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Architecture and Geometry

by Michael Rubin

Introduction hard pressed to determine if such work should be

Structural Topology (I) 1979 properly regarded as mathematics or art. The aes-
The object of this essay is to show that architecture thetic appeal of patterns led artists and decorators to
and geometry have been iinked throughout history. exhaust all the symmetry groups in the plane, long
Perhaps it would be more accurate to claim that before Federov (1891) proved that only seventeen
good architecture has always reflected an unders- exist. Indeed, all 17 patterns appear in one .building,
tanding of geometry. Let us take architecture in its the Alhambra (1230) (Flgure 1). It also seems
broadest sense, as Le Corbusier or Frank Lloyd apparent that mathematical and artistic creativity
Wright might conceive of it: architactun is the elicit the same sense of satisfaction in the creator
manipulation of space for human use. (Notice how and the same sense of “aesthetic appeal” in the eyes
we are lumping architectural design, structural en- of the beholder. Possibly this is what led Birkhoff to
gineering, environmental planning, etc. all under one formulate his quantitative “aesthetic measure” for
roof). We will understand geometry to be the study of works of art. (Birkhoff 1933).
the properties and relationships of magnitudes in
space. Our claim then, which is inherent in these
Abstract definitions, is that geometry is an indispensable tool The appeal of symmetry in art and nature led
to the architect. Since he works in forms and since Hermann Weyl (in agreement with Plato) to theorize
geometry is the language of form, a creative archi-
The structural system of a building must be tect must have a broad base of geometric concepts.
consistent with its appearance, and together
they must reflect the function of that building.
From an understanding of the geometry of 3- Our claim is based on the more general conviction
dimensional space arises the possibility of that there is an underlying unity between mathema-
realizing these ideals as relationships within tics and art. This unity derives from the fact that both
finished structures. We look back in time to mathematicians and artists, according to their skills,
see how the alliance between architecture and are looking for an order in the universe. The ability to
geometry has weathered the main periods of observe and represent the patterns that underlie the
classical and European history. In particular form and structure of nature is the mark of achieve-
we show convincing examples of the harmo- ment in both fields. The ornamentation on his
nious development of geometry and archltec- pottery, weaving and basketry, shows that as far
ture in the Renaissance, and of a serious rift back as ten thousand years ago, Neolithic man had a
which has developed between them since the grasp of geometric patterns. In fact, considering that \
18th century. primitive ornamentation displayed the concepts of -1
13 congruence, similarity and symmetry, we would be Figure 1.
that mathematics is the common origin of both. has always determined the proportions of a building, like to point out two major constraints on this review.
Mathematical laws are the origin of symmetry in hence its appearance. Structure was arrived at by First, we concentrate on western development and
nature, and the artists intuitive understanding of empirical means, but sometimes, as in the Gothic thus ignore the extraordinary geometric richness of
these laws is the source of symmetry in art (Weyl Cathedral, structural system and geometric propor- Eastern architecture. Indeed, from the visual aspect,
1952, ~6). That is, the artist is part mathematician. tions combined to produce works of powerful visual we consider the 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional
Conversely, G.H. Hardy claims “a mathematician,. impact. From the Renaissance on, more theoretical patterns of Persian Moslem architecture to be the
like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns. If his work was done in statics and mechanics and by the most striking example of geometry applied to archi-
patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is 17th century schools of engineering had been foun- tecture (Flgure 2). Second, the only way to appre-
because they are made with ideas” (Hardy 1967). ded in France. Still, builders relied on their intuition, ciate architecture is to see it personally. Although we
That is, the mathematician is part artist. on experience, and on what Walter Whiteley calls include some sketches and some photographs, they
“residual geometry”, using geometric systems that only hint at the desired effect.
had been worked out long before, instead of calling
We shall not try to show all the links between upon even the available structural theory of their
mathematics and art but shall instead focus our day. Up to the middle of the 19th century this schism Ancient Cultures
attention on the links between geometry and archi- was not too critical as the empirical approach often
tecture. This interrelationship is established by his- sufficed for the stone and timber construction then In the introduction, we referred to the fact that
torical evidence. There have been entire atchitectu- common. However, from the industrial revolution on, primitive man’s use-of ornamentation signified both
ral periods that were dominated by a particular man has made enormous advances in knowledge geometric and artistic skills. Here we consider how
geometric outlook. At times creative individuals have and use of materials and in structural theory. Fur- his building reflected a merging of pattern and
been involved in both architecture and geometry. thermore architecture has had to respond to the structure.
The proportions of the Greek orders determined complex demands of an industrialized society. Para-
their architecture; the mason’s geometric expertise doxically, it is just at the time when architecture
determined the form of the Gothic Cathedral; projec- needs all the geometric and strustural help it can Ancient man built to accommodate his spatial needs.
tive geometry influenced Renaissance man’s con- get, it has divorced itself from contemporary geome- His dwellings possessed a natural geometry -
ception of space and hence, his architecture. The tric research into structure. “For as contradictory as based in part on the structural characteristics of his
careers of Brunelleschi, Alberti, Leonardo da Vinci it may seem, modern architecture is ignorant of available materials. As an example, we take the
indicate the breadth of the Humanist’s talents. It was modern geometry. Architecture has thus placed Sumer reed house around 4000 B.C.E. The strong
an architect, Desargues, whose work on projective itself outside itself, outside of its own science” tall reeds of the Euphrates delta were used as the
geometry was “the most original mathematical crea- (Emmerich 1970, lp2). standard structural elements. These were bunched
tion of the 17th century”. Christopher Wren, architect into bundles and bent to form either a circular or
of St. Paul’s Cathedral, was labelled the most able pointed arch. Reed matting was used as filler and the
geometer of his time by Newton. Lobachevsky, one We would like to take you on a whirlwind tour of the whole house was covered with mud. The house in its
of the founders of non-Euclidean geometry, learned architectural-geometric world, dwelling briefly on geometric simplicity contains all the structural ele-
architecture to supervise the building of an addition some periods and on some personalities. We should ments of the Romanesque or Gothic cathedrals
to the University of Kazan, where he was Rector. In (Sandstrom, 1970, .p7).
our times Buckminster Fuller‘s domes are architec-
tural constructions based on his geometric and
topological theories. At about the same time, the Egyptians were harnes-
sing the Nile and consequently urban developments,
based on aristocracy, proliferated alongside it.
Geometry performs a dual role for the architect: it Egyptian geometry developed through problems of
helps him in a formal and in a technical sense. That mensuration after the floodings of the Nile. In fact,
is, geometry influences the visual and the structural Herodotus used the word “geometry” to mean the
aspects of design. Vitruvius understood this when he measurement of the earth. The Egyptian’s familiarity
presented the three requirements of architecture: with geometric figures is evident in the sepulchers of
firmitas (structure), utilitas (function), and venustas the pharaohs - the pyramids (Figun 3).
(beauty). Thus a building must accomodate certain
functions, stand securely and be visually stimulating.
Our point of view is that the structural system of a The pyramids and other ancient construction reflect
building must be consistent with its appearance, and man’s attempt to model his human world on a
together they must reflect the function of that buil- “cosmic order” in order to symbolize his stability.
Geometry was deeply related to astronomy and 14
ding. In our historical survey we notice that geometry Figure 2.
religion, and was used to represent this cosmic Greek architecture is exemplified by temple cons- It would appear that Greek geometry manifested
order. Tons Brunes in his 2-volume work “The truction (Flgure 4) . It consisted of a raised platform itself more in the use of proportion and visual effects
Secrets of Ancient Geometry” suggests that ancient from which a series of posts supported a continuous than in the development of structural systems. This
architecture was based on an occult geometric architrave which in turn supported the roof. Al- is consistent with the Sophists’ accent on understan-
system which he calls “ancient geometry”. This though they had discovered vault and arch construc- ding rather than utility in their mathematics and the
geometry was a system of measurements, dimen- tion, they rarely applied it as the 15 foot span of their Pythagorians use of mystical numbers and geome-
sions and proportions which were considered sa- beams or lintels sufficed in their human-scaled tric patterns. Plato believed craftsmen were inferior
cred and magic by religious leaders and which were buildings. Their fine masonry joining gave the tem- to philosophers. He believed that geometry draws
used as a source of power by them. Brunes claims ple a sculptural look and implied the use of exact the soul towards “truth” whereas art represented
that this system was conserved right through the geometric measuring techniques. falsity. Greek temples, which were sanctuaries of the
Middle Ages and is apparent in the Cologne Cathe- Gods, depended upon geometric propositions to
dral (15th century). Whether or not the concept of represent that ideal. From this point of view it is easy
“ancient geometry” is correct, Brunes succeeds in to understand why Greek architects concentrated
showing that ancient temple construction is based The structure at first reflected the old timber cons- upon exact proportions rather than on structural
on certain simple geometric patterns. truction techniques, but, after a while, familiarity with systems to make better use of their stone and
the stone materials led to new aesthetic notions. marble building materials.
Both the structural and ornamental components of
Greek Period the building became standardized. The regulation of
their position and shape led to the development of Ivins makes an interesting criticism on both Greek
It is not our intent here to analyze the social, the Greek orders - doric, ionic, and Corinthian - art and geometry (Ivins, 1964). He claims that in their
economic and geographical forces that resulted in each with its exact proportions. The tapering of the geometry they worked out many relationships bet-
the rise of Greek culture in the first millenium, doric column demonstrates the geometric sophisti- ween measurements of’ lines, angles, areas and
reaching its highest development under Pericles in cation they used to enhance the appearance of their volumes but they missed the underlying structural
the 5th century B.C.E. We need only consider that work (Figure 5) . Sfmilarly they were able to imper- qualities of lines and consequently never reached
the Greeks, with their emphasis on clarity of form, ceptibly distort the main lines of their buildings so as the general notions of duality and geometric con-
made contributions to mathematics and to art that to counteract the effects of perspective and fores- tinuity. Similarly in their art they never studied spatial
laid the basis of Western civilization. It was the Greek hortening. Their search for proportion led them to a organization or movement. We may extend his
mind, based on lonian rationalism that first asked “modular” approach to construction: a “module”, argument by claiming that they never considered the
the modern scientific question - “why’!? The Greeks equal to half the lower diameter of the column, was underlying structure of their materials in their archi-
sought to find man’s place in the universe via logical the basis of the dimensions of component parts of tecture.
means. They believed that the logic of nature ex- the structure. Modern architecture, too, is looking for
pressed itself in the arrangement of her geometric a modular system, albeit on a different scale and for
shapes. Thus they placed architecture and sculpture different reasons, to solve some of our contempo- Greek geometry developed each theorem as a
on a higher level than painting. rary architectural problems. separate case, just as in arch itecture Greek temples

15 Figure 3. Figure 4. Figure 5.

Gathlc Period shape, that is the geometry, of the structural mem- dering artist craftsman. He wrote that “the art of
bers than on calculating the magnitude of forces. geometry commands and teaches” and his sketches
Building construction was developing rapidly in Their formulas and geometric rules were concerned show the geometric basis to many types of design.
England and France in the 12th and 13th centuries. with form and composition, based on understanding
Technical achievement and visual Impact of the their materials, rather than structural theory. Their
Gothic cathedrals showed such a richness of shape results can be appreciated in the cathedrals of In design of buildings, a geometric technique called
and pattern that these constructions have been Chartres, Amiens and Rheims (FIgun 8). the “ad quadratum design” was widely used. It was a
called “the architecture of geometry”. It was an system of construction lines based on the square, by
architecture that combined the technical experlmen- which the height of a cathedral and other dimensions
tation and innovation of the master craftsmen with Platonism, with its emphasis on the universe as were worked out. It is no accident that the Gothic
the knowledge of Greek mathematics that had come being mathematical, was interpreted by St. Augus- Cathedral arouses in the observer a keen awareness
to Europe via the Arabs. Technical skills were tine to give theological meaning to simple numerical of geometric design.
perfected in the course of the vast amount of relationships; for example, the numeral “3” repre-
religious building at this time: between 1150 and sented the Trinity and, thus, God. Augustine’s nume-
1280 about 80 cathedrals were built or rebuilt in rology had strong influence on building; St. Bernard Renaissance
France. Arab influence and their transmission of of Clairvaux suggested its use to determine the
Greek mathematics came about In two ways: the proportions of Cistercian churches. Although anticipated earlier, especially by the work
crusades, and the recapture of Spain by Europeans of Petrach, Dante, and Giotto, the full blossoming of
in the 12th century. Is it coincidence that new Gothic the Renaissance began in the 15th century. The
architecture was taking hold in France at the same Moreover Platonic thought encouraged interest in movement began on a scholarly level but was linked
time that the Latin translation of Euclid arrived Euclidean geometry. Chartres became a centre of with technological, ecclesiastical and economic
there? study of Euclid and was for a time the most impor- changes. Growing wealth in the northern cities of
tant school of mathematics in the West. Master Italy (Florence, Genoa, Pisa, Milan, etc.) gave power-
craftsmen and architects of the region realized the ful stimulus for the development of fine art and
The technical achievements of the Gothic period practical value of geometry in their work and were engineering. This was coupled with a concern to
were, in brief: I. Differentiating between bearing often enrolled in cathedral schools (FIgun 10). seek unity with the whole classical world of Greece
columns and non-bearing walls; 2. utilizing the “Such were the architects of the cathedrals - and Rome. Humanism, the study of classical culture,
pointed arch; 3. use of vault-supporting ribs; 4. literate men who knew Latin and who were quite shifted man’s interest from religion to himself. Hu-
development of flying buttresses; 5. large use of capable of keeping dn touch with academic geome- manism, like its Greek predecessor, sought to find
glass and window tracery. The 13th century mason try” (Pacey 1976, ~77). the order of the universe.
did not solve his structural problems by analysis as a
modern engineer would, but by insightful trial-and-
error, aided by experience and geometric rules of We learn much about Gothic art and geometry from Renaissance architecture exhibits the renunciation
design. The design depended more on getting the the sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt, a wan- of Gothic style and the revival of the classic style.

17 Figure 9. Figure 10. Figure 11.

Leone Battista Albert1 “Trattato delta pittura” (1443), Alberti presented the
This reaction of one period to its predecessor is a
first coherent theory of “pictorial science” - par+
common theme in architectural history and from the
Renaissance on occurs at more frequent intervals. Leone Battista Albert (1424-1472) was an example of pective. Although his “costruzione legittima” techni-
the Renaissance “artist engineer” who contributed que was cumbersome (based on a double projec-
The Renaissance rejected the “incommensurability,
greatly to the theory of perspective. Alberti came tion), he succeeded in presenting a geometrical
infinitudes, and dispension of Gothic spaces” (Zevi
1957, ~112) and sought a unifying order, a discipline. from a patrician Florentine family and, as unlike his scheme for depicting objects in a unified space. He
cathedral-building predecessors, he was weaned on defined a painting as the intersection by a plane with
Furthermore, what separates the Renaissance from
scholarship rather than craftsmanship. “...Despising the “visual pyramid”: the artist’s eye is at the vertex
the middle ages is the consideration -of man as
everything but books, (he) gave himself up entirely to and the object is at the base. The intersecting plane
creator - man at the centre of the universe (Figun
the improvement of his mind, and made so great a is the artists’ tableau.
11). In Gothic construction, a cathedral sometimes
took two centuries to build; in the Renaissance one progress in the sciences, that he outstript all the
man is the designer. In Gothic architecture we know great men of that age who were most famous for
the name of the building; in Renaissance construc- their learning.” (Alberti 1955, pxii). Alberti’s architecture shows how he put his theory to
tion we recognize the work of known architects. work. His search for order and his knowledge of
Roman architecture resulted in very classic architec-
Alberti’s “Ten Books on Architecture” (printed in ture, such as the Palauo Rucellai (1446) in Florence
1485) showed the range of the architect’s skill. They shows (Flgure 12). It was an instance of what Bruno
Thus it was an architect-engineer, Filippo Brunel- include discussions of city planning, sewers, brid- Zevi calls “man’s intellectual control over architectu-
leschi (1377-j 446) who was associated with the start ges, shipbuilding, hoists, and water supply. With ral space.” (Zevi 1957, pl14)
of Renaissance architecture. His practical skill is respect to mechanics and surveying, he writes: “My
demonstrated through his many technical inven- design is to speak of these things not like a mathe-
tions. For example, he devised special techniques matician, but like a workman (Vl,7).” This is consis-
for constructing the dome of the Florence cathedral. tent with the practice of the masons of the Gothic era __.
He studied Roman ruins and incorporated Roman who also used empirical knowledge of structure in The laws seen to govern space in the Renaissance
construction techniques in his building. His search construction. Again, not unlike the Gothic craftsman, arose from the theory of perspective. Perspective
for order led him to the design of the first Renais- it is in his treatment of architectural proportion that objectively fixed the three-dimensional building,
sance buildings: The Foundling Hospital (1419) and he is very concerned with mathematics. putting the observer in command. It was consistent
the Church of San Lorenzo (1420) in Florence. It is Mathematics unlocks the secrets of nature. “The with the Humanist philosophy of individualism and
noteworthy that Brunelleschi should also be the Ancients knowing from the Nature of things... did in immanence. Leonardo da Vinci wrote that: “Pers-
discoverer of theoretical geometry behind central their works propose to themselves chiefly the Imita- pective which shows how linear rays differ according
perspective. The development of proJoctive @mm+ tion of Nature, as the greatest Artist of all Manner of to demonstrable conditions, should therefore be
try (modern terminology for perspective) was an Compositions; and for this purpose they laboured, placed first among all the sciences and disciplines of
event that was of both geometric and architectural as far as the Industry of Man could reach, to discover man, for it crowns not mathematics so much as the
importance. the laws upon which she herself acted in the Produc- natural sciences” (quoted in Reti 1974, p295).
tion of her Works, in order to transfer them to the
Business of Architecture” (1X,5).

The development of perspective is an instance of Echoing (or fashioning) Renaissance neo-Platonism,

technical skill leading to intellectual achievement. In Aiberti advised the study of symmetry and the
the 14th century, painters, especially around the PO proportions of the human figure in order to find
Valley, and not geometers, greatly advanced the skill proper ratios for architecture. It should be noted,
of drawing. The work of Altichiero and Avango in the however, that in addition to the Greek concept of
Oratory of S. Giorgio show how refined their pers- mathematical beauty, the Renaissance architect
pectives were. Yet it remained for Brunelleschi, added the Roman interest in engineering. Whereas
working within the renewed interest in classic texts to Plato matter was a debasement of the original
on optics and catoptrics, to discover the theory and mathematical idea of the world, and art was the
construction techniques of central projection. In the “image of an image of an image”, to the Humanist
15th century many of the painters were good geome- matter was a reflection of natural law and a constant
ters. Vasari in his “Lives of the Painters” stresses the source of study. If geometry ruled the Greeks,
involvement of many quattrocento artists with solid Nature ruled the Renaissance-man. Perspective was
geometry. the geometric construct to represent nature. In his Figure 12. 18
It is not surprising then that both artists and geome- Alberti as exemplary Renaissance designers. We shapes of the classicists, and now is used to desi-
ters contributed to the development Of perspective. now turn to Vignola, a Mannerist architect. gnate the works of art of that century.
Between 1450-I 550 it seemed that artists - Durer,
Pelerin, Piero della Francesca - did most of the
work, while between 1550-1600 the focus shifted to Giacomo de Vignola (1507-1573) was an architect We turn to Francesco Borromini (1599-1667) not
geometry, as evidenced by the treatises of Comman- who studied perspective. He taught both the “cons- because he was involved in theoretical geometry but
dino, Danti, Ubaldi. truzioni legittima” and the “distance-point” method because his work demonstrated how geometry de-
(originally discovered by Pelerin) and showed that termined the architecture of the Italian Baroque.
both techniques yielded identical results. He was Borromini began as a craftsman. He was a simple
Post-Renaissance noteworthy as a theorist and his “Regola delle stonemason at St. Peter’s and later apprenticed
Cinque Ordini d’Architettura” was considered autho- himself to Carlo Maderna, whom he always called his
After the Renaissance different architectural styles ritative. Vignola’s Casteilo Farnese (completed 1564) master. He combined the practical experience of
developed, each challenging its predecessor, each was a much copied example of Mannerism, a style working in architectural trades with the theory he
commanding for a period, then yielding to the so called because it aimed to display a “mannered” gained from much reading and with the artistic talent
challenge of the next style. So Renaissance gave way look. Vignola also contributed to St. Peters. Howe- he developed through constant sketching to train
to Mannerism, Mannerism gave way to Baroque, ver, his most important work was the G&u in Rome himself as an architect. His first important work, the
Baroque to Rococo, Rococo to Neo-classicism. Neo- (begun 1568) (Flgurv 13), the building that most church of S. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (begun
classicism to Eclecticism, Eclecticism to the Modern completely marks the transition from Mannerism to 1633), shows his talent at spatial composition (FI-
movement and the Modern movement to “post Baroque. The G&u influenced many of the Roman gure 14). The oval theme, which he uses to commu-
modernism” if we can so label presently-expressed Catholic churches of the Baroque period. “That nicate a feeling of movement in space, is a form
longings for Baroque vitality. Vignola, one of the designers of St. Peter’s and the often used in Baroque architecture. (We wonder, in
architect of the G&u in Rome, should have been one passing, if Kepler’s development of his elliptical
of the great masters of theoretical perspective theory of planetery motion at the beginning of the
It would be too tedious to go through all these styles throws much light upon the spatial origins and 17th century had any bearing on the use of ovals in
and trace their relationship to geometry. Instead we character of the Baroque” (Ivins 1964). design.) We suggest the reader thumb through
isolate a few people who were active in both archi- Portoghesi’s book on Borromini to see his use of
tecture and geometry and use them to exhibit the geometry in design and to get a visual understan-
links between these disciplines. ding of the Italian Baroque (Portoghesi 1967).
As Summerson points out “there is no such category
as “pure Baroque” - just because there is a word, it
It was in the Renaissance - Mannerist - Baroque does not mean there is a pure essence to match it” A disciple of Borromini working mostly in Turin,
period that art and mathematics were still closely (Summerson 1971, ~30). “Baroque” originally signi- Guarino Guarini (1624-1683), brought extreme plas-
linked, so our examples are concentrated in early fied the odd, extravagant shapes that 17th century ticity and use of ovals to his work. Guarini was an
post-Renaissance. We have seen Brunelleschi and Italian architects built as distinct from the symmetric architect, dramatist, Theatrine monk, philosopher

19 Figure 1 Figure 14. Figure 15.

and mathematician. His churches, S. Lorenro at It is ironic that at the same time that Baroque due to Monge’s influence that geometry began to
Turin (1666) for example, show an imaginative architecture was displaying a richness of geometric flourish at the school. What is fundamental to our
interplay of convex and concave parts (FIgun la). shapes and that Desargues, Christopher Wren and survey is to point out that when engineering and
“It is not easy to understand them solely with the others were working in both fields, the philosophical architecture went their separate ways, geometric
help of one’s eyes and Guarini was probably no less and practical emphasis on pure science was plan- research followed engineering and not architec-
interested in them as a mathematician than as an ting the seeds of separation between engineering ture. This ‘research led to the development of a
artist.” (Pevsner . 1972, ~262) and architecture. For up to this point, as we have geometric method of analyzing structures, called
seen, these two fields were highly interconnected. It graphic ttatlcr, by Culmann, Cremona and Mohr in
was the Baroque architect Fontana who was respon- Europe and by Rankine and Maxwell in England.
One architect who had more influence on the mathe- sible for the most amazing technical feat of the 16th Culmann’s pupil Wilhelm Ritter published his tea-
matical world than on the architectural world was century: the removal of the Egyptian obelisk from cher’s classic four volume work on static graphics
Gerard Desargues (1591-1661). He was a self-taught Circus Maximus and its transport and erection in (1888.1906), which had the effect of eliminating the
geometer who wanted to put into compact form a front of St. Peter’s. (Sandstrom 1970, P190). But the lengthy calculations of the older analytic approach.
large number of disparate geometric theorems so 17th century brought the Descartian - Newtonian
that they would be available to artists, engineers and emphasis on empirical rationalism, leading enginee-
stone cutters. His coining of terms “stump”, “knot” ring towards a more theoretical approach and cau- Parallel to the theoretical development in the 19th
and the like in his scientific writing was presumably sing engineering to be considered as distinct from century were great advances in the use of materials.
intended to attract an audience of scientific laymen, architecture. Their separation is evidenced by the The research work done especially in bridge cons-
but may have instead had the effect of offending educational academies instituted by Colbert in truction, resulted in the use of cast-iron, then
mathematicians. Whatever the reason his work was France. In 1663, he established the Academy of wrought-iron and finally, by the 1850’s of steel In
lost until the 19th century when Chasle accidently Sciences, in 1671, the Academy of Architecture and construction. The monuments of the 19th century
found in a bookshop a manuscript copy made by La in 1675, the Corps de Genie for military engineers. are primarily engineering works and not traditional
Hire. The training of architectural students was the res- architectural construction. The Crystal Palace, built
ponsibility of a single professor, Francois Blondel, outside London for the 1851 International exhibition
an architect and a mathematician. He tried to com- by the gardener-engineer Sir Joseph Paxton, show-
Desargue’s mathematical contribution was the deve- bine two antithetical approaches: the science of ed the vast spanning possibilities of glass-iron
lopment of projective geometry as the study of proportions as used in antiquity based on Vitruvius construction. Built in 16 weeks and demountable,
qualitative or positional properties instead of metric and “mathematical science” the geometry of space the structure foreshadowed the advantages of mo-
ones. Besides “Desargues’ Theorem” on perspec- as applied to the structural sdidity of buildings. dern prefabricated, integrated building systems. Yet,
tive triangles, he did work on points at infinity, “Mathematical .science” was not yet sufficiently de- by conventional architectural standards it was an
involutions and polarities. What concerns us in veloped to provide an adequate base for architectu- aberration; a “glass monster” cried Pugin. Gustave
particular is that geometry was so fundamental to ral training and remained outside the realm of the Eiffel’s tower, 1000 feet high and constructed of
architecture that an architect could lay the ground- architect’s competence. The science of proportions, wrought-iron, was the 1889 International exhibit’s
work for non-metrical geometry. on the hand, was his domain, but it was a reactionary tribute to technology. John and Washington Roe-
system clinging to the traditional symbolism of the bling’s Brooklyn Bridge (1883) demonstrated the
contemporary social order (Pelpel 1978, ~8). intrinsic artistic beauty of the functional use of steel.

The establishment of the Ecole des Ponts & Chaus-

The Rift Between Engineering and sees in 1747 further consolidated the rupture bet-
Architecture ween architecture and engineering. Architecture Use of steel did have a positive influence on
retreated into revivalism and historicism, while theo- American architecture, in particular on the develop-
Desargues was active in Paris when that city was the retical advances were being made in structural ment of the steel-framed skyscraper in Chicago in
centre of mathematical research in an era so given to engineering. In 1776, Augustus Coulomb summari- the 1880’s and 1890’s. The creative force in Chicago
scientific enquiry and experimental research that we zed the static behaviour of building materials into a was Louis H. Sullivan, whose work shows the un-
call it the “Age of Reason”. At the centre of the centre coherent system thereby founding structural analy- derstanding of the new materials and the new
was the Franciscan P. Mersenne, about whom ga- sis. By the beginning of the 19th century, the Ecole technology. But Sullivan was a tragic figure his
thered scholars, mathematicians and artists. As an Polytechnique under Gaspard Monge was the centre creativity crushed by the regressive use of classical
active correspondent and intermediary he linked for the development of structural theory. Monge had architecture by lesser minds, as displayed by the
such men as Fermat, Descartes, Desargues, Pascal, developed descriptive theory as a branch of geome- Chicago Exhibition in 1893. The next generation of
Huygens, Roberval, Dubreuil and Niceron (Flocon try and his pupil Poncelet later continued the work of American architecture clung to the classicism of the
1963, ~57). Desargues and founded projective geometry. It was Exhibition, and Sullivan was ignored. 20
By the 1890’s the building material which was to The Modern architectural. movement called for no- inveigh against the cold, severe style of functiona-
have the most far-reaching affects in 20th century thing less than a revolution in geometric design. The lism, even praising the once damned “weddlng-
architecture came into popularity: reinforced con- honesty it demanded was that spatial form and not cake” decoration of Victorian design. For the two-
Crete. But as yet its vast potential in compression, applied ornamentation be the expression of design. dimensional patterns of ornamentation presents a
tension, elasticity and plasticity remained unharnes- We see in the works of its masters a successful more exciting geometry than do the monolithic slabs
sed. Eliel Saarinen who would later exploit its cha- accomplishment of this task. Frank Lloyd Wright, In which dominate our cities. Nor we do need critics to
racteristics criticized architecture at that time. “Cer- his earlier work, building with the “natural” materials tell us what our eyes plainly see: the monotony of
tainly in those days architecture did not inspire one’s of wood and stone, freed residential building from Its high-rise design. Our criticism is not merely stylistic
fancy. Architecture was a dead art form and it had cubic confinement. His use of irregular plans, his - it cuts right into the heart of functionalism. Did not
gradually become the mere crowing of obsolete and interpretation of interior and exterior space, his the Modern Movement preach that the design
meaningless stylistic decoration on the building organic use of materials reveals a mind of extraor- should express the function of the building? Yet who
surface. And so long had this state of things already dinary spatial imagination. Le Corbusler believed today can differentiate between high-rise apart-
lasted that a break would have been considered that simple geometric forms produced “primary ments, public buildings, off ice towersand other
almost as much of a sacrilege as the breaking of the sensations” in human beings. His understanding of structures?
most essential principles of religion. So was archi- reinforced concrete allowed him to create buildings
tecture understood.“(Saarinen 1948, pXI). which are at once both controlled and lyrical (Figun
16). Mies Van Der Rohe, whose aphorism “less Is Conclusion
more” became the slogan of the International Style
Architecture summed up a basic contradiction of the (as Modern architecture came to be known), desi- We believe that we are now in a position to realize
19th century: the pursuit of technological progress gned buildings with a geometric simplicity and the dreams of the Modern Movement. Whereas
as opposed to the retreat to the icons of the attention to detail reminiscent of the Dorlc temple. formerly masonry provided the standard building
past (Huxtable 1960). Machine-produced objects module and ornamentation was determined by those
were overlayed with styling imitative of the work of a dimensions, we now have the capacity to construct
craftsman. In building, the steel-skeleton was hidden Le Corbusier, Mies Van Der Rohe and Walter Gro- space-enclosing polyhedra as the basic module.
behind an excess of Victorian ornamentation. The pius were the major forces behind the International Polyhedra will at once determine the structure and
divorce between architecture and engineering had Style. Yet this movement has ultimately ended in ornamentation of the design. The unity of form and
ultimately caused the divorce between structure and failure. Modern architecture failed to continue the 3- structure through the use of reinforced concrete has
appearance. Geometry was not eliminated from dimensional searching of its pioneers. Instead It already been demonstrated by engineers such as
architecture, but it was relegated to 2-dimensional copied their work with minor variations until our Candella, Morandi and Nervi (Figure 17). In housing
stylization and was dislodged from its natural posl- cities became saturated with skyscrapers which are projects, formalists like Zvi Hecker and functionalists
tion as a determinant of spatial design. essentially 2-dimensional conceptions. As happened like Moishe Safdie have demonstrated the rich
when the Renaissance evolved into Baroque archl- geometric potential of modular design. We believe
tecture, critics now demand more visual complexity that architecture must follow the exploratory work of
Modern Movement in design than the International Style provided. They such men.

The Modern Movement was a reaction against the

excessive ornamentation of Eclecticism. Seeing that
it represents a plurality of activity that is too vast to
analyze !lere, we refer the reader to Jencks’ “Modern
Movement in Architecture” for such analysis. If there
f was one. unifying theme to Modern architecture It
was in the striving for “functionalism”. It attempted to
make. use of Modern materials - concrete, steel and
glass - to create an architecture that clearly expres-
sed the function of ,the b,uilding. Pevsner compares
the creativity of . the pioneers of the Modern Move-
ment to the creators of Renaissance architecture,
who reacted against the highly ornate design of High
Gothic. He even prefers the creative spirit of the
moderns who forged their own style while the
Humanist fell back on the language of classic archi-
21 tecture (Pevsner 1972, p 424 ,) Figure 16. Figure 17.
We are also aware of the limitation of natural List of Illustrations
resources with its subsequent demand for economy
in design. Industrialization, which has been so suc- For a general history of western architecture we Figure 1. Baths of the harem, Alham bra, Granada, 13th -
cessfully harnessed in the automotive and aerodyna- suggest the reader see Pevsner’s An Outline of 14th centuries.
mic industries, provides a powerful tool for archltec- European Architecture. The articles on different
Figure 2. Masjid i Jami, Isfahan. Braided Kufic inscription, circa
ture to reduce costs and to design with spatial periods and personalities in the Encyclopedia of 1310.
modules. Modularization, mass production and pre- World Art are thorough, as are the articles on
Figure 3. The pyramids at Gizeh, 3rd millenium B.C.E. Simple form
. fabrication all impose constraints on design, so the “Architecture” and on “Perspective”. Summerson’s suggests stability.
architect must be trained to understand them. Fur- The Clas8lcal Language of ArchItectwe Is an excel-
ther, the juxtaposition of modules and joining techni- lent account of classicism from the 15th to 19th Figure 4. Treasury of the Athenians, Delphi, 5th century B.C.E.
ques will demand 3-dimensional insight In the minds centuries. For a summary view of mathematics the Figure 5. Marble tholos at Delphi, 4th century B.C.E. An example of
of designers. Each of these features of architectural reader can consult Struik’s A Con&e Hbtory of Greek elegance.
design will make exacting demands on geometry, Mathematics or Coolidge’s A Hbtory of Geometrical
Figure 6. Interior of the Pantheon, Rome, 2nd century. Roman
and on the successful development of collaboration Methods. Sandstrom’s Man the Builder Is an easily- vaulting techniques allowed them to span great inner spaces.
between geometry and architecture. read history of building techniques. The Maze of
Flgure 7. The Pont-du-Gard, Nimes, 1st century. The arch was the
lngenulty by Arnold Pacey has good chapters on dominant theme in Roman engineering.
Gothic construction and Renaissance mathematics
In our historical survey we have seen different and art. Albert Flocon’s La Perqwctlve traces the Figure 8. St. Sophia, Constantinople, 6th century. Basilia and
domed square were typical of Byzantine design.
examples of architectural styles. Usually they have evolution of perspective geometry. Finally, an intri-
been churches, villas, monumental architecture - guing enquiry into spatial conceptions is presented Figure 9. Rhiems Cathedral, 12th century. The culmination of
but never buildings that affected the day-to-day lives by William lvins in Art and Geometry. Here for once French Gothic.
of ordinary people. Today architecture presents a far is an author who criticizes Greek art and mathema- Figure 10. Medieval mason’s working drawing. The craftsmen had
more public face. Masses of people are dependent tics. great skill in geometry.
upon it to create the environment in which they live
Figure 11. Vitruvian Man, by Leonardo da Vinci. Man at the centre
and in which they work. Inasmuch as man’s envlron- of the universe.
ment has a determining influence on his physical
Figure 12. Palazzo Rucellai, Florence, 1446, Alberti. Pursuing
and emotional state, architecture must now respond geometrical order in architecture.
to deep social responsibilities. We believe that the
need of sensual stimulation is so intrinsic to man that Flgule 13. Church of the Gesu, Rome, begun 1568, Vignola. The
building that foreshadowed the Baroque.
a varied 3-dimensional built environment is a neces-
sity. In short, formalism in design takes on functional Figure 14, San Carlo alle quatro fontane, Rome, begun 1638,
significance. Through the imaginative use of spatial Borromini. Undulating facade as example of Baroque vitality.

design, form and structure.can be united. Figure 15. San Lorenzo, Turin, begun 1668, Guarini. The dome
shows geometrical sophistication.

Figure 16. Unite d’habitation, Marseilles, begun 1947, Le Corbusier.

This roof detail shows his sculptural use of concrete.

Figure 17. Exhibition Halls, Turin, 1949, Nervi. This roof detail
shows structure as ornament.

Figure 18. The Dubliner Apartment House, Ramat Gan, begun 1960,
Neumann Hecker & Sharon. An example of polyhedric architecture.

Figure 19. Habitat 67, Montreal, Safdie. 1967, Safdie. The module
here is cubic.

The architectural sketches for this article were drawn by

Katla Montlllet.

They are visual impressions of photographs obtained from various

sources, including World Architecture by H.R. Hitchcock, et al,
McGraw-Hill Book Co. Ltd. (1963), A.U. Pope’s Persian Archltec-
ture, George Braz iller Inc. (1965), and D. Sharp’s A Visual History
of Twentieth Century Architecture, New York Graphic Society Ltd.
Figure 18 Figure 19. (I 972).
The middle letter(s) indicates whether the piece was intended The key words or other annotations in the third column are
Bibliography primarily for an audience of intended
to show the relevance
of the work to research
and do not necessarily reflect its overall

M athematicians, contents, or the intent of the author.

A rchitects, or
The code in the first block of each bibliographic item consists of E ngineers.
three parts, separated by dashes. The first letter indicates
whether the item is a The final ietter(s) indicates if the piece touches on one or more
of the principal themes of our work:
A rticle P olyhedra,
P reprint, or J uxtaposition’ or
C ourse notes. R igidity.

Albert1 1955 Ten Books on Architecture. Classic treatise dealing with all aspects of Renaissance archi-
tecture and engineering.
Leone Battista Al berti
Edited by Joseph Rytavert. Alec Tiranti Ltd., London, 1956.
Brunes, 1967 The Secrets of Ancient Geometry.

Tons Brunes
Rhodes, Copenhagen, 1967.

Coolldge 1963 A History of Geometrlcal Methods.

Julian Lowell Coolidge

Dover Publications Inc., New York, 1963.

Emmerlch 1970 Constructive Geometry.

David Georges Emmerich

University of Washington , Seattle, USA, 1970.

Flocon 1963 La Perspective.

Albert Flocon
Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 1963.

Hardy 1967 A Mathematician’s Apology.

G.H. Hardy
Cambridge University Press, London, 1967.
---v- e..-.
Hltchcock 1963 World Architecture. Comprehensive and illustrated history of architecture.

H.d. Hitchcock, S. Lloyd, D.T. Rice, N. Lynton

A. Boyd, A. Carden, P. Rawson, J. Jacobus
McGraw-Hill, London, 1963.
Huxtable 1960 Pier Lulgi Nervi Good summary of split between architecture and engineering in
19th and 20th centuries. Analysis and photo of Nervi’s work.
Ada Louise Huxtable
George Braziller Inc., New York, 1960.
1 I I 1
I I 1

lvins 1964 Art and Geometry. Good criticism of Greek art. Relationships between geometric
and artistic concepts. I

I William N. lvins Jr.

Dover Publications Inc., New York, 1964.

May 1967

Kenneth 0. May
Mathematics and Art. Links between mathematics and art. Historical examples.
The Mathematics Teacher, October 1967, Vol. 60.
Pacey 1976 The Maze of Ingenuity. Idealism in development of technology. Good section on cathe-
drals and on 16th century art and math.
Arnold Pacey
M.I.T. Press, Cambridge, 1976.

Pelpell978 La Formation Architecturale au XVIII&me Sl&cle en France.

Les Cahiers de la recherche architecturale, No.2, Mars, 1978.

Pevsner 1972 An Outline of European Architecture. European architecture an expression of western civilization
Penguin Books, Scotland, 1972.
I I 1 1
1 I 1
Portoghesl1967 The Rome of Borrominl. Borromini as Baroque architect. Excellent illustrations.

Paolo Portog hesi

George Braziller Inc., New York, 1967.

Reti 1974 The Unknown Leonardi. Leonardi as the Renaissance man.

Ladislav Reti, editor

McGraw-Hill Book Co., Switzerland, 1974.

Saarlnen 1948 Search for Form.

Eliel Saarinen
Rheinhold Publishing Corporation, New York, 1948.

SandstrOm 1970 Man the Builder.

Gosta E. Sandstrom
McGraw-Hill, Stockholm, 1970.

I Strulk 1967

Dirk J. Struik
A Con&e HIstoryof

Dover Publications, New York, 1967.

B-M- *
\ I
Summerwn 1971 The Clraalcal Language of Lirchltecture. Essentials of Classicism. The orders, historical analysis, illustra-
John Summerson
M.I.T. Press, Cambridge, 1971.

vitrUVlU8 1960 The Ten Book8 on Archltecture. Major source of information on classic architecture.

Dover Publications, New York, 1960.
B-AE- a

1 1’
Weyll952 Symmetry. ‘Symmetry, applications in art and nature.

Hermann Weyl
Princeton University Press, Princeton, USA, 1952.
Zevll957 Architecture In Space.

Bruno Zevi
Horizon Press, New York, 1957.
\ II I
1 I
Encyclopedlr 1959 Encyciopedla of World Art. See articles on different periods of-architecture, on “architec-
ture” and on “perspective”.

McGraw-Hili;Toronto, cl 959-l 968.