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Architecture, Vitruv and Web 2.0

Holidays in Provence, South France – I am sitting on a beautiful porch, listening to the sound of black guillemots and feel like writing something on the topic of architecture. I am thinking that there should be some more content for architects at SDN / BPX (there is not even a tag for architecture). So I start looking at some unfinished material that I worked on some 4 years ago: on architects and engineers. The first paragraph starts with a definition of IT architecture based on Vitruv’s definition of architecture:

— excerpt of some unpublished work in 2004

There are many definitions in IT of Architecture. Interestingly, it is the same within the ‘real’ field of architecture and a whole subject called architecture theory is devoted to this. Maybe one of the most cited definitions is from Vitruv (born about 84 BC) who wrote the famous 10 books on architecture that are still very much used within architecture theory [KRU95]. Vitruv defined that architecture must satisfy the triad of [KRU95]:

  • Utilitas (usefulness). Utilitas relates to the use of buildings and the guaranteed operation of functions.
  • Firmitas (firmness). Firmitas covers the area of statics, construction and materials.
  • Venustas (gracefulness). Venustas covers all esthetical aspects and governs areas like proportion, symmetry, decor etc..

Vitruv’s architecture was never meant to be applied to buildings only. Vitruv defined in his first book of architecture the architecture domains building, horology and engineering [KRU95]. Perhaps, Vitruv would have said that architecture is a design discipline applied to technology savvy domain. In that sense we can apply Vitruv’s definition of architecture to the domain of IT:

  • Usefulness (Utilitas). Relates to the IT-System’s exposed external and internal qualities as defined by [ISO01] in the domains of functionality, reliability, usability, efficiency, maintainability, portability.
  • Firmness (Firmitas). Constraints and options of available materials and their characteristics when applied in specific structures to realize the desired qualities, associated efforts and methods.
  • Gracefulness (Venustas). The attractiveness to the user, also a defined sub category of usability in [ISO01], is influenced by artesian construction of the user interaction. Like in civil engineering the importance of the artesian component will vary on the application domain that is considered, e.g. gaming, business support systems.

— excerpt end

Whilst I was convinced that Vitruv’s definition of architecture applies for IT-systems as well, I was unsure when the importance of Venustas is becoming equally important than in building construction. The Venustas piece of the above definition challenged me already 9 years ago, when I published an article on SW-Architecture. In this article I showed many similarities within the fields of IT and building construction relative to architecture. However, I also highlighted some differences:

— excerpt of an article that I have published in 1999

“Software architects” nowadays tend largely to ignore the subjective reality of their IT systems (compare Figure 4). What little of the “software architecture” is perceived by the user is merely the user interface, and this is usually not the focal point of the software architecture. The load-bearing structure which supports the IT system goes unnoticed by the user. Thus, there is one problem which “software architecture” currently does not have to deal with but which falls within the specialism of an architect in the field of construction: the effect of the building on a human audience, or the point where art and building coincide. This does not however diminish the fact that in “software architecture” likewise, the human audience is the true final factor. Nevertheless, the majority of “software architects” limit themselves to “technical ” details, a restriction which is already coming to be regarded by some as an excessively narrow perspective. A broader perspective such as that emphasised in Convergent Engineering (CE) [TAY95], differs in this respect. Besides the technical dimension, CE explicitly cites the business environment surrounding an application as a further dimension to be considered in “software architecture”. This is certainly progress; however the social and political implications of IT systems for mankind are still largely unconsidered in “SW-architecture”. Whether this will continue to be the case in future and who will address these problems, remains to be seen.

— excerpt end 

So, what has changed since 1999 in regard to social and political implications of IT-Systems? Web 2.0! I think we made a huge step forward in acknowledging that IT systems that support business processes must consider social interactions (= participation) as well; embedding social web elements into business systems is now considered one of the major transformational trends. Finally, we understood the wisdom of fulfilling the triad Utilitas, Firmitas and Venustas in business IT systems.

What does it mean?

We may need a clearer role specialization, similar to the construction industry, of the parties that are involved in constructing software systems. We need engineers who focus on the firmness of IT-systems with also an eye on functionality and gracefulness. We need builders that are experts in configuring the functionality of IT-Systems while achieving the firmness and gracefulness. Finally, we need architects that focus on the gracefulness of the IT-system with a good understanding of firmness and functionality. However, only around 1818 the point had been reached in the construction industry at which it was no longer possible for one person, the master builder, to master all aspects of construction and two separate professional groups emerged: the architects and the civil engineers. Thus, in IT we will probably see a longer role combination of people focussing on firmness as well as on gracefulness or on functionality as well as on gracefulness. In general, we may be able to anticipate the future of the IT industry by looking at the history of the construction industry. For example, architects and engineering boutiques as intermediates between clients and large project & outsourcing companies…

Sources

[KRU95]

Kruft, 1995: Geschichte der Architekturtheorie. 4 Auflage. Beck. ISBN: 340634903.

[ISO01] ISO/IEC 9126-1:2001(E). Software engineering — Product quality — Part 1: Quality model. ISO/IEC 2001.
[TAY95] Taylor, 1995: Business Engineering with Object Technology.
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2 Comments

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  1. Marilyn Pratt
    Easy to build a home for it on the wiki (forgive the pun).  The foundations are all there.  Just create your own blueprint of how the rooms should look and jump into designing.

    Do a lookup in the wiki for architecture and you will fine some interesting profiles and descriptions of architects.

    You can create a page for architecture in the BPX space and you can create a label or tag for it.

    Let me know if you need more info about using the wiki to design a living and breathing home for architecture.  Sounds like you have creative and interesting content and the wiki would be a good home for it.

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