retrievable, without ambiguity, by viewers of the illustration. These innovations were equally transformative for architecture, in a parallel development recognized at the time. The Italian translator of a 1567 edition of the Ten Books on Architecture by Marcus Vitruvius, Pollio (act. 46–30 bc), commented on the way that, in preparing a cross-section (in which a building is shown sliced through, to reveal its interior bounded within the outline of external walls), the architect is working as a physician, revealing an anatomy. Different kinds of projections (called ‘cuts’) permitted not just new ways of recording architecture, but a new, formally more integrated kind of architecture, that of the Italian Renaissance. Christian viewers of the new anatomical illustrations were happy to find in them further confirmation of the beauty and solidity of God's architecture, now seen in volumetric depth.

To the pictures, in time, could be adduced the verbal descriptions of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century physiology, which filled the pipes and enclosures with such moving fluids as blood and air. Convinced of the purposefulness of the architecture, physiologists like William Harvey (1578–1657) could in turn argue from appearances; thus he questioned Galen's conclusion that the pulmonary veins carried air, because they shared the structure of blood vessels. God's wisdom, wrote the physician Bernard Mandeville (c.1670–1733) in 1729, is nowhere more apparent than in the ‘construction’ of the human body, whose every part is ‘contrived with stupendous skill, and fitted with the utmost accuracy for different purposes.’ Mandeville and others had reached a more machine-like model for the body, but building systems could also be used in explaining dynamism, as by Harvey: ‘furnaces … draw away the phlegm, raise the spirit.’ No use of the comparison touches that of the physician Tobias Cohn (1652–1729), whose Hebrew text Ma'aseh Tobiyyah (Venice 1708) illustrated the cut-away torso of a healthy man juxtaposed with a five-storey house: the ‘lungs are the upper (ventilated) storey … the kidneys are the water reservoirs, the lower intestines the lavatory, and the feet are the foundation’ (Allen) and so forth. This engaging picture must have contributed to the success of the book, last reprinted in 1908.

Bodies in buildings

We still use the building–body metaphor every day in our speech, and anatomists still refer to their subjects' ‘architecture’. However, the figurative (and, of course, literal) relation between bodies and buildings has been and continues to be central to architectural thinking in ways more explicit than the one, and more far-reaching than the other. The first and most important treatise about architecture to have survived, Vitruvius' Ten Books, virtually single-handedly directed subsequent formulations of the relation.

Vitruvius wrote the book at a time of great political upheaval and, it seemed to many then, architectural chaos in the Roman Empire. Like his contemporaries Horace and Virgil, Vitruvius offered his own version of the admirably old-fashioned, stoic hero. This is the architect who not only works skilfully and dutifully, but who can also explain the reasons underlying his practice: with Vitruvius begins the division between practice and theory. For him, the latter was inextricably bound up with architecture's history, which would redirect it towards its most important goal: to share the immutability, the fixed rules, of nature, and in this way to find intellectual coherence. Central to architectural history, or to the myths at least (the difference, which Vitruvius sometimes acknowledged, was, he claimed, not important because myths are made for a reason) had been the human body. A case study: suppose, Vitruvius asked, the architect were to ‘set up the marble statues of women in long robes, called caryatids, to take the place of columns … he will give the following explanation to his questioners.’ The explanation follows — the women, thus monumentalized, are eternally atoning for the ignobility of Caryae, a Greek state which allied with the Persians, and shared their defeat. Vitruvius went on to explain the origins of the male equivalents, persics (Persians). This choice of example, which comes early in his first Book, is significant: it introduces in the most literal way possible an equivalence underpinning an entire theory of architecture. Vitruvius traced the ultimate origins of buildings to bodies. Out of this emerge relationships between the proportions of various types of human body (the man, the maiden, the matron) and the Greek orders; between parts of the body and units of measure (the ‘foot’); between the proportioned symmetry of the human frame and that of the temple plan.

Since the fifteenth century authors have emphasized different aspects of the Vitruvian analogy. Alberti used it to develop a critical definition: beauty is that ‘reasoned harmony of all the parts within a body, so that nothing may be added, taken away, or altered, but for the worse’. For some, privacy was interesting: the Italian architect Andrea Palladio (1508–80) explained that, ‘as the blessed Creator has ordered our members, so that the most beautiful are in places most exposed the view, and the less decent hidden, so too in building.’ Sir Henry Wotton (1568–1639) cheerfully gave the image a little dynamism, in 1624 prescribing sewage systems in the well-wrought house:
‘Art should imitate nature, in those ignoble conveyances; and separate them from sight, … into the most remote, and lowest, and thickest part of the foundation: with secret vents passing up through the walls like a tunnel to the wild air aloft …’

Wotton, and many later English writers, was also interested in sumptuary comparisons; they were perhaps thinking of Alberti's dictum that ‘we should erect our building naked, and let it be quite completed before we dress it with ornaments’, ornaments which, like clothes, should reveal the social status of their owner–occupier. Ornament was thus not superfluous, but the idea of the essential, ‘naked’ building would, in the eighteenth century, link up with another, privacy-related preoccupation: the status of the building's façade or ‘face’. Hitherto of fairly casual interest, architectural physiognomy became the subject of intense attention in France. Particular preoccupations were the ways in which the façade could exert a direct physical (though perceived as emotional) effect on the viewer; and, concomitantly, its responsibility towards social improvement (fearsome prison façades might deter potential malefactors, for instance). Most far-reaching, perhaps, has been the extension of the building–body analogy to entire towns, and to nations. The figure was sufficiently clichéd by 1685 for the speculative builder Nicholas Barbon (d. 1698) to remark, wearily, that opponents of new urban construction invariably ‘use for argument a simile from those that have the rickets, fancying the city to be the head of the nation, and that it will grow too big for the body’; Daniel Defoe (c.1661–1731) applied the more physiologically-inflected, dynamic form in comparing England's trade to the movement of life's blood around a vast circulation system.

To what extent does the symbolic body in the building live or die with architectural classicism and the Vitruvian tradition? Le Corbusier's (1887–1966) Modulor (1951) was a serious attempt to apply the proportions of the male figure to those of building units. In a more abstract way, the concepts of the objet-type (the final, mass-producible form of an object as perfected by use) and equivalent maison-type with which the same architect was, with others, fascinated after World War I, are themselves metaphors of human evolution: ‘There are some admirable tools, neat as bones’ wrote Paul Valéry (1871–1945). Today, however, architectural Jeremiahs customarily blame a ‘modernist sensibility dedicated more to the rational sheltering of the body than to its mathematical inscription or pictorial emulation’ (Vidler) — the Vitruvian abstract and mimetic resemblances — for the abandonment of an ancient metaphor and with it ancient satisfactions, for viewers and users alike. This may be to confuse the analogous relations of buildings and the body with other things: architectural style, and quality of design, materials, and workmanship. As Vidler has shown, too, the metaphors do survive, often taking forms explicitly and uncomfortably close to what real bodies are sometimes made to suffer. Images of fracture and dismemberment reoccur in contemporary architectural writing and practice; at their best (and even wittiest) they remind us that the metaphorical relation is inescapable.

Christine Stevenson


Allen, N. (1984). Illustrations from the Wellcome Institute Library: a Jewish physician in the seventeenth century. Medical History, 28, 324–28.
Lakoff, G. and and Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.
Sawday, J. (1995). The body emblazoned: dissection and the human body in Renaissance culture. Routledge, London and New York.

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"buildings and the body." The Oxford Companion to the Body. . 21 Aug. 2017 <>.

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Wotton, William

William Wotton, 1666–1727, English scholar. He is best known for his Reflections upon Ancient and Modern Learning (1694), a defense of contemporary learning written in response to an essay by Sir William Temple. Both Wotton and Temple were satirized by Swift in Battle of the Books (1704).

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