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Architecture and Fitness

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Picture I’m fascinated by the connection between architecture and the human body. This is one of my favorite buildings, the Royal Naval College in Greenwich, UK. I took a photo from across the Thames River in London, and then later used the photo to draw it. When I saw Big Ben for the for the first time, towering above the Thames River, I was awestruck and it became one of my fondest memories of getting to travel abroad.  Big Ben is the nickname for the clock at the Palace of Westminster in London and its featured on t-shirts, coffee cups, and countless other souvenirs because of its iconic status.  There’s nothing quite like gazing on a structure, well-built and pleasing to the eye, for the very first time, especially when it’s in an ancient city like London surrounded by other notable achievements in architecture like Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the Tower of London.  
 
I’ve always enjoyed looking at beautiful buildings and marveling at the construction techniques and engineering capabilities of the building sciences.   That’s not that unusual, we all like looking in awe at attractive things.  I’ve been even more interested though in finding out what makes a building popular, lasting, and one that people enjoy using, all at the same time.  
 
I’ve seen the Sydney Opera House in Australia, the Empire State Building in New York City, Soldier Field of the Chicago Bears, Ely Cathedral in England, and countless other iconic and well-built older structures all over the US, Europe, and Latin America.  They aren’t exactly famous like those places, but I’ve seen more towns and cities that I could mention which have beautiful homes, relaxing and bucolic town squares, and pleasant plazas with parks in the middle.   This latter form of “Main Street” architecture seems to be the US’s strong suit. 
 
The more I studied architecture and sought it out as something worth learning about it, the more I realized, with quite a bit of surprise, how intertwined it is with the human body.  As a matter of fact, I’ve never even seen or heard of anyone discussing the correlation between physical fitness of the body on one hand, and successful architecture on the other.  It turns out though, the two fields are closely interrelated. 
 
After reading Tom Wolfe’s book, “From Bauhaus to Our House” about the pretensions, ideology, and flawed approach to modern building practices,  I became even more interested in what was going on with architecture.  So I took some online courses, read several books, did some drawings, gazed over photos I’d taken all over the world, and even worked through an online course offered at Yale University called “Roman Architecture.”  What I discovered was fascinating:
 
Successful architecture is based on the symmetry and proportion of the human body. 
 
Vitruvius, a Roman architect and engineer was one of the first to leave a record of his principles in a multi-volume book called “De Architectura,” written around the year 40 BC.  Based on his expertise in human anatomy and many other fields, he taught that there were 3 essential attributes in the field of architecture:

  1. Firmitas – Strength, Solidity, Firmness
  2. Utilitas – Commodity, Comfort, Serviceability
  3. Venustas – Delight, Beauty

 
The famous work by Leonardo da Vinci, “Vitruvian Man” is based on his idea that the human body is perfectly proportioned and that buildings should be as well.  The drawing implies perfect symmetry emanating out from the navel, and reflected the universe as a whole:

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“Just so the parts of Temples should correspond with each other, and with the whole. The navel is naturally placed in the center of the human body, and, if in a man lying with his face upward, and his hands and feet extended, from his navel as the center, a circle be described, it will touch his fingers and toes. It is not alone by a circle, that the human body is thus circumscribed, as may be seen by placing it within a square. For measuring from the feet to the crown of the head, and then across the arms fully extended, we find the latter measure equal to the former; so that lines at right angles to each other, enclosing the figure, will form a square.

For over 2000 years, Vitruvius, and much later Leonardo da Vinci, as well as countless other artists, philosophers, theologians, and craftsmen in Western culture saw a beauty and order in nature, and wished to work with a respect towards it, not to eclipse it or deny it.  Harmony was a key factor, things were built with harmony in mind- harmony between God, nature, and man.  
 
Let’s consider the 3 essential Vitruvian elements in architecture and how they relate to the body and physical fitness:
 
Firmitas– A building needs to be strong, solid and firm.  It needs to withstand bad weather, years of usage, and even extreme cold and heat or possibly fire or snowstorms.  It needs to be built of good materials, not only looking good or being built quickly but being built to last.  Also the body in a state of training needs to be built this way.  
 
Utilitas– A building needs to do it’s job.  A religious building should be built to lift the mind to God. A school should be built to educate students.  A gymnasium should be built for exercise.  A house should be made comfortable to live in.  A restaurant should be built for preparing food and serving guests.  Buildings have a purpose, and so do human bodies in respect to fitness.  
 
The way bodies and buildings are built should reflect the mission.  This sounds like common sense because it is, but common sense is not that common.   Often I see people training in a way that makes them less capable, less functional, less able to achieve their goals.  This goes back to specificity- What is your purpose? Train accordingly. 
 
Venustas- A building should be pleasing to the eye, and make us feel good about being near it or in it.  It can be a big and imposing building, like a skyscraper or a cathedral, and still achieve this.  Remember the human aspects?  Some simple touches like benches or other places to sit, classical elements, or ornate design effects can warm up a building and make it more humane.  Beauty and the visual are important.  When I see the random orange, gray, and / or brown ultra-modern house in a 1920s historic neighborhood, I can’t help but compare this to the guy at the shopping mall strutting around with his underwear hanging out of his pants.  The lack of consideration and narcissism is telling in both cases.  
 
This aspect of architecture, the visual, seems like it’s the least related to physical fitness and the body but it still relates just as much as the other two.  Physical endeavors involve a certain grace and elegance and aesthetic sense to them.  This of course brings in a moral dimension.  We should all try to not be the narcissist in the gym, the bully, the poor loser, the trainee staring in the mirror obsessively or wearing inappropriate clothing.  Or the one with body odor in the locker room or in the spin class.  The use of steroids, unethical tactics on the field, or just plain ugly behavior are all things to avoid when training.  Not to mention that a well-built athlete has a balanced look, muscular and developed proportionally.  For example, even a golfer plays better when he has a lean core. 
 
Visual proportions and aesthetic symmetry are important in physical fitness and shouldn’t be ignored.  Don’t believe me?  Then why do football players and basketball players require a standardized uniform?  It matters.  The visual does need to be balanced by the other two factors, but venustas is still important.   You can take this factor to the extreme and become pretentious about it, but the key is to be respectful, be a team player, and to consider others.    
 
The Architecture Approach to Training 
 
When we consider these 3 factors of architecture together, we can conclude that a well-built body is like a well-built building and vice versa.  What we want is balance, symmetry, and proportion between Firmitas (strength), Utilitas (function), and Venustas (beauty).  

  • A fit body will resist severe stress, and will be built to last.  
  • A fit body will be functional, doing what it’s built to do, and doing it well.
  • A fit body will be pleasing to the eye, functioning in a respectful way that is balanced and proportional to the mission, considering others and the culture it’s part of.  

 
I want you to do an experiment for me.  The next time you’re out driving around, take a few minutes to really look closely at all the buildings around you, the shopping centers, dollar stores, boarded up gas stations, jail-looking schools, and fast food joints.  How many of these building will be around in 20 years, 50 years, 100 years?  How many will be torn down?  How many have substantial firmitas, utilitas, and venustas? How many are inspiring? I would guess not many.  Now imagine a different and inspiring future, where architecture, the most public type of art, one we see every single day, is something people care about and know about and work for being done well.  
 
Likewise, notice how people walk, what their postural habits are.  Notice how they neglect to work on their posture, their balance, and don’t build a strong core to hold everything together.  Notice how people become weak and passively accept they’ll always be that way.  Notice how many people gorge on unhealthy food without thinking about it, disfiguring their bodies, and how many people train in ways that don’t make sense.  Not to be critical, but to start making the connections between the universal principles.  A well-built building has a lot in common with a well-built person.  Person-by-person, and building-by-building we can improve how we’re building things and then improve the culture.   We can change more than we think we can, one board, one brick, and one muscle at a time.  
 
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And remember…there’s never been a better day than TODAY to make it happen!

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