In his seminal work, De architectura, (30-15BC), Vitruvius sets out his famous triad of characteristics for great architecture — utilitas, firmitas, venustas (utility, strength and beauty).
I’ve been wondering lately how we might apply these ancient principles of good design to the stuff we build with our lives today - businesses, churches, friendships. Programmes, processes and products. Families, houses and homes. The architecture of our time.
This may sound a little esoteric but it is urgently important because consumer culture - the air that we breathe - values things primarily by their expediency and immediacy, regardless of their long-term sustainability and meaning (single-use plastics, fossil-fuels, single-generation churches, four-year political cycles, genetically modified harvests, the list goes on).
We measure practical objects, processes and even people by their usefulness rather than their depth, meaning and intrinsic beauty. The ends tend to justify both the means and the medium. The arts and the sciences rarely dance. The prophets and apostles seldom share their toys.
What would happen, I wonder - what would it look like - if we started new initiatives, built businesses and even planted churches with all three of Vitruvius’ aims in view? If we refused to settle for short-term quantitative results (the size of your profit, the numbers in your church - important as these things can be), but also required the things we make to be intrinsically beautiful and resiliently durable?
Thomas Merton, who abandoned the bright lights of the city for a hidden Trappist monastery, and swapped his successful literary career for prayer - was once asked to diagnose the primary spiritual disease of the Western world and he answered with a single word: ‘efficiency’.
Could it be (I ask myself, staring at my crazy schedule, my coffee-to-go, my insane inbox), that our working environments, our relationships and even our churches are being stifled by the idolatry of mere efficiency? That we are still enslaved by Pharaoh’s pursuit of production? That the mortal craving for more is costing us both our legacy and our lives?
‘For what will it profit a person,’ asks one contemporary of Vitruvius, ‘if they gain the whole world, and lose their own soul?’ Mark 8:36