Form and Matter in Mathias Ayres’ Problema de Arquitectura Civil

Danilo Matoso Macedo
Sylvia Ficher
– nov. 2011 –


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This article aims to present the Problema de Architectura Civil — Problem of Civil Architecture —, a book by Brazilian author Mathias Ayres Ramos da Sylva de Eça (1705-1763), issued posthumously in 1770, and to discuss the recurrent opposition the author presents between form and matter in architecture. Mathias Ayres was neither an architect nor a craftsman, but an intellectual. Educated in Coimbra and in Paris, he lived in Lisbon from 1733 on, occupying a high ranking position in the Casa da Moeda, the Portuguese Mint. In his own words, The problem of Civil Architecture, that we must solve, and demonstrate, is the following. Why ancient buildings had, and have more duration than modern ones? and for which reason these latter ones are less resistant to movement when the earth trembles? Of course this was a momentous issue in Lisbon after the devastation caused by the earthquake of 1755. The author states that: The reason, why ancient buildings lasted more, is because they have been make of good materials: and the reason, why modern ones do not last as much, is because they are usually made of inappropriate materials. This is the resolution of the problem: and to demonstrate that, it is necessary to examine which are the materials the walls are made of; which are the qualities of the ones that are employed today, and which are the qualities they should have, for the work to be permanent, and to resist further to movement when the earth trembles. Therefore, his volume deals with the chemical properties of building materials, chiefly minerals present in masonry, through empirical experiments conducted by himself. Most commentators agree that it is not a book on architecture, and that the issues relating to building were a simple pretext that Mathias Ayres took advantage of to disclose to a Portuguese speaking public all that came to his knowledge and the findings of his studies and of his experiments on natural phenomena.” Quite the reverse, our point here is that his is also a book on architecture, where compelling architectural opinions are asserted, both in its explicit content, about building materials, and implicit meanings. The later ones are found in many seemingly secondary ethical and aesthetical remarks along the text, where the author privileges matter over form. In fact, today understanding of architecture mostly as a formal endeavour may be the basis for many historians inclination to leave this book — which has no illustrations — outside the architectural canon. However, if we accept the quite contemporary definition of architecture, as proposed by Rafael Bluteau (1638-1734) in 1712, as the art and science of all genres of buildings, it is equally justifiable to reinstate Mathias Ayres’ work as of architectural import. In order to expound this stance, our article offers a commented selection of the author’s thoughts on the relationship between matter and form — the core of a conceptual and professional shift being carried out at that time. Keywords: History of Architecture; Theory of Architecture; Printed Books; Tectonic culture

Artigo apresentado originalmente em:

International Conference on 18th Century Architecture & culture: Books with a view, celebrating the birth of the Portuguese architect and city planner Eugénio dos Santos (1711-1760). Lisboa: Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, 23-25 de novembro de 2011.

Publicação original

Macedo, Danilo Matoso, e Sylvia Ficher. “Form and Matter in Mathias Ayres’ ‘Problema de Arquitectura Civil’”. In Views on Eighteenth Century Architecture, organizado por Leonor Ferrão e Luís Manuel A. V. Bernardo, 302–25. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015.

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