John Wood: Moses versus Vitruvius, a dialogue on origins

One of the texts that are of interest in our project, and specifically in my research on ‘Primitivism and architectural theory 1750-1850’ is John Wood’s The Origin of Building or the Plagiarism of the Heathens Detected (1741). It permits us to define a significant starting-point to the eighteenth-century preoccupation with the quest for origins and the deconstruction of Vitruvianism. Vitruvius’ De Architectura Libri Decem (15 BC), the first architectural treatise, was until well into the eighteenth century the main reference on Greek and Roman architecture. Wood’s ideas implicated a clear break with Vitruvian thought, exactly by using the search for the origins of architecture.

the book

Wood (1704-1754) presented with this book a theory on the origins and developments of architecture that scholars often see as a peculiar and strangely eccentric work in eighteenth-century architectural thought. But his ideas do not appear that uncommon or isolated when we look beyond the architectural theories of his contemporaries. Drawing on publications by Isaac Newton for instance, Wood constructed a theory that is perfectly understandable in his time. Furthermore, when we study nineteenth-century authors on the same subject, we find that some of his ideas seem to reappear. In our project his text is contextualised by looking beyond publications on architecture, and thus defining architectural theory much wider.

a dialogue

Interestingly, Wood opposes Vitruvius to Moses, as if presenting a dialogue on origins between the two major and most ancient accounts of the beginnings of building. The outcome of this dialogue aims to prove that the Holy Scripture is the ‘most certain, plain, and probable Account’. Wood presents the bible here as a trustworthy historical source, and even more reliable than Vitruvius’ text. But most of all, Wood’s discourse is written to demonstrate the origin of building in sacred architecture, and not in pagan. With his deconstruction of Vitruvius, his proposal of an alternative in the form of a sacred origin, Wood paved the way for theories that moved away from Vitruvianism.

its meaning

By tracing the origins of architecture in biblical times Wood aimed to give significant meaning to British architecture, whose provenance was Christian and lay in the first buildings of Jerusalem rather than in the Roman period. This was also done to convey importance to Bath as a city. Wood’s town, of which he was city architect and that he would embellish with an urban fabric that still forcefully determines the city’s specificity, became in his theory directly linked with the first building: the temple of Solomon. King Bladud, a central figure in the history of architecture, so Wood argued, had converted this holy building to Britain and founded there, among the natural hot springs, the city of Bath. Wood had thus aimed to rewrite history by offering a new chronology of the first Jewish buildings directly to British architecture, thereby bequeathing this architecture with a sacred meaning.

My article on Wood’s Queen Square, Royal Crescent and Circus in Bath will appear in a publication that I am in the process of editing, together with Caroline van Eck: the Companion to Architecture in the Age of the Enlightenment, to be published in the Wiley-Blackwell series Companions to the History of Architecture (series editor Harry Mallgrave) in 2013.


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