Already a polymath with hefty contributions in fields like painting, sculpture, literature, mathematics, anatomy, and many subjects related to science and arts, Da Vinci as an architect would be nothing hard to imagine. He was a man of science who took a creative approach to solve problems; and as a result, he in fact did produce architectural drawings.
He drew buildings, bridges, castles, and cathedrals and his sketches included intricate details of elements like doors, windows, staircases, and walkways. You’d think he’d stop there, but no! He even went on to draw out the designs for whole cities, taking inspiration from the ideologies of early city planners with his own improvisations.
Leonardo’s greatness was attributed to the vastness and variety of his knowledge. At that time, and even today for that matter, it would be difficult to find someone who could match up to his deep level of understanding of such a broad range of disciplines. With that into consideration, it would be fair to imagine that Da Vinci as an architect would probably work individually. From drafting and detailing, to structural and engineering calculations to the actual execution of a building; this one man would be enough to take care of it all. And without a doubt, he would be exceptional at all these roles.
It’s a popular saying that an architect is a ‘jack of all trades and master of none’, but for Da Vinci’s sake how about we switch it to ‘jack of all trades, master of all’?
Some of his most famous paintings have an element of mystery, a meaning deeper than what meets the eye. Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile, which makes it difficult to take our eyes off, was actually a result of Da Vinci’s years of studying human anatomy as well as artistic skill. He explored optics and produced illusions of changing visual perspectives and attempted to confuse the observer in The Last Supper. Sfumato or something that means ‘blurry, ambiguous and up to the imagination’, is a technique Leonardo used in his paintings and I’m sure this is something he would implement in his work as an architect as well.
He would play with spaces, lights, and shadows and with that create illusions. He would design enticing structures that foster drama and suspense by keeping architectural spaces or features partially concealed. Having already made sketches of spiral and four-way staircases, Da Vinci would definitely use them in his structures, more specifically ones where the end tends to disappear; another way of inducing mystery.
A keen observation of Da Vinci’s paintings leads us to the fact that he enjoyed a palette of muted and earthly tones. Browns, greens, and blues with a narrow tonal range and no intense color contrasts were his identity and he surely wouldn’t let that go in terms of architecture. This makes one believe he’d choose materials like clay, sand, and wood over tinted glass or brick for a façade.
Another of Da Vinci’s most famous drawings is The Vitruvian Man, the figure of a naked man in two positions superimposed on one another. It was made as a study of the proportions of the human body, and how it perfectly fits within a circle and a square. His affinity towards proportions makes me think that that would be the central principle of his architecture.
In his buildings, constituent members would be such that the separate parts and entire building would harmonize in proportions and symmetry. His architecture would be much like that of Classic Greek and Roman, a specific example being the Parthenon which majorly focused on getting all parts into prescribed proportions of the Golden Ratio. Further, his fascination with human anatomy could also lead to anthropometric and ergonomic studies resulting in furniture and interior design.
The Unité D’Habitation by Le Corbusier in Marseille is a modern example of what Da Vinci’s architecture would look like. The free façade of this urban housing prototype is formed by a carefully orchestrated pattern of single and double-height balconies, and overall follows a modular system with proportions according to various human activities.
There was no doubt that most of Da Vinci’s work, irrespective of the field, was ahead of its time. About 500 years ago during the Renaissance era, he made an extensive design of an ideal city. Some of its features included differences in levels, underground sewage lines, separate walkways for pedestrians, canal systems as well as areas for trade and transport.
During the 19th century, following a similar line of thought, Georges-Eugene Haussman transformed the city of Paris into vast avenues, squares, and urban parks, as well as sewage and gas pipelines for a more hygienic approach. Along with that, he introduced infrastructures for transport services as well, quite comparable to those in Da Vinci’s drawings. Thus, although almost all of Leonardo’s ideas were adopted in city planning in the 19th and 20th centuries, at that time these inventions seemed unconventional and revolutionary. Even though his designs were never built, it is evident that this man’s brilliance has paved the way towards modernism.
Da Vinci has given us plenty of work to gawk at and admire. How wonderful is it that even after 500 years, people today still come from all over the world and stand in lines for hours just to get a glimpse of his art? And yet, we cannot get enough of him, we still wish he’d been able to bring to life the buildings and cities that he imagined in his mind.