Throughout history, the makings of Architectural theory and history have changed by stark contrast and so have their influences and interpretations. The oldest theories underwent numerous transformations both in the written and built form. The Vitruvian Module was one of the oldest theories. 

Architects know Vitruvius as “The Vitruvian Man” which was coined by Leonardo Da Vinci, overlooking the main man himself, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio. Vitruvius was a military engineer and an architect of the 1st century BC. He was one of the first architectural theorists to have written and established a foundation for classical architecture in “De Architectura” or “Ten Books on Architecture” around 15 century BC. The treatise deals with theoretical knowledge and aspects concerning architecture, ranging from music to astronomy, mathematics, meteorology, and medicine. 

In his conception, architecture wasn’t just to design something but to take into account everything from the physical and intellectual life of man, his surroundings, whereas today, these concerns are met by separate fields of education. Simultaneously similar conceptions and theories were presented in eastern parts of the world as Vastu Shastra and Feng Shui. 

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A depiction of Vitruvius presenting De Architectura to Augustus _©

This treatise was divided into ten books which were organized as:

  1. An ideal education, qualifications, and principles of an architect, town planning, and architecture in general. 

“Consequently, since such a wide discipline should be enriched, and overflow with many different kinds of expertise, I do not think that people can justifiably profess themselves architects at the drop of a hat” – Vitruvius

  1. Building materials: Origins, functionality, and details 
  2. Mathematics and proportions of temple architecture formed the foundation of classical architecture.  

“The upper diameters of columns should be enlarged to compensate for the increasing distances for the glance of the eye as it looks up. For our sight searches for beauty” – Vitruvius

  1. Architectural orders (Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian) and types of temples
  2. Civic buildings:  Theatres and advice on building administration buildings to obtain the best acoustics, and also harbors. 

“The ancient architects, taking their lead from nature, designed the tiers of seats in theatres based on their investigations into the rising of the voice, and tried, with the help of the mathematician’s principles and musical theory, to devise ways in which any voice uttered onstage would arrive more clearly and pleasantly at the ears of the spectators” – Vitruvius

  1. Domestic buildings: On their orientation, the effect of climate on their character and layouts.

“Bedrooms and libraries should face east since their function requires morning light, and again so that the books in libraries will not rot” – Vitruvius

  1. Ornamentation, pavements, and wall-paintings, including the origins and use of colors

“Purple has the most prized and most outstandingly beautiful appearance of all these colors. It is extracted from the marine shellfish from which purple dye is made, which is as amazing to the observer as anything else in nature” – Vitruvius

  1. Water sources and Aqueducts 
  2. Other sciences influencing architecture: Sundials, astronomy, geometry, and water clocks. 
  3. Engineering and construction: machines, gadgets such as distance measuring devices, water-driven machines, and weapons like catapults and ballistae. 

“Ropes are tightened up, in the same way, using hand-spikes and windlasses until they sound the same. In this way, by keeping the device taut with wedges, the catapults are ‘tuned’ to the proper pitch by musical testing” – Vitruvius

The book cites the famous characteristics associated with architecture; Utility, strength, and beauty. His terms for arrangement, proportion, order, and fitness have since guided architects for centuries. 

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Theatre of Marcellus, which was included in the treastise_©

De Architectura originally had illustrations on machinery and technical devices clarifying the theoretical complexity. These machines intrigued the minds like that of Leonardo Da Vinci, who attempted his reconstructive designs and created the famous Vitruvian man based on human proportions from Chapter I of Book III. 

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Los Milagros Aqueduct, Mérida: mentioned in the treatise to demonstrate aqueducts_©

Vitruvius’ work is full of anecdotes of ancient scholars and scientists, often being the only source of such now-famous episodes as Archimedes in his bathtub.  

The treatise combines a scientific tempo with a rational respect for the numinous. Being a military engineer and architect, he left the influence of his circle of winds (wind-rose map) around the 2nd century in colonies of Africa and Tunisian, especially at Dougga. It was also found in Pliny that he held an official position in the building of Rome by Augustus. The roman plumbers acted on his instructions while designing the size of the pipelines.

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The Square of the winds, Dougga_©

Vitruvius determined an important factor that changed the history of architecture, he developed a “module” (Latin “modulus“, a measure). It was first outlined in his Book 4 and was used to determine relative proportions of parts of the classical orders. 

The Vitruvian Module changed and it was divided into 30th parts, called minutes to allow greater precision. This module was based on Vitruvius’ discussion on measurements of the human body, which heavily relies on ancient building practices and Greek metrology, partly because of his involvement in engineering and construction. 

Vitruvius defines architectural measurements as values that are dimensions of individual body parts. In the first and third book he mentions examples of measurements, finger, palm, foot, and cubit or ell among others. 

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Human Proportions by Vitruvius_©Ten Books of Architecture
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Human relation with column_©Tapluan:wordpress

He also discreetly mentions that the distance between the fingertips of the outstretched arms of a man corresponds to the height of the same man from head to toe. He further explains this andromorphic data with the example of Dinocrates10, the Doric column, and presents a module. Vitruvius distinguishes three main typologies; Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian in his modular studies, which were applied to temples as well as secular and domestic buildings. 

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Classical orders_©architecturaltravels.wordpress

As the Vitruvian module was derived from the proportions of the human body it naturally imparts symmetry and beauty to the column. By the proportions, the diameter acts as a major part of calculations of almost everything. 

The height of the Doric column is 6 or 7 x dia., and the Iconic column is 8 or 8 ½ x dia. This difference in numbers gave the Doric column a masculine appearance, and the slender Iconic column, femininity; accordingly, the columns were used to decide the character of a structure. The module uses the system of fractions for dimensions of smaller moldings and maintains a numerator equal to the radius (R) or diameter; Plinth = 1/3rd of the (R) or the upper torus is equal to a quarter of 2/3rd of the (R). 

In antiquity, Vitruvius’ main purpose for this was to easily impart principles to the workers. The first structures to be built on the Vitruvian module and human ratios were the Parthenon of the Acropolis, The Temple of Apollo at Bassae, and the Propylaea, entrance to the Acropolis that utilizes Doric and Ionic orders. 

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Parthenon: Use of Doric order, and symmetry and proportion_©
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The Propylaea_©

Though the proportions of divisions on parts of a column, capital and bases were unclear and hard to understand. So, in various interpretations of the treatise, the Vitruvian Module underwent modifications and became the foundation of European architecture. 

During the 14-15th century BC and also after Alberti Palladio’s four books on architecture, the structural members continued to be calculated by the Vitruvian module and the mathematical precision of Palladio. Though the problematic side of the module started showing in later times. The module lacked cooperation with new changes, it had become a rule. 

Vitruvius’s philosophy reflected in the module as well, the condition of “a design system in which the architect should be in complete control of all decisions” made the module impossible to create when the roman republic transformed into an Empire. The building systems were shifted to delivery of column shafts from the quarries, hence the main element of the “fixed Vitruvian module; the material depended widely on the available material. 

Many architects modified the Vitruvian module by specifying heights, changing minutes, and also adding two extra orders. But things changed when Vignola (Rome,1562) developed his separate method to calculate the proper modules for design progress independent of local or regional measurement systems. He proposed this module by considering the total height of the column rather than the diameter or radius. 

Unlike his precursors, Serlio and Philandrier, Vignola doesn’t define the order by specific height, but by proportional ratios among three fundamental parts of the order whatever it may be: three to twelve to four. 

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Vignola’s orders_©
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Vignola’s ratio’s_©

The module remained the same till 1683, till Claude Perrault gave a modern view on the Vitruvian module. The inconsistency in the proportions and an absence of general agreement and awareness among the modern theoreticians lead him to establish a theory in a combination of the Ancients and the Moderns. 

According to him, the ancients managed to create works with proportions as unusual as those of the Doric and Ionic cornices of the Theatre of Marcellus or the cornice of the Facade of Nero, which are all half again as large as they should be according to the rules of Vitruvius. He quotes that, “The Architects who converted the order never stayed true to determine proportions, but just tried to remain elite in the eyes of the government and ancients”.

Perrault founded an impeccable system “Ordonnance” on increasing geometric proportions, which was easy to carry out because of smaller calculations. With this system, Perrault resolved the theory of the orders, in the same way, that his system put an end to the consideration of all the misunderstandings and possibilities posed by Vitruvius. 

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Perrault’s easy-to-understand ratios_©

Other forms appeared in the 18th century, but the extraordinary range that arose in the Renaissance for the orders and their proportions would never be found again. The Vitruvian Module has phased out of our modern lives. The concept of beauty alone has kept its unique status in western architecture. Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian man keeps the golden proportion alive in architectural studios and facades.

A contemporary form of the Vitruvian Module, or rather a combination of the Vitruvian Man and Fibonacci sequence was published by the French Architect Corbusier in 1954 called “The Modular Man”. It attempts to understand the complex issues surrounding the human form. He intended it to be a universal system of proportions. Architects in the post-modern era have made frequent uses of the beauty and structure of the human body like in Calatrava’s Turning Torso and metaphorical for the generation of biomorphic designs. 

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The Vitruvian Man_©Leonardo Da Vinci
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The Modular Man_©Le Cobusier
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Turning Torso_©
Turning Torso: Initial Sketch_©Santiago Calatrava

Few theorists like Bernard Cache believe that the ideas of Vitruvius still offer a model for architects. He quotes “Vitruvius was way ahead of Le Corbusier, he produced not a machine but for living”. Known for the Vitruvian Module, Vitruvius mainly an engineer of war machines used proportional modules to develop them.  

In his treatise he explains the use of this complex, sundials, in the structure of Towers of Winds which worked as an ancient analog computer, informing about the time of the sun. Cache explains that new digital architecture with such old ideas of proportion, science and mathematics can not only form advanced computational modules in the field of parametric architecture, but also help in developing softwares that are more precise in their outcome. 

History gives different meanings to theories at different times according to the modifications in culture and environment.


Vaishnavi is an Architect and an aspiring Psychologist. She believes that in the attempt of understanding life and ourselves we have been constantly creating forms of work and art. Through this perspective she discovers architecture in almost everything and pens it down.