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THE ROMAN MODULAR WAY

Author(s): TINE KURENT


Source: Official Architecture and Planning, Vol. 34, No. 12 (DECEMBER 1971), pp. 911-914
Published by: Alexandrine Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/43964393
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Official Architecture and Planning

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THE MODULAR

society n
for advancement in building 91/59

The history of standardisation and


modulation is a long one, as has
been revealed by a survey of the
Roman colony of Emona situated in
Yugoslavia.

THE ROMAN
MODULAR WAV
By TINE KURENT

Tine Kurent is Professor in the A measured survey of the Roman Colony of The basic law of composition, that ratios of consti-
Emona,
Faculty of Architecture, University
under tuent
modern Ljubljana in Slovenia, disclosed sizes can be expressed in ratios of small
that
of Ljubljana.
Roman building components of the Vitruvian integers,
period is evident in Roman building components,
are standardised and modular. Standard sizes for Roman buildings, and Roman towns. Roman
Roman building components can be expressed brick,incalled Lydica, is 6 palmi (or 1 cubitus) long,
small whole multiples of one of the sizes in the 4 palmi (or 1 pes) wide, and 1 palmus high. In this
Roman system of measures. They denote the case 1 palmus is the brick's module. If the composi-
modular dimensions of components, not their pro- tion is larger, its module is larger too. Modules of
ducer's sizes. To get the modular dimension the insulae (city blocks) in Emona vary from 1 passus to
thickness of the joint is to be added to the producer's20 passus. The town itself is the largest composition
size, if the joint has a thickness at all, as in case ofand its module is the largest in Emona : 60 passus.
bricks. If the joint is done by overlapping, eg roofBut none of the Roman standard sizes can be called
tiles or by a rabbet, eg water pipes, the producer's basic module, or sub-module, or multi-module, or
length is larger than the modular one (Fig 1). mega-module. All Roman units of sizes were used
The most important property of Roman sizes fromas modules in their own right.
the compositional point of view is what is called Mark Hartland Thomas has suggested to me that
by Vitruvius ratio symmetriarum (De Architecture, Roman dimensioning of components with their
Lib III CI 1). Ratios of symmetrical Roman sizes standard sizes was due to to their difficulty in
equal ratios of small integers and hence their com- counting with their unpractical numerals. Let us
ponibility. It is possible to substitute for a larger compare the. raison d'etre of standard modules in
Roman size various sums of smaller unequal sizes or Roman building and the necessity of standardized
various multiples of smaller equal sizes. componible sizes in modular architecture of the
The anthropometric names of Roman standard sizes present day.
had a mnemonic function and provided a practical The Romans had to overcome their imperfect method
sequence of dimensions from the very small of calculation with a metrical tool simplifying com-
semiuncia to the large pertica. Things become position. Vitruvius was aware of the importance of
memorable when put in a meaningful order - RomanRoman symmetrical human sizes: Namque non
sizes are a good example of dimensional standards.potest aedis ulla sine symmetria atque proponi o ne
Their validity in a long span of time and space, asrationem habere compositionis, nisi uti ad hominis
well as their componibility, made them eminentlybene figurati membrorum habuerit exacta m rationem
suitable for building modules. (Lib III C1 1 ). No building can have a rational com-
Modular sizes of Roman building components are position without symmetry and proportion, ie if it is
small multiples of various standard units of sizes. not in the exact ratios of the members of a finely
Compositions of Roman building components are shaped human body.
consequently sums and multiples of various standardA by-product of the fall of the Roman Empire was the
units of sizes. A length of a building, for example,loss of standard (human) sizes in a large part of the
was chosen by a Roman architect as a multiple of aworld. Gothic architecture had to substitute geo-
Roman standard dimensional unit. It was easy to metry and its irrational quantities for arithmetical
transform such a length into various sums and rational modular methods. The Renaissance attri-
multiples of smaller standard sizes and hence the buted to the module only its aesthetic role; there
building's articulation (Fig 2). Vitruvius empha- were too many various feet, cubits and inches in
sised this principle by telling architects to respect Europe to achieve the practical role of componible
diligently the ratio of symmetries, ie the ratio of modules. Finally, the perfection of our numerals and
componible sizes: Aedium compositio constat ex decimal calculation has made our civilisation un-
symmetria, cuius rationem di/igentissime architect iaware of the advantages of simple componible
tenere debent (Lib III CI 1). integers.
A town is only a large composition. It is logical to Recent demands for the standardisation of com-
expect that a Roman town will be in modular sizes,ponents, or better, in Professor Ciribini's words, la
unless its topography or a pre- Roman unplanned sistematica del componenting, are a sign that our
nucleus pre-empted such crystalline regularity modern decimal system and the 100mm module
(Fig 3, page 914). alone are not sufficient for an "open" system of

OAP DECEMBER 1971 911

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5

^SS
^ 8

quincunx 12, cm <- ^CZZZXZZZZX^ZZXZZ^XT^ID'


semis 14.W cm k x >f y -y ~^x

septunx 17,43 cm <MB^C

bes 19, 92 cm ^ X X X' y X

dodrans 22,41cm y X' ~y

deunx 27,39 cm

pes 29,57 cm <- - PZZZH

palmipes 36,97cm IWIIW^^BpCZ V - y


cubitus 44,39cm Ek' ~ ~4"

gradus 73,90 cm - - >


passus 90 cm ^^IK
912 OAP DECEMBER 1971

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I I I I I I I I
M 1 : 200 1 1

- - --4 -

/ 44444444. 01 x'v passus


/ I > I I I I > I I I I I I I I I
/ I 1 1 I 2 I 3 I 5 I 113 I 21 1(34)
/ -.J

j/ / / / -- /

----
- --
i-i h

- 1
h
i 3
-
iw>.Q9:
- 4
' - 4 :

iii
'CO'W'W'wOl) Hill!

I If - +-+-^4444444-l-]4-+-+T/ ' /
I ill *11111 ' I /
I I t
I I IV I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I '*//
ii 1 1 I + - + - + - + - + - + - + - + +J/S
I i I I I I I I I I

Fig 2 (above) - The modular length and width of this building in


from Emona are multiples of 1 passus. The modular length and
C
width of its atrium are multiples of 7 passus. The rhythm of
rooms on the north side is 13 pedes, and on the south 14 pedes. T
Three rooms in the western and two rooms in the eastern flank h
of this building are in the rhythm of 16 pedes. Modules of st
13, 14 and 16 pedes are deviations from the module of 3 passus
To overcome the difficulties of their system of
(= 15 pedes), due to the adaptation of the type building to the
size of insula ( city block). In short various multiples of counting and of their numerals Romans used stan-
standard Roman units of sizes were in use as modules for dard componible sizes for building modules. To
buildings overcome the modern anarchy of sizes, which is the
result of our very flexible decimal system and our
omnipotent industrial productivity, we need standard
Fig 1 (left) - The modular sizes of Roman building elements componible sizes. I am not advocating the return to
and their increments are identical to small whole multiples of Roman numerals and cubits and passus. It is poss-
one of the standard Roman sizes.
ible to remain decimal and metric and to compose a
Key:
1 ceramic water pipe ( modular length = 1 gradus)
range of componible sizes for dimensioning of build-
2 tegula ( modular length and width = 1 cubitus = 6 palmi) ; ing components, or. more abstractly, numbers.
imbrex ( modular length = 1 cubitus = 6 palmi)
3 Brick slab for hypocaust ( modular length = modular width Further reading
= 1 bipedalis = 8 palmi) Vitruvius: De Architecture, by F Granger (Loeb Classical
4 small stone column for hypocaust ( modular width = 1 semis Library)
= 2 palmi, modular height = 2 pedes = 8 palmi) Ciribini, G, "Bilancio dell' industrializzacione edilizia,
5 Lydica brick (modular length = 1 cubitus = 6 palmi, modular industrializzacione anno zero ?', Prefabbricare, No 6, 1 967.
width = 1 pes = 4 palmi ; modular height = 1 palmus) Ciribini, G, "Componenti e componenting", Prefabbricare, No 2,
6 various square tiles for pavement ( modular surfaces = 7 1968.
square cubitus, or 1 square pes, or 1 square bes) Parkanyi, M, Tissue Structures (Lakoterv, Budapest), 1 968.
7 various hexagonal tiles ( modular width = 1 bes, or 1 triens, IMG, Condensed Principles of Modular Co-ordination, 1 968.
or 2 unciae) Detoni, Milia, and Tine Kurent, The Modular Reconstruction of
8 small stones and bricks for mosaic pavement ( modular Emona (Situla 1 , Ljubljana), 1 963.
space = 1 cubic uncia, or 1 cubic semiuncia, or 1 cubic sicilicus)
Kurent, T, Izbor preferencialnih modularnih mer za dimenzioni-
ranje gradbenih prefabrikatov (Tiskovna komisija Univerze,
Ljubljana), 1960.
Kurent, T, La Legge Fondamentale della Composizione Modulare
(Please turn to page 914 for Fig 3) (Quaderni di Studio, Facolta di Architettura, Torino), 1968.

OAP DECEMBER 1971 913

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It, 1 ?i ' * *
1 M I I J IKONGRESNI TR6 I '


I " 1 ! ~7 / 1 **"(" !
I ! ' 7 / L It J il I 1

^n^Frtlni^nr'
5 '00 '" ' "^
^ MLXP J c PASSUS ^ / 1 ' |' (
<&**><? '/)l ) .

I ^>.
' Bi4uR0N 1 a ~ =
2-4 -()- 10 - 16 - 26 - . . .
' . . .
1-2-3---13-... TERTIA MINOR 360 ! 300 = 6 : 5

Fig 3 - Modulus of the town of Emona is 60 passus. Large


modules for large compositions need small multiples ( in
this case 5 and 6)

914 DECEMBER 1971

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