New York architect Steve Bass, long associated with the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art as a teacher of classical theory, recently wrote a book, Beauty Memory Unity, on his favorite subject of architectural proportion. Proportion has long been a dodgy topic for me. I opened his book and skimmed through its pages of diagrams, equations, graphs and charts. Imagine reading passages like this one, taken at random:
[The passage below includes corrections suggested by Steve in the comments section of this post. He also corrects or clarifies some of my assertions made beyond this passage; some of those I have clarified or corrected, others not, so has to accurately reflect my thoughts, however off base they may be. So please read his entire comment.]
The elevation of the house at Stourhead, Wiltshire, 1719, [top illustration], is based on the double square. If the overall width is taken as 2 and the height 1, the basement is Ø[superscript 4], .146, the central tetrastyle is in a square of 2Ø² and each side wing is Ø, thus giving .618 + .764 + .618 = 2.0; a doubling of the 3-4-3 √2 cut. Notice that .764 + .618 = 1.382 and v2 =1.414; about a 2.3% difference, thus either geometrical key could be used to obtain the same pattern. The parapet is Ø[superscript 5] = .090. The midpoint of the overall height sets the spring point of the entry arch. (pp. 295-6)
Try to imagine reading and understanding it, and you (most readers) will imagine my complete befuddlement. The idea that classical architects down through the ages used such formulae to infuse their designs with beauty seems dubious, at least to me. At moments like this I enjoy recalling the warnings of New Urbanist guru Andrés Duany that the great treatises of classical architecture invariably contradicted each other. And yet the very much simplified idea that well-proportioned things are better than ill-proportioned things seems manifestly obvious.
So, in reading Bass’s book (or shall we say treatise), I decided to skip the challenging mathematical portions and read only the textual matter. And although the latter was festooned with enough equations and terminology drawn from classical mythology to stump me entirely, the many passages without such impedimenta turn out to be quite riveting. Here is one that seemed to ratify my own doubts about proportion:
In premodern times many, though not all, aspects of proportional methodology were held in private. Traditionally, artists and architects were not intellectuals. They learned what they knew by actual experience and regular practice in studios, shops or on building sites. In many cases the proportional techniques would have been couched in mythical terms, perhaps presented to the artisan in an initiatic context.
Does that not suggest that the use of proportions and is far from cut and dried, not really the stuff of mathematical precision? Seems so to me. Bass recognizes that he cannot really know what methods of proportion were applied by architects ages ago. And yet I am sorry: this was a poor example. The word initiatic, has, at least to some readers, an indistinct meaning. Does it mean presented to an apprentice on his first day in the studio of his master? Or does it mean presented to a novice as part of an initiation ceremony? Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it does.
Still, as hazy as proportion seems from my perspective, it definitely has a role in making architecture beautiful. Just because I don’t understand it doesn’t mean that proportion’s precise application is anything other than exact and reliable in producing beauty. I can easily imagine classicists of the distant past winging it in their calculation of proportion. But that hardly means that many others – to be sure, more in the past than today – have not learned and internalized the equations set forth herein by Bass and have used them to create beautiful architecture.
Here is Bass’s introduction to his section about Michelangelo:
In looking at the architecture of Michelangelo, geometrical arrangements, particularly pentagonal, have been used. But these are to be considered strictly analytical. They are unlikely to have been the method actually used by Michelangelo, who drew architecture as he would the human body, finding the right place for a division as if playing a fretless musical instrument.
“Strictly analytical”? Hmm. Not sure quite what that means in terms of Michelangelo’s approach to proportion. Something in me wants to suggest that the passage paints Michelangelo as something less than a purist. Maybe the knowledge of proportions was not yet advanced enough to help the great Renaissance man. Or maybe it was.
Was Michelangelo a strict constructionist, as it were, or was his way of using proportion to toy magisterially with the orders really more inspirational? Or are the fundamentals of proportion drawn, as Bass suggests, from divine forces that inspired the rules, and were therefore deployable only by such geniuses as have conscious or unconscious insight into those forces? Now there’s a question that’s above my pay grade!
There are passages in Beauty Memory Unity that, taken out of context, seem to posit any of these theories. It’s sometimes hard to tell while leaping from one equation-free passage to the next, perhaps pages away, whether Bass is expressing his theories or describing the theories of others. Picking my way through a book is surely not the best way to review it, but reading it straight through, struggling with frequent passages that fly over my head, is sure to be equally ineffective – and likely to risk a failure to complete.
All of this should be taken as the admission of a proportion skeptic that the discussion of the origin, history and practical application of proportion is not just educational but a fascinating mystery, a mystery that only heightens in its fascination as chapter follows chapter. It is a great read for the uninitiated devotee of architecture (and doubtless even more so for the initiated).
In proportion as the professional architect of today seeks to climb toward the highest rungs of creative ambition, Beauty Memory Unity will prove useful, indeed inspirational, not just as a path to beauty but as a thing of beauty in and of itself.
(For a far more coherent and constructive assessment of Steve Bass’s brilliant treatise, readers are advised to consult Patrick Webb’s review in the May issue of Traditional Building magazine.)