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A Well-Composed Body:
Anthropomorphism in Architecture
A Well-Composed Body:
Anthropomorphism in Architecture
A Thesis submitted in fulfilment
of the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
School of Environmental Design
University of Canberra
Since the writings of Vitruvius in the first century AD, the use of the human body as a
metaphorical and symbolic referent has provided what is perhaps the most prolific trope for
architectural theory. The image of ‘Vitruvian Man,’ with limbs outstretched to touch the
circle drawn from its navel, took on particular significance during the Renaissance, as
architects such as Alberti, Filarete, di Giorgio, Colonna, and Serlio published their own
interpretations of Vitruvius’ Ten Books. For these writers, the body, as microcosm, was
the best available means for representing the order of the cosmos, the world as a whole.
Yet just as the idea of the body as architectural referent was being reinterpreted, the body
itself was being transformed by Renaissance anatomy. The unity and integrity of the body
was jeopardised as anatomists studied the body through the dissection of corpses. The
published results of these studies, the most notable being Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis
Fabrica, were highly influential, with the anatomical methods of observation and partition
emerging as the fundamental tenets of modern science. Several centuries later, the
transformation of the body from a symbol of the world to an object amenable to scientific
observation and control was all but fully realised, as the discoveries of Pasteur were put to
use in the conquest of disease. These changing medical conceptions of the body led to
concomitant transformations of the sense of self, as the body as object was increasingly
divorced from the operations of the mind, in both its conscious and unconscious forms.
This thesis will examine how these changing conceptions of the human body have been
interpreted within architectural theory since Vitruvius. Beginning with the idea of ornament
as trope of sacrifice, it will examine how interpretations of the relation between the body as
whole and as part have affected ideas of architectural composition. Further, it will examine
the ethical implications of the trope of building as body, such that a building which reflects
the proportions of a ‘well-composed’ body (Francesco di Giorgio), is itself an injunction to
‘composure,’ or appropriate behaviour. It will argue that modern architecture, while
rejecting classical anthropomorphism, was nonetheless influenced by ideas and practices
arising from anatomy. Then, in contrast to the object-body of anatomy, the thesis will
examine phenomenological and hermeneutical conceptions of the body, which interpret the
body as lived. From Merleau-Ponty’s study of perception to Scarry’s reading of the
significance of pain, the contribution of the body to the sense of self will be explored, giving
rise to a renewed conception of anthropomorphism as the manifestation not only of human
form, but of human sentience. Further, to the modern fragmentation of both the body and
architecture will be opposed integrative strategies of selfhood, such as the formation of
narrative identity (Ricoeur), the engagement with a community through practice (MacIntyre),
and the idea of the ‘monstrous’ body (Frascari). These strategies will be used to explore
ways in which the form of the body can be understood other than in purely material terms,
and how this is translated into architecture.
Frontispiece: Illustration from Filarete, Treatise on Architecture, Book XVIII, Folio 149r.
The Medical Examiner
The Medical Examiner believes and practices the theory of maintenance. He insists that
his operating instruments are free of bacteria. He places his favourite scalpels in the
disinfectant metal container with the utmost care. He orders the autopsy tables from medical
catalogs with a special interest in the details. He visits the factory where they are
manufactured. He particularly is interested in the channels at the sides of the marble tables.
His excitement increases as he observes the fluid moving into the oval at the end of the slab
before the liquids begin their cascade.
The Medical Examiner favours a white stone and brushes it clean by himself after his
sectional work is complete. He is disturbed by the increase in fratricides. His greatest sense
of pleasure is the moment when the autopsy blade is placed gently, vertically to the outer
skin, touching but not quite indenting. At that moment he demands total silence so he is able
to hear the sound of his cut, thus commencing another spatial investigation. He marvels at
the complexity of the body. He is defeated by his inability to find the soul.
John Hejduk, Riga, Vladivostok, Lake Baikal: a work by John Hejduk, edited by Kim
Shkapich, New York: Rizzoli, 1989, p. 224.
To Pally and Fred
Thanks firstly to my supervisor, Professor Stephen Frith, for the gift of guidance and
wisdom that has made this thesis possible.
Thanks to friends and colleagues at the University of South Australia for their
encouragement and support during the preparation of the thesis, including Peter Burgess,
Rachel Hurst, Stephen Loo, David Morris, Sean Pickersgill, Virginia Lee, Jane Lawrence,
Matt Rumbelow, Angelina Russo, Joe Vardon, and Christine Kearney. Special thanks to
Rachel for proofreading and assistance with images.
Thanks to many of the members and guests of the Society of Architectural Historians,
Australia and New Zealand for their helpful comments in relation to papers presented at
annual conferences, including Samer Akkach, Richard Blythe, Judith Brine, Mark Cousins,
Glen Hill, Michael Hill, Paul Hogben, Andrew Hutson, Mark Jackson, Sandra
Kaji+O’Grady, Peter Kohane, Desley Luscombe, John Macarthur, Christine McCarthy,
Sam Ridgway, Peter Scriver, Adrian Snodgrass, William Taylor, and Julie Willis. Thanks
also to the editors of Architectural Theory Review for accepting earlier versions of material
contained herein for publication.
Financial assistance for this thesis was generously provided by an Australian Post-
Graduate Research Award administered by the University of South Australia from 1992-94.
Support was also provided by the University of South Australia in the form of teaching relief
through the Professional Experience Program in semester 1, 2000.
Thanks to staff and students at the University of Edinburgh for their hospitality during my
visit, including Iain Boyd-White, Richard Coyne, Mark Dorrian, Adrian Hawker, and
Thanks also to staff and students at the following institutions who provided assistance
during an earlier research stage: Melbourne University (especially Alex Selenitsch),
University of New South Wales, and Deakin University.
Thanks to Wendy Spurrier of the University of South Australia Library; and to the
National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh University Architecture Library, State Library of
South Australia, the Barr Smith Library at the University of Adelaide and the Flinders
Architecture and the Body:
Metaphor and Making.
Classical Anthropomorphism • The Rise of Science • Science and Architecture •
Architectural Bodies • The Body in Sociology • Critiques of Science • Interpreting
Architecture • Anatomy of Architecture • The Lived Body • Presentation and
Anatomy and Anthropomorphism:
Architecture and the Dialectics of Unity
Vitruvian Bodies • Sacrificial Bodies • The Body Reborn • The Fabric of the Body •
Renaissance Bodies • The Authority of Texts • Science and Method • Character and the
French Academy • Respiration and Vital Spirits
Modern Architecture and the Hygienic Body
Disease, Air, and Water • Surfaces of Cities • The Space of Ablution • Counting Bodies,
Cleaning Bodies • Embracing Technology • Transparency • The Medical Body • Modern
Bodies • From Soul to Self
The Lived Body:
Architecture as Practice
The Theory of Empathy • The Lived Body • Inhabited Space • Tactile Space • An Inner
Self • Practice and Narrative Identity • Institution, Memory, and Imagination
Architecture and the Play of Appearance
Pain and Pleasure: The Sublime • A Sociology of Artifacts • The Body in Pain • The
Architecture of Violence • From Tradition to Revolution • Monstrous Bodies • The Sensory
Imagination • Into the Labyrinth • The Play of Imagination • Play as Festival and Symbol
Just as we think architecture with our bodies,
we think our bodies through architecture.
This thesis examines the role of the human body in architecture. In particular, it is
concerned with the way the body is invoked in architectural texts as a model for the design
of buildings. To say that a building is like a body is to encourage forms of architecture that
can be understood through the body, leading in turn to ways of understanding the body
In addressing the role of the body in architecture, the thesis forms part of an extensive
interest in the body as a subject of scholarly inquiry in recent decades, in fields as diverse as
anthropology, sociology, psychology, geography, philosophy, religious studies, art history
and theory, and gender and culture studies. The body has also been a theme of inquiry in
architecture, with investigations into the long tradition of relating buildings to bodies playing a
major part in architectural historiography. This comes at a time when architectural theory in
general has been moving away from the scientific determinants of modernism, in an effort to
make up for an apparent lack of meaning in the built fabric of twentieth century cities. The
Marco Frascari, Monsters of Architecture: Anthropomorphism in Architectural Theory, Savage,
Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 1991p. 1.
postmodern reaction against this lack of meaning has often focussed upon the mechanisms of
signification, on the role of architecture as a sign. Yet the interest in semiotics is part of the
broader philosophical response to the modernist tradition, the recognition of the essentially
partial and contingent nature of human knowledge. Central to this is an acknowledgement of
the role of the body in the constitution of meaning. In his Phenomenology of Perception,
for instance, Maurice Merleau-Ponty argues that instead of being the work of a ‘universal
constituting consciousness’ (Descartes’ Cogito), meaning originates in the actions necessary
for the conservation of life.2
As these actions are elaborated upon, their literal meaning
becomes figurative, leading to the formation of a cultural world. This depends upon the
body’s ability to build for itself what Merleau-Ponty describes as an instrument, an
outward projection of the body in acts of making.3
In order to understand the ongoing
consequences of postmodernity, this thesis explores how architecture can act as an
‘instrument,’ a projection of the body in the constitution of meaning. It does so by revealing
the limitations of regarding the body in purely material terms, and by describing alternative
ways of interpreting the form of the body in architecture.
In Chapter One, the historical appropriation of bodily form is interpreted in the context
of current readings of the body. Through a review of literature from many of the fields
above, it will be argued that the body can and must be understood as an essential part of
any ‘scientific’ attitude to architecture, located as it is at the centre of architecture’s role in
the manipulation of environmental conditions. Ironically, the neglect of the body in
modernism is due in part to the adoption of principles developed through the scientific study
of the body in anatomy and medicine. By regarding a work of architecture as an assembly
of parts, it is possible to relate to the body as a model of composition, and to reflect values
of health and well being that arise when parts work together harmoniously. In Chapter Two,
this metaphor will be seen as being profoundly affected by the dissection of corpses in
Renaissance anatomy theatres. For architects, familiar with the sacrificial origins of their art,
published images of dissected bodies were readily adopted into architecture, with sections
frequently used to present views into the building interior from an external vantage point.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, translated by Colin Smith, London:
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962, pp. 146-147.
Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, p. 146.
Further advances in scientific knowledge, especially the explanation of the body’s vital force
as a form of combustion, led eventually to a body understood in mechanical terms. In
architecture, this prompted a move away from surface as a representation of internal
character, towards an interest in internal workings, or function. In Chapter Three, a study
of problems of urban hygiene in the nineteenth century will be used to show how forms of
control designed to promote order led to new forms of bodily representation in architecture.
Institutions such as hospitals and prisons became testing grounds not only for practices of
surveillance, but also for methods of ventilation and ablution. Modern architecture’s
fascination with purity, whiteness, and transparency will be seen as part of the broader
promotion of values of cleanliness, and the use of infrastructure to prevent disease by
washing and airing the body.
In contrast to the scientific attitudes to the body characteristic of modernism, Chapter
Four will examine ways in which the body can be considered as more and other than an
object amenable to measurement and control. In particular, phenomenological themes will
be used to show that an understanding of human sensory experience can call into question
the claims to objectivity and universality characteristic of science. Instead, the
phenomenological idea of the body as ‘lived’ serves to emphasise the corporeal nature of
knowledge, and the importance of making as a means of understanding the world. The idea
of embodied knowledge leads to a model of identity as socially or intersubjectively
determined, the outcome of common projects to deal with common needs. By invoking
shared forms of memory and imagination, architecture can give meaning to transitory
experience by making it manifest in lasting and recognisable form.
To further understand architecture as a projection of internal states, Chapter Five
explores the way in which artifacts are used to give comfort to the body, and thereby avoid
aversive sensations of pain or suffering. Using ideas of the sublime, it will be argued that a
complex dialectic of pleasure and pain exists through which the limits of the body are
constantly negotiated as it engages with the world. In this way, artifacts are able to
represent not the form of the body as such, but its formlessness, the depth of its sensory
experience. In architecture, what emerges is an image of the body that is continually
adjusted, a body whose surface acts as a register of exchange between interior and exterior.
Explored through the writings of Marco Frascari, this will be seen to be a body starkly
different from that of classicism. It is instead a monstrous body, a body of surface and
depth, of unity and fragmentation. By revealing what is otherwise concealed from view, the
monstrous body provides an example of what Hans-Georg Gadamer describes as a
‘transformation into structure’.4
This transformation enables artifacts to act as symbols,
giving meaning to transitory experience by making it available for interpretation. As a partial
presence that invokes what is absent, symbols are fragmentary, yet in each lies a promise of
the whole. Instead of an alternative to scientific attitudes, this symbolic function of the body
must firstly be shown as an essential part of any inquiry into the determinants of architectural
Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, second edition, London: Sheed and Ward, 1989, p.110.
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