Alberti and Acoustics

To prepare for the Urban Design course at Yale that I teach with Alan Plattus and Andrei Harwell, I was re-reading the architectural treatise of Leon Battista Alberti, On the Art of Building in Ten Books, written in fifteenth century Florence.  Like his Renaissance peers, Alberti was busy rediscovering the architectural principles and urban practices of ancient Rome. He took inspiration from Vitruvius, the Roman architectural theorist writing in the first century BC.  Like him, Alberti was interested in acoustics, each public building calling for its own reverberative ceiling treatment.

Acoustics supports the role of architecture as information technology:  the building as mechanism for the diffusion of information, propelled by the voice.  Acoustics is still an important area of design, especially for concert halls.  But electronic amplification has removed, to some degree, that element of building performance that was so crucial to Alberti.

I also like this line, from Book VII:  “I am still not quite sure whether baths should rather be considered private or public.  But clearly, as far as one can tell, they are a mixture of both.”  Public baths were an important urban building program all the way through the new deal.  The proliferation of plumbing has made them less crucial, even as our collective standards for body cleanliness have risen.

This reminds me, too, of the story–possibly apocryphal and unsourced here–of Napoleon’s letter from the front to his wife, Josephine, alerting her of his imminent return and that she should abstain from bathing . . .  in anticipation.

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