Bruno Zevi’s Seven Invariables Rules

Zevi began his treatise by declaring that modernism is an “anti-classical” language. One way of looking at modernism is to see it as a reaction and repudiation of Beaux-Arts theory and practice. Zevi stressed that modernism should be ungoverned by stylistic clichés such as the classical Greek and Roman orders. The creation of a modern language by which aesthetic decisions may be made with some consistency presents a dilemma: superficial form and familiar patterns must be excluded or else one falls into just another type of classicism. Zevi overcame the dilemma by elaborating “seven invariables” that describe aspects of a modern process and give guidance regarding key aesthetic decisions without prescribing particular aesthetic motifs.

The seven invariables are summarized as follows:

1. Functional listing.

This is a characteristic activity in the design process in which the desired performance of the building is decomposed into units and sub-units. Zevi places response to function as the premier aspect of modernism. The idea has a long pedigree dating back to Louis Sullivan’s statement that “Form ever follows function” [5].

2. Asymmetry and dissonance.

The modern approach is to avoid symmetry and regular patterns. Zevi suggests that a truly functional design cannot be subjugated o an a priori desire for symmetry. A symmetrical building must always compromise function. Even when there is no functional reason not to use symmetry, Zevi recommends a dissonant pattern to express individuality and emphasize that the building is not symmetrical.

3. Antiperspective three-dimensionality.

Most buildings consist of rectilinear forms that are easy to draw and easy to conceive. Zevi suggests that before the invention of perspective in Renaissance Italy, buildings and cities were composed to provide rich volumetric forms. With the introduction of perspective methods and an architecture profession, buildings were subjugated to the “tyranny of the T-square.” Architecture was limited to forms that were easy to draw and easy to communicate to a builder. Zevi suggests a modern architecture that is spatially complex so that it cannot be easily portrayed in orthographic projections and one-point perspectives.

4. The syntax of four-dimensional decomposition.

This invariable is concerned with the quality of space. In contrast to the Beaux-Arts attitude of multiple compartments, modernist space is flowing and indefinite. The boundaries depend upon how the occupants are using the spaces at the moment. The impression is that of unlimited expanse rather than limited enclosure, and of movement rather than a static box.

5. Cantilever, shell and membrane structure.

A key part of modernism has been structural innovation. The stone construction of classicism has been replaced by steel spans and reinforced concrete. A modern design makes use of advanced engineered structures to create breathtaking forms.

6. Space in time.

Closely related to fourth dimensional decomposition, this invariable emphasize movement and change. Modern architecture is concerned with paths through space, the passage of time as marked by the sun and the seasons, and an awareness of past, present and future. Rather than being timeless like a classical monument, a modern building should help one to be intensely aware of time.

7. Reintegration of building, city, and landscape.

The disparate invariables of the modern language must all be brought together in a reintegration. The scope of the designer’s attention spans from the hand scale to the global scale. The notions of inside and outside are metaphorical in that every location is inside one boundary and outside another boundary. Modern architecture recognizes this truth and employs subtle gradations between inside and outside and multiple readings of them.

These seven invariables provide students with a principle by which they can make aesthetic decisions. The pedagogical intent of presenting them to the students is to help them to be aware that aesthetics can be objective and intellectually engaged. By further applying the invariables, the students begin to replace a naïve aesthetic that is without intellectual foundation with a consciousness of sophisticated aesthetic concepts


June 24, 2020