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On the Path to a General Proportion Theory:

Research Perspectives for the 21st Century.

Dr. Joachim Langhein, Heidelberg (Germany)

In my lecture "On the Path to a General Theory of Proportion: Research

Perspectives for the 21st Century," which I gave at the SFIA conference,
"Ecological Architecture, The Unstoppable Wave", at Berkeley on July 4-7, 2002, I
proposed strategic guidelines required for the establishment of a general theory of
proportion. I am an economist and ecologist and hold a Ph.D. in geography. The
lecture identified environmental aesthetics as a basic resource that is required for
the ecological survival of our global civilization. Research in proportion should be
established as a decisive means for gaining objective and operational tools for
preserving and re-establishing this "basis resource", i.e. the aesthetics in man's
The paper focused on the fact that the aesthetic qualities or beauty found in
objects depends primarily on the balance between order and diversity and on a
number of figurative levels and the patterns mediating between them. This
"mediation by patterns" creates a unified or balanced perceptual effect for each
figurative level of aesthetic shapes. Referring to proportion, the overall patterns
are that of geometry, (primarily Euclidian and non-Euclidian geometry). Today
there is also no doubt that fractal geometry is a proportion generating pattern.
Since proportion refers to extensional ratios, it is bound to systems of geometrical
or mathematical ratios. Patterns of symmetry and topology are, in principle, also
patterns of visual math, but they differ from proportion because their patterns are
related either to invariants in transformation and regularity (i.e. the 247
symmetry groups) or invariants of positions and networks (topology, i.e. knots).
Architectural aesthetics depends also on additional criteria like unity and diversity
in other visual math criteria: texture, colour, rhythm, light & shadow, groupings,
etc. The fulfilling of these additional criteria will often be worthless if the
underlining proportions (geometric modules) have no balance - as is the case in
the majority of modern buildings. In a book to be published in 2004 I will discuss
proportion principles - based on elementary practical geometry - in context with
many other principles discussed already by the classical Gestalt Psychology. All
these traits can be objectified and can easily be handled. The buildings of the past,
in addition to their balanced figurative or geometric qualities, also showed unified
schemes of micro-fractality in material texture, colour, and in the play of light and
shade. Rhythm and substructures were harmoniously balanced by proportional
order, and the sequences of Gestalt laws were masterfully respected. Proportional
geometry was based on practical geometry. Master carpenters may have played
within these easy rules of geometry.
Perfect proportional beauty can be based on the simple geometric figures or
regular polygons or solids. They comply simultaneously with the mathematical
visual patterns of geometry, symmetry, and topology: examples include the
regular triangle, square, and pentagon or their polytopes and duplications

(hexagons, octagons, decagons etc.) and the regular polyhedra (Platonic and
Archimedean solids). The beauty of shapes with simultaneously perfect
geometrical, symmetrical, and topological patterns (i.e. knot patterns) is present
in the classic Islamic architectural ornamentation (Arabesques); many of these
decorations embody all 17 plane symmetry groups (H. GTZE 1991, MONTESINOS
AMIBILIA 1987). The overlapping of these three forms of visual patterns,
geometrical, symmetrical, and topological, may explain why simple polygonal
geometry has such a strong aesthetic appeal. The three core polygons, (the
equilateral triangle, square, and pentagon), were powerful design tools in preindustrial architecture. The equilateral triangle, square, and pentagon can be used
to develop approximately 300 proportion codes which are present in world
architecture. Pre-industrial designers were able to derive these polygons using the
basic geometric constructions of practical geometry, i.e. fig. 2 (as shown in
RORICZER's Geometria deutsch 1486 and DRER's Underweysung 1525, whereby
the pentagon is approximately constructed).
In order to create the diversity that is inherent in beauty, designers must create a
mental environment that fosters the free flow of intuition and creativity. A
proportional theory would facilitate this freedom by creating a base of simple rules
and limits. This blending of intuition and the rules derived from proportion was
characteristic in the buildings of the past. Pre-industrial designers understood the
"the old way of seeing" (J. HALE 1994), the principles underlying harmonious
design, and that "intuition is not [merely] raw feeling."
"The old buildings smiled, while our new buildings are faceless. The old buildings
sang, while the buildings of our age have no music in them". . ."the principles that
underlie harmonious design are found everywhere and in every time before our
own; they are the historic norm." (ibid.).
The primary focus of this paper is on the way that this overall balance between
order and diversity can be achieved. The predominance of order or diversity can be
counterbalanced by four proportion-related functions and sub-functions,
particularly in architecture. The gestalt pragnanz (beauty) of the shapes of preindustrial art, architecture, artefacts, and landscapes depended on the balance of
order and diversity. As mentioned, proportion represents the extensional part of
the unifying principles (in 2D, 3D, 4D, XD), and may inhere some danger of
overstressing the part of order within the figurative balance of order and diversity.
An efficient means to counterbalance order is rhythm, the micro-fractality of
texture, colours, light and shadow, and the fractally structured environs (cultural
landscapes, gardens). Extreme order leads to monotony and depression, whereas
extreme diversity without a unifying structure creates disorder, confusion, and
chaos. The Human mind rejects such unstructured diversity and the result may be
disgust and dereliction. Ancient music, architecture, and landscapes generally
achieved this overall balance between order and diversity. Yet, modern
architecture and environs do not. Like Baroque and classical music, old artefacts
are rich in variety, but also possess a strong, logical order that makes them
comprehensible and legible. The result of this balance is the elevating feeling that
only beauty can impart.
There are four main functions of proportion in relation to perception: (1)
information reduction, (2) unity between the whole and its parts in regard to
structural compatibility between the whole and the diversity of parts, (3)

characteristics of grace and elegance (in high and traditional architecture), and
(4) an ensemble or complementary relationships between architectural objects
and the natural environment, e.g. regularity and irregularity. The sub-functions of
proportion reinforce the order-diversity balance in very complex ways. Rhythm
introduces directly stimulating counterbalances to proportional order. Further
examples include the micro-fractal patterns of texture, colour and patina, light and
shadow play, ornaments, symbolism, and the Gestalt laws, (which have much in
common with symmetric and topological patterns).
The patterns of proportion, as the hidden extensional orders of shape, vary in
practice when applied to 2D, 3D and 4D objects. (The human eye level also creates
variations). Although architecture is a 3D art, 2D and perspective effects have a
strong bearing on the aesthetic effect of its gestalt pragnanz. As a whole, the 3D
art of architecture is primarily subjected to the most simple Euclidean geometry,
the geometry or proportion systems of regular polygons of 3 (equilateral triangle),
4 (square), and 5 (pentagon, Golden Section). Although the shape algorithms
constitute only a small part of mathematics, approximately 300 proportion codes
can be developed from them, particularly by the help of grid and circle networks.
Pre-industrial architects applied the basic limits of simple Euclidean geometry on
exterior (faades, roofs) and interior surfaces. In interior spaces there was an
expanded, but fitting, range of patterns. These included geometric patterns and
the overlapping of different affine proportion (particularly fractal), symmetry and
topology patterns. These patterns are embodied in the exterior faade and interior
structures, ornaments, textures etc. Gothic cathedrals may have reached the
highest form of mastery: this master work can be found in stonecutting, tracery,
glass and rose windows, paintings etc. The author has conducted substantial
research on the use of proportion in worldwide vernacular and/or traditional
architecture and has established a literature database devoted to proportion
mentioned beyond.
I have continued to prepare a bibliographic database for 20 years, which now
[A.D. 2007] has some 54,000 records of specialized and qualified literature on
proportion and geometry in architecture, art, and other fields, regardless of their
civilization, language, period and source of origin. Keyword lists are in English and
After many years, I have recently restarted my research work on the proportional
analyses of traditional architecture extant in many European countries, New
England, and Japan, with the assistance of CAD software. This software quickly
uncovers the inaccuracies of elevation drawings published in the literature of
traditional architecture. I own several thousand books with such drawings, and
many others are available in the Heidelberg libraries, to be used as source
material for proportion analyses; it is often possible to conduct several analyses of
the same building.
A few US architectural journals which I contacted in autumn are also interested in
publishing my Berkeley paper. I will publish several articles on the different
aspects of aesthetics and proportion, demonstrating these properties with
analyses prepared within CAD software and perhaps some hand-drawn proportion
analyses soon. An essay will appear in essay volume edited by the Institute of
Traditional Architecture (ITA), London, founded by HRH The Prince of Wales.