Book Review: Vitruvius

Vitruvius: Writing the Body of Architecture by Indra Kagis McEwen

In the author's second book (following Socrates' Ancestor) she takes on the most famous treatise on architecture, Vitruvius's De Architectura, known as the Ten Books on Architecture. While that text has been seen as a guide for creating architecture (moulding details, column profiles, etc.), McEwen's interpretation is quite different: Vitruvius wrote the ten scrolls for the Emperor Augustus Caesar as a tool, if you will, with which to spread the Roman Empire. In other words, it was meant as a way to use architecture -- which included gnomics and machines, in addition to buildings -- to aid in the Imperial dominance of the rest of the world, an interpretation with obvious parallels today. This is apparent in the title, where the body she is referring to is a multiple body of the text, architecture, Caesar, and empire.

The author asks in her conclusion, "If the fundamental role of architecture is to make humans at home in the world, Vitruvius's narrative raises the question, in what world? And on whose terms?" She doesn't have the answers, though her scholarly -- and sometimes difficult -- book illuminates an historical text in an extremely interesting and poignant way.