Architects: do you use particular geometric proportion systems?
June 8, 2004 9:12 AM   Subscribe

To all the architects and designers in here, re: Proportions; do you use the geometric proportion systems we were taught in school (Golden Mean, Harmonic Mean, etc.), or do you just use eyeball based intuitive proportions?
I have been recently developing a house using a Modulor-ish system (based on 320cm) and wonder what the rest of you people use.
posted by signal to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'm not an architect, but I don't think there's any evidence that that the Golden Proportion/Mean is any more or less pleasing than other proportions, intuitive or otherwise, in that ball park.
posted by carter at 9:36 AM on June 8, 2004

You actually get to design stuff? Lucky bastard.

Generally, with design stuff (design with a small d) that tumbles through the cracks to my desk, I eyeball it. My eyeballs make their judgements based on my firm's past projects and my knowledge of architectural history, which is important because my firm mostly does "traditional" homes (i.e. pseudo-Tuscan pablum). Although my school's design studios were fairly modernistic, we had a pretty good basis in history. Full disclosure: I went to UVa.

If I had my way and was able to do super-modern stuff, I'd go nutty with a four-foot grid, or just work off of basic contruction modules like a concrete block unit or plywood dimensions (like, say, a four-foot grid). At school, we weren't really taught to use mathematical proportioning systems, although we did learn about them. Our design pedagogy was more based in sensitivity to site context and regulating lines.
posted by LionIndex at 9:42 AM on June 8, 2004

A friend who taught me how to play the Japanese game of Go used to tell me about "glowing points." What he meant was if you're attentive and relaxed at the same time, the right place to play your next stone will just about shine at you.

I saw a similar thing when I used to be a graphic designer. The right place to position something was usually apparent if I concentrated. Once I placed it there it just felt right.

I think of something similar when I'm listening to music -- especially modern chamber music, twelve-tone or close -- that isn't quite working for me. As I listen I'll ask myself: "Could these notes be any other notes, in any other places?" You'll be surprised how immediately apparent it is with the great musical pieces that everything is exactly where it should be. There is no more rational explanation.

As for the Golden Mean, I suppose we'll never really know. There's too much bias in the designer to objectively decide.
posted by argybarg at 9:52 AM on June 8, 2004

I always thought the cool thing about those proportional systems is that they were realized after the fact - that is, they produced aesthetically pleasing results which people had been intuitively catching, but then later it could be described by mathematics and shown to be beautiful in that sense as well. As with music - people intuitively know, without comparing the ratios of sound waves, that a high and a low version of a note are "the same" in some fundamental way, but you can also show this by comparing those ratios.

I have never had the chance to design anything beyond print ads, but i imagine I'd do it intuitively / by eye, because I find it enjoyable to play around until something "works". But if you find the math part more enjoyable, then by all means go that route. You could well end up in the same place, though (of course, sometimes when you're working by eye, your intention is specifically to create something unharmonious, or harmonious in an unharmonious way - something that catches a bit, that throws the viewer off, stirs things up - you could do this through math as well, but you'd have to make a decision about the degree of dissonance you wanted to introduce, etc - just another factor).
posted by mdn at 10:10 AM on June 8, 2004

I'd use math to define the gross outline, and then use eyeball to tweak and to break the "rules".
posted by five fresh fish at 10:50 AM on June 8, 2004

Depends on 1) who will be building it and 2) standard size availablity of components to minimize waste. If you're building it, you can make it any way you like. If someone else is building it, (or if you want to make it easier on yourself :) stick to even dimensions. If English, 4' increments as LionIndex suggests is a good rule of thumb. Once beyond basic structural requirements, go with what feels right, as well as a little consideration for movement through or additions later, would be my approach. YMMV
posted by yoga at 10:55 AM on June 8, 2004

Response by poster: My question is not about the validity or origin of geometric proportional systems, but rather what working architects and designers actually use in their worklife.

mdn: in classical Greek architecture, as well as the Rennaisance, and most of Le Corbusier's and many other modern architects' work, proportional systems are anything but after-the-fact; they're explicit ways of approaching the design process.

LionIndex: but square matrixes are sooo boring, no?
In my experience, the beauty of, for instance, using the Harmonic Mean as a base for all the proportions is the way many relations and attributes magically "appear", as serendipitous by-products of the fact that at a basic level, everything fits.
posted by signal at 12:19 PM on June 8, 2004

but square matrixes are sooo boring, no?

Only if you are :P

Actually, in school, I would set up the matrix and then decide where I would deviate from it (like what FFF says), or set up two opposing geometries against each other and make the fun happen where they collide (Richard Meier has made a career out of doing this). I'd use the grid as a starting point, not an end-all be-all thing to follow completely rigidly. It's an organizing principle, not a set of shackles.
posted by LionIndex at 2:20 PM on June 8, 2004

Where's the rest of the MAO?
posted by LionIndex at 2:25 PM on June 8, 2004

Other than limitations imposed by gravity and your wallet, it's a free for all. Unless it's sculpture for the sake of sculpture, or you want to emulate some classic style, make it usable, lest ye be out of time and money with a large piece of art.

And yeah, see the blue thread LionIndex cites.
posted by yoga at 3:30 PM on June 8, 2004

Response by poster: yoga: Architecture always IS art, no matter how you make it. It can be either good or777 bad art (the same applies to music, movies, writing, etc.). Most people in the profession would like theirs to be more on the good side than on the bad side. I'm asking how other design professionals approach the design process, what formal systems they use. Everybody uses some method or other, whether explicit or not. I was just curious as to whether anybody had used the more geometrically-derived ones, as I am currently expermienting with some.
Re: make it usable, lest ye be out of time and money with a large piece of art, Architecture has always balanced on a tripod: Use (utilitas), Beauty (venustas) and Structure (firmitas). Any serious approach to the art takes into account all three. Proposing that you lose one or two in favor of the other is naive at best.

MAO sounds like a kick ass idea, the only problem is... CLIENTS!
I have an idea for a virtual-architecture office. I'll let you know if I figure anything out.
posted by signal at 4:12 PM on June 8, 2004

Architecture always IS art, no matter how you make it.

I disagree. I'll leave it at that. Happy building!
posted by yoga at 5:30 PM on June 8, 2004

I view a lot of these "regulating systems" as nothing more than numerology; that being said, I find it rewarding to develop a geometry based on the individual project (rather than an overriding system). I use this mostly as a means to think about possibilities (hmm, what if I put the door over there, instead?).

...which means, more or less, that I draw a bunch of regulating lines based on things like the lot shape, local buildings, sun angle, etc., and work from there on a mostly ad hoc basis.
posted by aramaic at 6:23 PM on June 8, 2004

I going to counter Yoga's "leaving it at that" with an "I'll raise you three philophers and wee dram of scotch": the fact is, when one removes one of the three qualities which Signal references, to varying degrees of course, one is left with (a) building, not architecture. It is part of the definition of architecture, nothing more, nothing less.

Onto the matter at hand: I tend to indulge in a great deal of geometric tweaking as I work -- looking for patterns and coincidences and the like. I'm a regulating king of guy and my architecture has been described by other architects as "rigorous". I am not always necessarily involved in strict geometries -- most of the work I do (renovations and additions) precludes that. My undergraduate "thesis" project though was severely controlled with the golden rectangle; I came to a point where drawing a golden rectangle became second nature and would walk around campus guessing what was and what was not. (I had a handy template; a standard bank card happens to be near this proportion.)

The last piece of furniture I designed was composed with regulating lines, golden rectangles and double squares. The thing about any of this though, is that finding ways to apply those is often done after the sketch: it simply becomes the way I decide between 16th's of an inch one way or the other (or inches in the case of a building).

Speaking of building though: when it comes to the american system of construction (France has freed me from these bounds) I am very aware of trying to work with certain unit dimensions: e.g. block coursing, brick coursing, stud spacing, timber sizes, timber lengths.

In the case of wood, this might mean that I choose to make something 7'-11" in lieu of 8'-1"; knowing that removing an inch from some modular materials might mean less waste and certainly means trimming sometimes rough edges or squaring a sheet of plywood -- going to 8'-1" on the other hand has the potential to generate a great deal of waste. (I say "might" and "potential" as, unless one is building the item, it is difficult to predict how the crafter might choose to use material.)

My current project is a renovation of a +/-150 year old brick and timber frame building with rough sawn rafters. As such, all bets are off when trying to consider working with modern material units (3 courses of brick -- todays "norm" is 8" with three joints -- at this building measure anywhere from 9" - 9 1/2").

Still, like Aramaic, things tend to click into place and I look for interesting symmetries (within which I am actually expressing asymmetries -- hard to explain this but think of looking for figural patterns where they should not exist and, in fact, few if any will ever see them) and, for this particular project, I have lately become interested in what I see as the singularity of line as related to surface in a perspective view. That's no real explanation but its something new I am seeing and I don't know how to describe it. (I will say that it struck me when I was making a recent visit to an Alvaro Siza museum building in Porto.)

After all that, I will add this: many architects = many approaches. For some, these ideas may never see the light of day at the tip of their pen.

I have one favorite house related to modular construction: the Eames House (a.k.a. Case Study #8). Many architects of the twentieth century involved themselves in geometry as a basis for order. My favorite in that regard is Louis I Kahn. One enjoyable influence of late for me comes from the word of art (although he completed a number of building renovations): Donald Judd.

What was the question again?
posted by Dick Paris at 7:30 PM on June 8, 2004

mdn: in classical Greek architecture, as well as the Rennaisance, and most of Le Corbusier's and many other modern architects' work, proportional systems are anything but after-the-fact; they're explicit ways of approaching the design process.

I wasn't claiming people didn't use mathematical approaches, but merely that we don't have to know the math to see the beauty - the math describes and explains something about the beauty, but the eye knows it anyway. Just as with music. That's all I was getting at - that there isn't really a distinction whether it's by intuition or calculation. For the greeks, certainly, the point was that the ratio was inherently beautiful - that it expressed something already true.
posted by mdn at 10:00 AM on June 9, 2004

This may be a tangent, but I'm a video editor and I use the "Rule of Thirds" all the time, both consciously and un-.

(The Rule of Thirds states that if you mentally divide your screen into thirds, both horizontally and vertically (like a tic-tac-toe board), the points of interest should fall along the lines or ideally the intersections of those lines.)

I try to lead the viewer's eye around the frame in a coherent manner, and if I can put the focal points of a shot at a place where it will have maximum impact, I'll certainly do it.
posted by Vidiot at 6:28 PM on June 13, 2004

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