Firmness, Commodity, and Delight: Architecture in Special Collections

Image from Vitruvius Pollio. De architectura libri decem. Florence: P. Iunta, 1522.

Special Collections Research Center
Exhibition Gallery
1100 East 57th Street, Chicago

May 9, 2011—July 29, 2011

“Firmness, Commodity, and Delight” celebrates the opening of the new Special Collections Research Center Exhibition Gallery and the imminent completion of the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library. The exhibition is being presented in conjunction with “500 Years of the Illustrated Architecture Book,” a city-wide festival marking the publication of the first illustrated book on architecture, an edition of De architectura libri decem by the first century B.C.E., Roman architect Vitruvius Pollio.

Vitruvius identified three elements necessary for a well-designed building: firmitas, utilitas, and venustas. Firmness or physical strength secured the building’s structural integrity. Utility provided an efficient arrangement of spaces and mechanical systems to meet the functional needs of its occupants. And venustas, the aesthetic quality associated with the goddess Venus, imparted style, proportion, and visual beauty. Rendered memorably into English by Henry Wotton, a 17th-century translator, “firmness, commodity, and delight” remain the essential components of all successful architectural design.

Drawn from the holdings of the Special Collections Research Center, this exhibition suggests the diversity of the Library’s architectural rare books, manuscripts, and archives and their rich potential for research across a broad range of topics in the arts of building and design. Included are theoretical works and popular manuals, records of the University’s physical development, papers of urban planners, postcards and ephemera, photographs, and architectural drawings and blueprints.

The largest single piece in the exhibition is a huge architectural print, Piante della frabriche esistenti nella Villa Adriana [Rome: 1781-1789], created by Giambattista Piranesi (1720-1778) and completed by his son Francesco Piranesi (ca.1756 – 1810). Spanning eleven feet in length, this richly detailed etching records Piranesi’s survey of the surviving ruins of Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli. Depicted as if incised on a massive block of stone held in place by metal brackets, the plan displays the vast scale of the emperor’s country retreat, an estate covering more than 250 acres.

The earliest manuscript in the exhibition is a 15th-century copy of De re aedificatoria, Leon Battista Alberti’s influential Renaissance architectural treatise. In 1485, De re aedificatoria became the first work on architecture to be issued from a printing press, a year before the appearance of the earliest printed edition of Vitruvius. Acquired for the University of Chicago as part of the Berlin Collection in 1891, the manuscript on view reflects the hands of ten different scribes and may have been based upon, or edited in comparison with, the printed edition.

One of the most unusual of the printed books in the exhibition is a work by John Smeaton (1724-1792): A Narrative of the Building and a Description of the Construction of the Edystone Lighthouse with Stone (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, 1813). Smeaton was recommended by the Royal Society to design a lighthouse to stand on the Eddystone Rocks, a hazard to navigation nine miles off the English coast that had already claimed two earlier lighthouses. As Smeaton shows through the fascinating plates in this book, he took the inspiration for his lighthouse from a novel source, “the natural figure of the waist or bole of a large spreading Oak.” Reinforced by dovetail stone joints and marble dowels, Smeaton’s tree-trunk-shaped lighthouse remained in use until 1877.

Two items in the exhibition show how diligently architectural books often have been used by their owners. A copy of an eighteenth-century builder’s guide by Abraham Swan, A Collection of Designs in Architecture, Containing New Plans and Elevations of Houses, for General Use (London: Printed for and sold by the author, 1757), reveals extensive pencil sketches of structures in the bottom margin of one page and a drawing of a proposed orphan asylum on a separate sheet. Two centuries later, a copy of Mademoiselle’s Home Planning Scrapbook (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1946) by Elinor Hillyer, shows the same intensive use; a former owner of the book, perhaps influenced by its advice for newly married young women, tucked in two hand-drawn sketches of floor plans for a suburban house.

Frank Lloyd Wright is represented in the exhibition by two important pieces. In one, a letter written in 1907, Wright furiously challenges a negative review of his designs by Chicago poet and journalist Harriet Monroe; Wright’s tone was so harsh he later apologized to Monroe. Documenting the same creative period of Wright’s career is an original annotated blueprint of the Frederick C. Robie House (1908-1910), one of Wright’s acknowledged masterpieces. This blueprint and others used by H. B. Barnard, the building contractor for the house, were later given to the Library by Barnard’s son along with construction photographs and other records.

In addition to these highlights, “Firmness, Commodity, and Delight” displays works by a wide range of other architects including Vitruvius, Andrea Palladio, Giacomo Barocio da Vignola, Inigo Jones, James Gibbs, Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge, Addison Mizner, Schmidt, Garden & Erikson, Kohn Pedersen Fox, Murphy/Jahn, and Booth Hansen. Two noted landscape architects, Humphry Repton and Horace William Shaler Cleveland, are also featured.

“Firmness, Commodity, and Delight” was curated by Daniel Meyer. Patti Gibbons, Kathi Beste, Ann Lindsey, and Nadja Otikor were responsible for production and installation. Information on campus planning was provided by Mary Anton, Richard Bumstead, and James Cook of University of Chicago Facilities Services. Loan items were generously made available by Booth Hansen Associates and Murphy/Jahn, Inc.

Gallery Hours
Monday-Friday, 9:00 a.m.­-4:45 p.m.
Saturdays: 9:00 a.m.-12:15 p.m. when University of Chicago classes are in session.

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