Before Architecture: Archai, Architects and Architectonics in Plato and Aristotle


  • Lisa Landrum


“The beginning (archē) seems to be more than half of the whole.” So claims Aristotle in the first book of Nicomachean Ethics (1098b8). Might this claim be as true for architecture as it is for philosophy? If so, what can the first philosophical statements concerning architects tell us about the aims, scope and limits of an architect’s role? 

This study gathers and interprets the earliest extant references to architects in ancient Greek philosophy, as found in select works of Plato and Aristotle. Surprisingly, there has been little treatment of these passages. Aside from isolated citations, the question of how and why Plato and Aristotle chose to integrate “architects” (architektōn/αρχιτέκτων) and “architectonics” (architektonikē/αρχιτεκτονική) into their discursive inquires has not been asked. Thus, one of my basic aims is to disclose what these philosophical passages contribute to a critical and speculative discourse on architecture. Although the Greeks had no word for architecture per se (architectura being a Latin word first found in Cicero), Plato and Aristotle—in the midst of examining political, ethical and epistemological problems and potentialities (in the 4th c. BCE)—began loosely to define principled “architectonic” practices involving the knowing direction of individuals, arts and materials toward comprehensively beneficial aims. Whereas the earliest extant inscriptions naming “architects” (from the 440s and 430s BCE) yield only a few meaningful but largely techno-bureaucratic details, and Herodotus’ Histories (from the same decades) merely credit select “architects” with a disparate assortment of “wonders” (thaumata), the philosophical sources introduced below open more precisely articulable questions concerning what architects ought to know, do and desire.  

As I have shown elsewhere, philosophical thinking about architectural practice was prefigured by dramatizations of architectural acts, as shown by the inclusion of “architects” and “architecting” (αρχιτεκτόνειν) in select scripts of Athenian drama. Indeed, the earliest extant architektōn in Greek literature is found neither in inscriptions nor historical prose, but (arguably) in a fragmentary etiological drama by Aeschylus (staged in 476 BCE), wherein a personified Justice (daughter of Zeus) is presumed “to architect” proportionate order. About fifty years later, in the wake of Pericles’ ambitious building program and while Herodotus’ Histories were circulating in Athens, Euripides and Aristophanes featured more medial (and mortal) architect-protagonists. Amid grave dangers, these agents—called “architects” and called upon “to architect”—dared to initiate and lead collaborative schemes aimed at restoring social order, regional peace, levity, and even theōria. These dramatizations, together with the philosophical passages following them, represent substantial yet largely overlooked contributions to the beginnings of architectural theory.  

Bearing these precedents in mind, the “architect” and “architectonic” terms of Plato and Aristotle will be our guide to renewed inquiry into the archē of architecture. While some may be eager to brush these old words aside, this study seeks to grasp them afresh, taking them up as clues to discursive contexts that open onto cultural problems and possibilities, still comparable and instructive to our own.