February 16, 2007

Obscure Architectural Term of the Day!

And you thought feng shui was the only game in town when it comes to otherworldly touchy-feeliness--

HARMONIC PROPORTIONS. A system of proportions relating architecture to music. The Ancients discovered that if two cords are twanged the difference in pitch will be one octave if the shorter is half the length of the longer, a fifth if one is two thirds of the other, and a fourth if the ratio is 3:4. It was therefore assumed that rooms or whole buildings whose measurements followed the ratios 1:2, 2:3 or 3:4 would be harmonious. Early Renaissance architects, notably Alberti, seized on this discovery as the key to the beauty of Roman architecture and also to the harmony of the universe. The idea was further developed by Palladio who, with the aid of Venetian musical theorists, evolved a far more complex scale of proportions based on the major and minor third--5:6 and 4:5--and so on.

From the Penguin Dictionary of Architecture, Third Edition

There is way yonder too much on this subject to cover, but a good primer on the ideas of the various ideas these old guys had can be found here.

Human beings are innately cognizant of geometrical regularity and proportion, and so I suppose we might tend to feel better if we are surrounded by recognizable order in our structures. The Renaissance's fascination with the harmonic ideal--that whole "music of the spheres" thing promoting peace and goodwill in the mind of man--is nice, and provides a good framework for artistic compositions of buildings and music and such, but it probably works better in theory than in actual practice when it comes to actually making habitable places. There are, after all, many more sorts of mathematical or geometrical constructs besides the simple Platonic ideals (circle, square, triangle and their three-dimensional brothers) that could be just as mental-harmony-inducing, and plenty of architecture all over the world that doesn't rely on any of these theories, yet is perfectly suitable for its intended use.

Still, it's kind of a nice way to play with blocks..

Posted by Terry Oglesby at February 16, 2007 11:29 AM

Where does the Golden Mean (3:5) fit into this?

Posted by: mike hollihan at February 16, 2007 01:21 PM

I'm not sure I know exactly, other than it's another one of those semi-mystical thing that gets some folks all excited.

Posted by: Terry Oglesby at February 16, 2007 01:29 PM

Golden ratio is not exactly 3:5, see, for more than you ever wanted to know, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_ratio, which includes a discussion of the golden ratio in architecture (it's got a lot of math stuff, too).

Posted by: steevil (Dr Weevil's bro Steve) at February 16, 2007 02:05 PM