Michael J. OstwaldDepartment of ArchitectureFaculty of Architecture, Building and Design, University of Newcastle University Drive, Callaghan, NSW 2308 AUSTRALIA
In 1962 Jacques Derrida wrote a lengthy introduction to Husserl's
Ultimately Husserl, Derrida and Ingraham separately affirm that tacit assumptions about the relationship between geometric forms and other forms - say geometry and architecture - must be constantly questioned if they are to retain any validity. What is interesting about this position is that it resonates with the stance taken by a number of recent authors investigating the Golden Mean in architecture. This paper briefly describes the Golden Mean and its history before summarising some of these arguments in an attempt to both inform the reader and to respond to Husserl's and Derrida's solicitations.
phi).[6]
If the length of AB is 1.000 then the Golden Mean is approximately
1.618.Such "divine" or "golden" systems of proportions
first became the subject of serious scholarship in the fifteenth
century in the work of Luca Paciolo.[7] In the seventeenth century Johannes
Kepler described the knowledge of these proportional systems
as essential to the appreciation of art and nature. Indeed, Kepler
could be seen to be at least partially responsible for propagating
many studies of geometrically defined aesthetic systems that
were undertaken in the following two hundred years. By the nineteenth
century, despite the protestations of John Ruskin, the practice
of tracing lines on drawings of facades in order to uncover invisible
proportional systems had become commonplace.[8]
Heinrich Wölfflin's pioneering
analysis of Renaissance and Baroque churches set the standard
for this approach to the formal analysis of proportion in plan
and facade. By the mid-twentieth century, when Rudolf Wittkower
published his influential Throughout the thirty years that followed symposiums held in America, Canada and Europe called for the Golden Mean to be recognised as underlying a universal system of beauty. However, throughout the seventies a small but growing number of criticisms of its role in architecture emerged. Notably one of the first of these is contained in Rowe's 1973 addendum to "The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa". In this text Rowe criticises the "Wölfflinian" search for proportional systems noting that "its limitations should be obvious".[10] He goes on to enumerate these limitations concluding that the practice of tracing proportional systems in architecture "cannot seriously deal with questions of iconography and content … and, because it is so dependent on close analysis if protracted [such analysis] can only impose enormous strain upon both its consumer and its producer".[11] Rowe's change of heart reflects a growing awareness in this field of study that the relationship between geometry and architecture is neither so predictable nor so static as often thought. During the eighties and early nineties a small but growing number of conferences and symposia began to more openly criticise the hegemony of the Golden Mean. Most recently, in June of 1998, the role of the Golden Mean in architecture was hotly debated at a conference in Mantua in Italy. This conference, the second in a series begun in Florence in 1996, was entitled "Nexus: Architecture and Mathematics". At the centre of much of the debate at the 1998 Nexus conference was a controversial paper by Frascari and Ghirardini which argues that mathematicians and historians have been over-zealous in their attempts to uncover the Golden Mean in architecture. In contrast, the mathematician Vera de Spinadel took the more common stance of accepting that the Golden Mean is the geometric basis for many historic architectural works and the theologian Gert Sperling rejected Frascari's and Ghirardini's thesis in his geometric and numeric analysis of the Pantheon.[12] While many other important issues where raised at the Nexus conference in Mantua it is this debate surrounding the validity of the Golden Mean that is particularly noteworthy. Marco Frascari and Livio Volpi Ghirardini's paper "Contra Divinam Proportionem" commences with the claim that "[a] golden or divine magnifying glass that distorts rather than clarifies has been applied to everything in the name of aesthetic and mystical impulses."[13] For Frascari and Ghirardini the search for the Golden Mean has been carried out by fanatics (ironically dubbed by them the "faithful") who have ignored the reality of architecture and the construction process to find the Golden Mean in almost every famous building from antiquity to the present day. Frascari and Ghirardini explicitly criticise the tradition, arising from the German philosopher Adolf Zeising and the mathematician Siegmund Gunter, which traces the Golden Mean over photographs of historic buildings and objects. Frascari and Ghirardini argue that "[w]ithout any doubt Zeising and Gunter were very skilful at measuring pictures, but it is clear that neither of them had ever measured a building".[14] Architecture must be measured with both a degree of mathematical precision and with an appreciation of the innate dimensional accuracy of its material form. Stone, metal and brick all possess different capacities to retain a finished dimension. "In metrical terms, every constructive part of building has its geometric order: masonry, in decimeters; wood carpentry, in centimeters; metal works, in millimeters. Every part is exactly approximate."[15] When buildings are measured without such an appreciation of the materiality of architecture the search for the Golden Mean is invariably meaningless. For Frascari and Ghirardini the Golden Mean must therefore remain an "untamable and intangible measure since, in order for it to be real and efficient, it must be explicitly exact. However architecture does not permit this categorical exactness because there are always mitigating factors such as play in the joints and the density of materials."[16] The measurement of architecture is always problematic because, as architecture can never provide an "exact" Golden Mean, any argument must be derived from approximate dimensions. The result of this reliance on imprecise dimensions is that arguments for the presence of the Golden Mean in architecture are often completely inconsistent in their use of measured dimensions. For example, the dimensions of one wall of a building could be measured from the floor to the ceiling and a second wall from the floor to the base of the cornice. The argument might then be made that both are perfect examples of the Golden Mean. This is plainly an inconsistent and flawed method yet it is all too common in arguments surrounding proportional systems in architecture. One case in point is the Pantheon which has been measured many times including a very recent and highly detailed survey. Yet, scholars analysing the Pantheon too often use these highly accurate dimensions only when they suit their own arguments and ignore them when they do not.[17] Masi's analysis of the "Pantheon as an Astronomical Instrument" even talks about "exact" dimensions such as "9m" or "30 ft" as if the two approximate measurements are somehow identical![18] A related problem arises when over-precise measurements are used and complex and hermetic arguments are proposed to explain tiny inconsistencies in construction. Thus a "square" panel of tiling which actually has one side 1.6 millimetres shorter than the other is described as an attempt by the master mason to hide the Golden Ratio within the walls of a building. In a recent book Paul-Alan Johnson criticises such methods in some detail. "The equation of geometrical with architectural figures" he argues, "is only what we choose to make of it. … Precision per se is not enough no matter how satisfying it is for the analyst."[19] All measurements must be treated with consistency and due regard for the dimensionality of the materials being measured. Scholars, in this hybrid field where architecture and mathematics meet, too freely use those measurements of buildings which suit their arguments and simply ignore those that do not. The main problem is, as Frascari and Ghirardini identify, "for the f believers, any point is good for making the point."[20] A further problem arising from the reliance on approximate dimensions is that there are well documented proportional systems which have been used in architecture throughout history that are sufficiently close to the Golden Mean that they may seem interchangeable with it. As Frascari and Ghirardini explain, a common proportional system utilised by architects relies on the ratio 5 : 3 (or approximately 1.66…) which, owing to the limits of materials and the craft of building, is readily mistaken for the Golden Mean (or approximately 1.618). Frascari and Ghirardini also discuss many examples wherein the documented ratio employed by architects and builders is 5 : 3 (or 8 : 5) and suggest that these proportions may better explain those measured in buildings than the proportions of the Golden Mean. Pierre von Meiss reiterates this line of argument in his Elements of Architecture noting that the "Golden [Mean] is very close to the ratio of 5 : 8" and that "Le Corbusier [even] takes the credit for reducing the Golden [Mean] to rational numbers applicable to architecture."[21]Robin Evans's recent book examines this same concept in detail describing how Le Corbusier initially tried to use the Golden Mean to generate ideal architectural proportions but found the results "miserable". Le Corbusier's solution, documented at length in his two volumes of the Modulor, was to work with ratios of 5 : 3 or 8 : 5 to overcome the "startling ugliness" of the architectural solutions generated through the use of the Golden Mean. None of which is to suggest that the Golden Mean has never been used in architecture nor that the ratio 5 : 3 is dominant but rather that a more thoughtful, consistent and critical analysis is necessary before any claim regarding proportional systems in architecture can be made. Le Corbusier and Palladio were each familiar with the Golden Mean and there is some evidence to suggest that they each utilised its properties in their designs. However, in the case of the former at least, the overwhelming body of evidence points away from the use of the Golden Mean in any sustained way. As Evans concludes; "[t]heories of proportion as traditionally formulated … are quite inadequate to the task of describing complex shapes." Le Corbusier's variant of the Golden Mean "lurks behind the wall as if it were responsible for it … as if it made all of the difference in the world while hardly making any difference at all".[22] Frascari and Ghirardini's arguments are also furthered by those of Rocco Leonardis who claims that the very phrase "the Golden Mean" is problematic. For Leonardis the word "Golden" implies that the ratio is somehow rare or especially valuable - neither of which is necessarily true. An apprentice or student with the right tools and a modicum of effort can produce the proportions of the Golden Mean by accident. With a straight edge ruler and a pair of compasses anyone given enough time will generate a pentagram. Producing a pentagram (or some related geometric expression of the Golden Mean) in no way suggests that an amateur geometer understands anything about mathematics. Eminent historian of mathematics, Georges Ifrah, makes this same point in some detail when he recalls that he:
Johnson reiterates this view and records that throughout history most architects have only possessed "a rudimentary understanding of geometry and design using more or less straightforward permutations on regular polygons and the circle … At the risk of oversimplification, for more than two millennia basilica, domed and vaulted structures, have been generated principally by the projection or rotation of three primary figures - circle, rectangle, triangle".[24]Like the "sacred cut" and the "vesica pisces", the Golden Mean is a simple geometric construct which can be used to shape windows and floor plans, to locate paving patterns and to divide courtyards. That these geometric constructs have been used in architecture throughout the ages is undoubtable. But that these forms represent a more complex awareness of numeric or harmonic symbolism in architecture is debateable. In these rare instances where there is documented evidence that the architect was aware of the Golden Mean and possibly even its mathematics, then a case can be made. In other cases, scholars, whether architects or mathematicians, must be more circumspect.
Rowe presciently argued in 1973 that proportional analysis should only be undertaken where there is clear, visible evidence and even then it should not be misconstrued as representing any powerful proof of a real relationship between geometry and architecture. Like Husserl and Derrida, Rowe is aware of the fundamental inconsistencies present in attempts to connect geometry with some other form. The Nexus conference was not the first conference to raise these issues and it will not be the last; it did however in many ways respond to the calls of Husserl and Rowe.
1. Vitruvius, 2. Robert Lawler,
3. Jacques Derrida,
4. This issue is
discussed in more detail in Michael J. Ostwald and R. John Moore,
"The Mapping of Architectural and Cartographic Faults: Troping
the Proper and the Significance of (Coast) Lines," 5. Catherine T.
Ingraham, 6. See Steven Vajda,
7. Alberto Pérez-Gómez
and Louise Pelletier, 8. See, for example,
the discussion of "right line" in R. John Moore and
Michael J. Ostwald, "Choral Dance: Ruskin and Dædalus."
9. The classic
example of this approach is found in Rob Krier, 10. Colin Rowe,
11. Ibid. 12. Vera W. de
Spinadel, "The Metallic Means and Design," 13. Frascari, Marco
and Livio Volpi Ghirardini. "Contra Divinam Proportionem,"
14. Ibid., 67.
15. Ibid., 68-69.
16. Ibid., 69.
17. See the discussion
in Sperling, "The Quadvrivium in the Pantheon of Rome,"
cited in note 12. 18. Fausto Masi,
19. Paul-Alan Johnson,
20. Frascari, and
Ghirardini, "Contra Divinam Proportionem", 70. 21. Pierre von
Meiss, 22. Robin Evans,
23. Georges Ifrah,
24. Johnson, 25. Evans,
The Projective
Cast: Architecture and its Three Geometries. (Cambridge,
Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1995). To order this book from Amazon.com, click
here.Georges Ifrah, Catherine T. Ingraham, Paul-Alan Johnson, Charles F. Linn, Alberto Pérez-Gómez and Louise
Pelletier, Colin Rowe, Steven Vajda, Kim Williams, ed.
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