Henry Wotton (1568 - 1639) did not intend his book The Elements of Architecture to be just another philosophical treatise for the architecture student. Wotton was the first Englishman to produce a serious work on the subject, and indeed he was placed in a unique and advantageous position to do so, but he himself had not been trained as an architect.
During his time in Florence, Transylvania, Poland, Germany, Rome, and as an ambassador to the Venician Republic from 1604 to 1653, Wotton realized the incomparable advantage of including architecture in the common person's day to day lifestyle. He sought to educate the lay English public with a summary and categorization of true architecture principles. He wrote as a critic.
The Elements of Architecture was a short book that could be found on any person's dresser. It expressed a new enthusiasm for the art of architecture.
He relied heavily on de Architectura by Marcus Vitruvious Pollio. He also heavily referenced drawings by Palladio which Palladio had used for his fundamental work I Quattro Libri dell' Architecttura (The Four Books Of Architecture). Wotton acquired these drawings during his time in Italy. Wotton made a gift of them to rising architect Inigo Jones, who first started the trend of Palladian architecture just before the publication of Wotton's book.
Wotton thus enabled to common man, like in every great step forward in human technology from the printing press to the personal computer, not only by education of timeless principles, but also through practical applications and recommendations for the English context. Thus began Neo-Classicism.
Wotton revered Vitruvious but didn't hold him as the unbending truth. He rejected Vitruvious' reverence for the circle as the foundation of architectural form, as natural forms seemed to pragmatically spring from more useful origins. Wotton cared about function and less about pre-supposed form. Indeed, Wotton totally changed the Vitruvian criteria of form, dismissing proportional order and composition.
This is expressed in Wotton's early assertion that “every part is to be determined by its use.” This swing toward utilitarianism eventually led to Louis Sullivan to say “form follows function,” and finally it was so over-done that modernists were making up useless functions just for the sake of abolishing form.
It is important to realize that under these conditions classical Italian architecture began to prevail in England. The English society became Puritan under King James I, yet values were at the same time shifting away from puritan conservative principles. Wotton himself was famously involved in spying and in thwarting assassination attempts, he was often heavily in debt, and his reputation was besmirched as a dishonest diplomatist for the king. He was hardly the image of a pure soul. Oscar Wilde's character named Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Grey was a Hedonist, superciliously living by the mantra that only beauty and pleasure are worth pursuing.
This books influence on England is profound. Wotton's new value for utility and scientific proof, empirical experience, came along concurrently with Francis Bacon. If the great realm of architecture were to be brought down to the everyman's level, certainly it would need to lose the mystery. It deals less with the spheres of the universe and more with the soil conditions prudent for a single-family home. Beauty didn't come from the names of great artists or styles, but from logical solutions to frequent issues.
As Oscar Wilde wryly noted, however, this could go to far. It could lead to loose morals, over-emphasis of worldly pleasures, dehumanization, and self-defeating close-mindedness. The endeavors of the British Empire are too great for me to discuss here, but it is safe to say England wasn't always humanely-minded. The Italian villa became a popular style following Wotton's new architecture, but the villa in Wilde's story which started out as a pleasure palace ended as a prison.
With the new ability of the larger populace to control their environment with time-tested principles, but also with pragmatic flexibility and conjunction with civic and other scholarly studies, England surged forward.
In my own short experience, I have seen a unique enthusiasm for architecture in England. A map of total visits to my architecture website which documents many projects around the world reaveals two cities that are by far the most interested in architecture: London, and not far behind it, New York City.
The practice of writing about architecture for the common person continued throughout Europe and on in the Americas, a practice that has advanced architecture in ways that are not fully appreciated.
Excerpt from Introduction to The Elements of Architecture by Henry Wotton
Now Available here!