[project and exercise descriptions]

de natura instrumentorum or the archaeology of computing

“The analemma is a basis for calculation deduced from the course of the sun, and found by observation of the shadow as it increases until the winter solstice. By means of this, through architectural principles and the employment of the compasses, we find out the operation of the sun in the universe.” Vitruvius, the Ten Books of Architecture, 9.1.1

Vitruvius dedicated his 9th book of Architecture to horology (the measurement of time), to sundials and water clocks, before moving onto machines of all sorts in his last book. In this project section of ARCH 531, we shall explore both the measurement of time, and machines & instruments during the period covered by the lectures.

The project will seek a deeper understanding of the place of astronomy in the pre-modern world and the Renaissance. The measurement of time is significant in that it was accomplished by the measurement of the supra-lunar world that was differentiated from our ever-changing sub-lunar world by its regularity. Analogously, the tools used in these measurements became intermediaries between the two worlds, at times transforming into instruments and techniques designed to bring the order of the heavens down to our chaotic world.

By further exploring the ‘archaeology of computing’ (used in the original sense of the word as calculating), we will further study the concepts of measurement, calculation, generation, and drawing. The hope is that by looking at these concepts in their properly historical context, we may gain a deeper understanding of the current debates on the use of digital tools in architectural design.

Yelda Nasifoglu, TA (project instructor for Fall 2012)

[exercise 1] volvelles and astrolabes

You are asked to reconstruct a volvelle which is (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) a “device consisting of one or more movable circles surrounded by other graduated or figured circles, serving to ascertain the rising and setting of the sun and moon, the state of the tides, etc.” You may replicate an existing instrument (e.g. an astrolabe or any paper volvelle, though you are to limit your selection to the period covered by the lecture course) or construct one textually described at length. For help with making your selection, see the ‘General Tips’ and ‘Sources’ sections.

The main purpose of the exercise is for you to gain an understanding of what the instrument seeks to measure and for what possible purposes; therefore it is important that you thoroughly understand how the instrument works and should be able to demonstrate this. Do not pick something too complicated; this task is not meant to be onerous – it should be fun.

While online or digital tools may be utilized as preparatory research, it is imperative that the final reconstruction be done by hand with the use of a compass and straight-edge (i.e. not simply ‘traced’). It should be made out of thick stock paper.

[exercise 2] Alberti’s map of Rome

You are asked to draw the map of Rome as described by Leon Battista Alberti in his Descriptio urbis Romae, or the Delineation of the City of Rome.

  • Read the translation of the text in Carpo, Mario and Francesco Furlan, eds., Leon Battista Alberti’s Delineation of the City of Rome, Tempe, Arizona: ACMRS, 2007, pp 97-108. Also study the sketches on pages 33-39 & 73-77. The book is held on reserve for you under the course number at the McLennan Library. You may also consult the available French translation.
  • Create the ‘horizon’ instrument that Alberti describes – you are completely free this time to choose your materials and mode of construction (paper, wood, metal, computer-drawn, laser cut, 3d-printed, etc.)
  • Create a map of Rome using the instrument & following Alberti’s instructions.

[exercise 3] the contrivance

All machinery is derived from nature, and is founded on the teaching and instruction of the revolution of the firmament… [O]ur ancestors…took their models from nature, and by imitating them were led on by divine facts, until they perfected the contrivances which are so serviceable in our life. Some things, with a view to greater convenience, they worked out by means of machines and their revolutions, others by means of engines…” Vitruvius, the Ten Books of Architecture, Book 10.1.4.

The third, and last, component of our project is what is termed the ‘contrivance’, which covers machines, engines, instruments, devices, and any other implements. Your starting point will be history, via the research you will conduct as well as the course lectures, but then you will pursue other directions: the purpose of the project is to let you experiment with research+design, but with a historical twist. You may begin with the astrolabe and end with a window system that might allow you to follow the movements of the constellations; or use Alberti’s polar coordinates to map the Vitruvian man; or turn the Zodiac man into a series of volvelles allowing you to create a movable drawing; or reconstruct part of a Renaissance machine only to find other uses for it in contemporary design, etc. Using your imagination and experimenting with ideas and materials will be of utmost importance.

  • You are to begin with research. You may go back to the research you had conducted for the first two exercises or start by consulting the following two books that have been put on reserve for you:

Lefevre, Wolfgang, ed., Picturing Machines 1400-1700, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004 [on reserve at the Engineering Library]

Sawday, Jonathan, Engines of the Imagination: Renaissance Culture and the Rise of the Machine, New York: Routledge, 2007 [on reserve at the McLennan Library]

See also exercise 3 – tips and resources.


  • Make a selection between the themes we touched upon during the first two exercises or pick one from the following topics (if there is something that particularly interests you but does not fit within any of these categories, we can discuss that):

The heavens on earth (for example: grafting of celestial movement onto a map or plan; or any drawing in fact, including elevations or sections)

The body celestial or geometric (for example: the Zodiac man or the Vitruvian man; on the latter, see also Vitruvius, 3.1.2)


The machine: this theme can be connected to the previous two themes or can stand on its own (for example: Leonardo’s machines involving circular movement, or different drawing instruments from the Renaissance, or war machines such as the ones mentioned by Vitruvius in Book 10, etc.)


  • Either post the results of your research and project idea to this blog, or email them to me by 6pm on Thursday, November 1st.
  • Hint: Taking your inspiration from your research, you may choose to begin by replicating a small portion of the device or drawing you were studying, and then subsequently incorporate it into your own project.


Week 9 (Nov 1): Preliminary research and project idea due

Week 10 (Nov 8): individual appointments

Week 11 (Nov 15): Mid-project crits

Week 12 (Nov 22): individual appointments

Week 13 (Nov 29): FINAL CRITS

Yelda Nasifoglu, TA (project instructor for Fall 2012)

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