Tag Archives: is it that important what something looks like?

It’s Just Design

A colleague tells a story of how she once asked a student why they made a certain design decision and the student replied “I don’t know. It’s just design.” It’s difficult to comprehend this as I’ve always thought of design as something requiring no small amount of knowledge and skill together with an understanding of the problem and a curiosity regarding possibly unconventional ways of solving it. This student felt neither such pressure nor challenge. Design was just some inconsequential flourish added at the end. Or so I think. Or think they thought. I really don’t know.

And yet, I do understand that not every design decision has to be justifiable. Some can be appreciated for what they are without attempting to step inside the head of the designer. Sometimes you don’t even think to wonder why. Many of Tōgō Murano’s design decisions are exactly this and I’m happy to just appreciate them for what they are. Whatever the register, I trust his judgment. [c.f. Architecture Misfit #21: Tōgō Murano]

I thought of Japan and such enigmatic design again recently. Last September, a friend from Japan passed through Dubai and gave me a bottle of saké. I said I’d keep it for some cold winter’s night. In January, in anticipation of a cold winter night that never came, I went to my local DAISO and bought a tokkuri and matching choko – three, because in Japan a set of something is always three or five, never four. I thought their design slightly weird in a way Japanese design often is, but up to the task. Anyway, by mid-April here it was already 35°, lockdown and high time to crack open the saké.

[The tokkuri is filled and then placed in a saucepan of boiling water for up to five minutes. You always fill the cup of your drinking companion if you have one. If you’re using the more ceremonial shallow saké cups, you’re supposed to finish it in exactly three and a half sips.]

But what’s going on with that design?! The fish is the famous fugu, the blowfish that chefs need a license to prepare. I don’t know what it’s doing on a tokkuri but fugu is like sushi in that it’s one of those foods Japanese eat to celebrate special occasions and events so I guess there’s a connection. But it wasn’t the toxic fish but the three dots that disturbed me. They seemed like an example of “just design” – some incomprehensible throwaway flourish that, though weird and resistant to justification, can’t be said to be right or wrong. All I knew was that someone had designed it that way and I either had to accept it, reject it or just appreciate it for what it is and not overthink it.

I overthought it. The three dots are the same shape as the white background to the fish – a use of Shape to UNITE – and that connection caused me to think of the three dots as bubbles and not the domino-like arrangement I’d previously seen. Once that idea of bubbles forced a conceptual unity between dots and fish, I couldn’t unthink it. A tangible unity reinforced by a conceptual association is a strong combination. [c.f. Aesthetic Effect #5: COMBINE] Never again will I see those three dots as just dots or the design as just design because I now have a way of understanding it and any mystery or magic is gone. It’s the price one pays. But if it were possible to understand the mechanisms of beauty, would we want to? Me, I think we must, and we should also try to apply this knowledge to the business of getting buildings designed!

• • •

This site for this semester’s design project was in an interesting but slightly disconnected part of town, primarily residential, and with 24-hour supermarkets and many good and inexpensive restaurants.

At the south corner of Satwa Roundabout is a car park shaped approximately like a quarter circle of 60m radius. Triangular sites always force fundamental decisions regarding vehicle access ramps and the direction of the grid. Students don’t like them.

The straight sides face four-storey buildings across streets, with the one on the south being a shaded pedestrian street. These two sides will have views of the Dubai skyline from floors four and above.

There’s a direct bus route to the airport and less than 2km away to the east is Dubai’s main road and Metro, to the west is the beach and museum, to the south is the old area of Satwa and to the north are the old areas of Bur Dubai and The Creek. In short, it was a perfect location for a three-star hotel, or rather, another three-star hotel because on the eastern corner of the roundabout is Chelsea Plaza Hotel. I don’t know when it was built but it’s probably not as old as it looks.

That’s the eastern half of our site in the photo on the right below, taken, the internet tells me, from Room 405 of Chelsea Plaza Hotel.

So then, how to begin? What to do? What does a three-star hotel with about 250 rooms and a maximum parapet height of 39 metres on this site in this part of Dubai want to be? For some students this is the most fun and interesting part but for others the most frightening – The Difficult Whole. Some will freeze, thinking I want them to come up with some BIG- or Hadid-esque concept of shape for, in many student minds, curves are still powerful symbols of creativity. In order to discourage all but those with the confidence and skills to pull it off, I usually include a requirement for an underground car park with an efficiency of more than 35 sq.m per car.

I used to be one of those students who treated every design project as an opportunity to show off. I recently had reason to request a copy of my undergraduate transcript and was shocked to see I received a B for my final project. On reflection, I probably would’ve been pleased for, at the time, we thought anything over 75% was brilliant and called a Distinction.

There were two approaches. One was a linear building along the long side of the site, perhaps following its curve, and the other was an L-shaped building along the other two sides. Former me would have avoided the obvious and I did for a while consider a building that curved along the site boundary for the lower floors but gradually changed into one curving the other way at the top in exaggerated response to the view.

It was possible to flex the building and give it a vaguely cobra-like shape while keeping vertical columns and a maximum south side cantilever of 3 metres but every corridor would have had varying degrees of curvature. Besides, I didn’t think the curvature would be that perceivable anyway. Actually, it wasn’t such a good idea. I was also put off by a similarity to structures Bjarke Ingels and Elizabeth Diller have each shamelessly invoked the name of Eladio Dieste to justify. For a three-star hotel project in an intermediate design course, something more aesthetically efficient was called for. I went for the L-shape but with the function room level and pool deck as a volume distinct from the body of the hotel.

If the lower volume is the same height and color as Chelsea Plaza Hotel then this upper level is where it is different. It’s a design feature with its asymmetry, colour and overhangs calling attention to itself as a place for some of the other things done in hotels, and its curve is a consequence, a ripple of the fountain and roundabout. At least that’s how I saw it. To someone else it might be just design. The missing three windows most definitely are – at least until you realize they guide your eye upwards.

The thing about The Difficult Whole is that it’s a problem invented to show how clever you are in solving it. A whole is whatever you want it to be. Circa 1850, Augustus Pugin rejected the idea of the whole at Alton Castle. The building has been called a precursor to Modernism with its different functional spaces given different expressions with no thought to an overriding unity.

Or is it? There’s a likelihood Pugin embraced function as an excuse to be picturesque. Victorian clients liked buildings to look older than they actually were and creating the appearance of having been haphazardly extended over the centuries was one way of achieving this. This rambling inconsistent whole may have been the effect he was striving for. It’s either all just design or none of it is.

Recently I mentioned this building from 18th-century Venice where nobody found anything difficult about putting a symmetrical facade beneath an asymmetrical roof. [c.f. What’s Already There]

The projects I set students I always do myself, working it through and sharing what I’ve learned when it’s appropriate. I can usually anticipate problems they might have but mostly I do it because I enjoy it. There’s always something. No matter how much you try to choose an approach that gets all the big things right, it’s impossible to anticipate every problem that might arise. With this project, I tried to listen to those problems and respond to what they were trying to tell me and discovered that, as an approach, it works. The images you see here are from a presentation powerpoint [worth 20% of the final grade]. A separate [20%] requirement was a set of drawings aspiring to planning-approval standard.

The typical floor fell into place easily. Elevators are where they need to be. Corridors have windows and fire escape is obvious. Internal columns line the corridor wall. More rooms have a Dubai view than not. There could have been sixteen more such rooms but the fire-escape stairs couldn’t go the other side because of the internal roads. [I only just thought of it now, but if I’d taken the stairs down on the inner side and on the first floor swapped them to the outer side then I’d have 10 more rooms with a preferred view.] This approach is my understanding –  or possibly my mis-understanding – of a newish concept called Lo-Res Architecture. For me, lo-res architecture is an architecture that’s uncomplicated and undemanding and that seems so obvious you wonder if in fact there’s any art to it at all. It’s the most exciting idea I’ve heard in years. Despite how much a Lo-Res Architecture has meaning for me, I’ve probably got it wrong because, on the basis of what I’ve read about it, it seems to require a lot of hi-res language to describe it.

Even a lo-res problem is a problem and sure enough, they started to arrive.

Problem #1: This first one was my most embarrassing. My initial attempt had the main entrance on the other side of the building where the service entrance is now, but this produced an insoluble circulation problem on the 9th level function room floor where the elevators need to open south. (Tyrant me forbids the use of double-door elevators as a solution to situations like this.) The reason I like the small hotel as a design problem is because the service corridor, service elevators and passenger elevators have to work for levels of five different types. It’s a complex 3D spatial planning exercise and I had to confess that I should have checked I’d solved it for all levels before I’d gone too far ahead. Luckily, the peculiarities of the one-way traffic system meant there was no better side for vehicle access and having the entrance and lobby on the “rear” corner meant all public areas of the ground floor faced streets active with pedestrians. This should have been my first choice. I fessed.

Problem #2: The rear of the 9th floor was originally a curve almost concentric with the one on the other side. The problem was that the outer walls on the south side didn’t hit the column grid well – something I also should have checked much earlier. Making the curve larger reduced the size of the terrace and still wasn’t a good fit. Reversing the curvature did the trick.

Problem #3: A colleague pointed out that I had poor visibility where vehicles leave the site. I removed the offending column, cantilevered as far as I could to compensate and adjusted the room sizes accordingly (because the internal columns were along the corridor wall). No hotel room door occurs at a column position. Doing this produced the double-L massing on the roundabout side. I was open to letting something like this happen as, before, I confess the building had been a bit dull.

Problem #4: The service elevator wasn’t in a happy place and so I moved it to the middle of the building. This paid off when planning the rooftop pool deck but it’s also why the service corridors on the ground and 9th floor are a bit messy in the final version. I always have to convince students that, if anything has to be a bit messy, it’s best if it’s a service corridor.

Problem #5: This next elevation drawing explains why the window spacing on the south-east and south-west elevations is not regular. On the other side of the building where there are fewer windows and columns, I simply got lucky. What I’ve learned is that interesting things just seem to happen when you simply set up systems and let them interact. I don’t know what to call this. An architecture of happy accidents? It’s a response to circumstance and not just design. To an observer it won’t make any difference but to a designer it should.

Problem #6: But some design decisions are less easy to justify and my asymmetrical overhanging 9th floor meant that fire escape stairs from the rooftop deck overshot the stairwell below at one end of the building and didn’t quite reach at the other. I either had to make this work or come up with a better idea. Both ends were manageable, without any fuss at the overhanging end, and by introducing the new design feature of the yellow stair – Hello Arquitectonica! – plus a new drainage problem, at the other.

In last semester’s project I’d stumbled upon the idea of setting up simple systems and letting them interact as a design approach. [c.f. Spiral Binding] This time around I wasn’t so set on a preconceived outcome, and I also accepted that every single element didn’t have to be a design feature and certainly not the building as a whole.

• • • 


The Artless Plan

What has architecture as Art ever done for us? “Lifted the human spirit!” you may say. Okay but whose? And for how long? Tricky questions. This post is about artlessness in architectural layouts, what it might mean, and what it might mean for us. The artlessness I’m in favour of is not what’s come to be known since the 1980s as simplicity – a visual bareness resulting from the expensive decluttering of construction joints and differences of materials from buildings. It didn’t bring many of us joy. Only the very few could afford to deny a building’s existence as an assemblage of variously convenient materials.

Artlessness goes beyond surfaces and into the fundamental space they enclose. If one had arrived at a perfect simple, artless plan, how could anyone ever appreciate the skill or cumulative intelligence that went into reducing that plan to a state where it was all it was ever meant to be? How could one convince anyone that it does the job not only just as well, but perhaps even better? Just as paid architecture writers often get paid by the word and as a consequence tend to be a bit wordy, it might be the case that architects overestimate what a layout is actually required to do and cram an excess of art into them.

I’ve nothing against inhabitable art and can accept that art must interfere with the act of living and in a good way. It should not detract or impede. The question is how. My spin is that the architecture should provide a conceputual space (or freedom, if you prefer) for the occupants to live how they want with what they want and where they want it. [c.f. Art In Space!, Houses as Art, Living as Art, Art as Houses] Some of the residential architecture of Peso von Ellrichshausen offers little in this respect. Their artistic penchant for symmetries of structure, skylights and doors conflicts with some aspects of living.


Their 2012 Solo House introduces the problem of the main entrance. Houses usually only have one and here the solution was to create a new, diagonal symmetry to accommodate the spiral stair. Assuming those small circles in front of the doors are drains, the challenging shower rooms might have been better split into separate shower and wc/basin rooms. (This would have maintained symmetry with the closets either side of the beds and might actually been easier to use.) Solo House also introduces the problem of a kitchen door between the sink and cooker.

Stunning view notwithstanding, there’s a stepping-stone like step between the cooker and the sink. But not everyone in the world cooks pasta I suppose. Or rice. Or potatoes.

Their 2014 Guna House again creates a diagonal axis for a main and a secondary entrance now. Wardrobes are present in abundance but there is now a functionally redundant door, again between the cooker and the kitchen sink. Introducing a secondary grid creates a geometry more accommodating of (narrow) passageways and storage cupboards.

From the same 2014 is Casa Meri with the activities of daily living split across two rows of five structural units having 14 identical exterior wall openings. Four of the nine internal doors aren’t essential. Having a door to a children’s bedroom between a sink and a cooker is probably not the cleverest idea.

I see PvE as raising fundamental architectural ideas to increasingly higher levels of contrivance and moving progressively away from the original advantages of simple plans – simplification of materials and construction. Casa Meri is still softer than Hiromi Fujii’s 1968 Project E2 but it’s still pretty harsh.

I’ve mentioned the similarities and differences between H Arquitectes‘ Casa Barcelona and Peso von Ellrichshausen’s Casa Meri before. Casa Barcelona accomodates a car and a storeroom and the activities of daily living in two rows of five structural units. Despite economies to be had by having things the same, four out of thirteen external wall openings aren’t identical.

Osawald Unger’s House Without Qualities has a different kind of simplicity. Things resistant to symmetry such as stairs, kitchens, bathrooms and storage are made conceptually irrelevant by incorporating them into walls.

It’s still an extremely controlled and controlling environment in terms of the positions of furniture but there’s a clear distinction between which bits are art and which are not. Everything has its place. It has little in common with this next plan apart from a straight flight of stairs between two walls. It’s a two-up-two-down cottage, as reported on the Vernacular Architecture Forum website. It’s been drawn from a description in a novel but it’s a perfect example of the type even if these days we’d like a bathroom. It is my first example of an artless plan. It is not and cannot be anything other than what it is. We’re looking at intelligence, not art.

My second example is a shotgun house – which is a house with a linear plan usually involving a linear passage, if not always a corridor, front to back. Typically associated with New Orleans, the type seems to have arrived from West Africa via Haiti. I’m not the only one who thought these houses were called shotgun houses because a bullet fired through the front door would go right out the back without hitting a wall, but it’s more likely the name is a corruption of the word “sho’gon” which, in West Africa, means “God’s House”. Fellow blogger Roland Arriaga, over on archi-dinamica architects llc can tell you much more about them than I can but this plan is the simplest I can find.

On the outside, they look like this, with varying space between. Shotgun houses are sometimes paired as semi-detached houses but then the central room or rooms aren’t as well ventilated in the warm humid climate where these houses predominate. The shotgun house never developed into a terrace as this would mean central rooms having through-ventilation only.

The shotgun house plan has much to offer in the way of efficiency of enclosure and economy of construction but these days we don’t generally pass through bedrooms to get to other rooms, as in this house by Chasm Homes.

This is usually solved by reducing the width of the central rooms to create a corridor, as with the Napoleon II from the buildnownola website.

This next modern variation is true to shotgun principles but uses the living spaces as the corridor while a sub-corridor reduces the number of openings off it. It’s good, although the spacious bathrooms and walk-in closest aren’t exactly in the spirit of shotgun houses.


I once lived in a semi-detached terrace that had two bedrooms with back-to-back fireplaces at the front alongside a corridor that led to a full-width living room and then into a full-width kitchen-dining room, again with back-to-back fireplaces. The bathroom was a lean-to extension at the rear and the semi-detached wc was halfway up the rear yard. The plan I just described can still be seen in this once-similar house recently for sale just up the street.

Other Australian solutions generally followed the British one by having a reduced rear width that essentially created a long, single-storey lightwell. This still shows in this example even though the rest of the plan has been substantially modified.

The Japanese solved the same problem by using shōji to partition internal rooms from the corridor and internal courtyards to bring light and a degree of ventilation to the central rooms.

These innovations can be seen in this plan for a “double Machiya” from theworkhome website. It’s brilliant and, as a typology, I feel its time has come in many other places around the world. [c.f. The Japanese Machiya]

This next plan for four apartments by Zurich architects E2A is pretty good too. In the two-bedroom apartments, entering into the middle of the U-shape means there’s no passage through bedrooms. See how the odd angle is absorbed by the bathrooms and the entrance hallways? [c.f. The Odd Angle] It’s the most intelligent thinking I’ve seen in a long time. [See more here.]

I don’t know if artlessness will ever catch on as a concept but what it is I’m trying to pin down is not unlike vernacular intelligence that arrives at a solution it sees no need to change nor way to improve. I’m all for less art and more intelligence.

• • • 

for the redevelopment of the NPAK building in Yerevan, Armenia

Last week I had an email from Gagik Khachatryan of urbanlab, an independent urban lab based in Yerevan, Armenia. They’re holding an open international architectural competition for the redevelopment of the key contemporary art venue NPAK, known internationally as the Armenian Centre for Contemporary Experimental Art. Here it is now. It’s bold and proud.


The full competition guidebook with requirements and rules is downloadable from here. It’s in English and Armenian, a language we don’t get to see very often. The competition looks well thought-out and structured, with additional and potentially useful site and building information available for entrants. The submission deadline is June 25. Good luck!


Designer Bookbinding

The word “designer” before anything is never a good sign. Here’s what designer bookbinding looked like in the time of Alberti.

Folio, full blind-tooled brown calf, triple spine-straps, applied hand-painted panels and armorial escutcheons, leather clasps and iron catches, iron corner bosses. Housed in a custom clamshell box.

To be fair, most books also had designer pages. They weren’t for everybody. Here’s a designer book that could easily have been on the shelves in a Palladian villa.

16th century Parisian morocco, lavishly decorated with gilt wreaths, small flowers and thistles.

Here’s an example of German bookbinding from the time of the early Bauhaus. Here’s an interesting article on Hitler’s bookbinder, Frieda Thiersch.

“Probably no one up until now has dealt with the motif of the Swastika so naturally, completely, and thoroughly as Frieda Thiersch.”

Designer bookbinding is an emotive subject. Depending on how you look at it, it’s

  1. a waste of time and resources
  2. poor man’s Fabergé eggs
  3. a creative art continuing a long tradition
  4. an ancient way of separating value from content
  5. an ancient way of separating rich people from their money
  6. proof Adam Smith was right when he said “With the greater part of rich people, the chief enjoyment of riches consists in the parade of riches.”

Sounds familiar – let’s investigate! The idea is to take a book and give it a cover that’s a display of design and production skills and that, by the by, is a reflection of the contents. Regular designer bookbinding competitions are held to give bookbinders the opportunity to show their stuff. There is usually a set theme. Kafka’s Metamorphosis is a popular one. Here’s designer Richard Tuttle’s take on it.

As with all of Richard Tuttle’s pieces, this is a one of a kind binding that captures the spirit of the book and returns us to a time when books were beautiful to display as well as read. In a world of mediocrity and mass produced books, he believes important literary works are special and should be treasured and passed on to future generations. Richard Tuttle has rebound the book in a beautiful combination of lamb skiver and snake skin over sculpted boards. The book features raised spine hubs with titling between the hubs and hand-painted pastedowns and endpapers. Richard Tuttle’s symbol signature along with the binding date appear on the free endpaper next to the title page. The binding was done in 2013.

So’s Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Thus the brief is doctored to promote sensationalism justified by an obvious and shallow contextuality. “Concept” seems to count for a lot. Designing covers for actual texts is the intellectual end of the scale. It’s not unusual for a theme to be a single evocative word with text(s) selected to suit.

Water is a book commissioned by Designer Bookbinders and printed by Incline Press for an international bookbinding competition set for June of 2009. A group of the books where sold unbound or “in sheets” to binders through out the world at a cost of 100 GBP (approx. $200). Then binders had about 10 months to complete the bindings and send them back to England for judging.  The text is made of short poems and prose with the theme of water giving a wide range for designing the binding. [!]

Check out the link for an insight into what it is a bookbinder thinks and does all day.

1 water

Here’s some more.

Winner: . Binding made out of pear wood covered with Karelian birch veneer. Inspired by the idea that ‘water comes to us from rocks, from mother earth, but also from clouds, sometimes from tears … just a few drops that come together to form streams and lakes’.
Winner: . Binding made out of pear wood covered with Karelian birch veneer. Inspired by the idea that ‘water comes to us from rocks, from mother earth, but also from clouds, sometimes from tears … just a few drops that come together to form streams and lakes’.
Brown Japanese paper spine textured with cactus thread. The cream Japanese paper boards with movable magnetic sculptured fish are covered in red boxcalf. The Japanese endpapers are dark blue and the flexible jacket is of varnished wood.
Brown Japanese paper spine textured with cactus thread. The cream Japanese paper boards with movable magnetic sculptured fish are covered in red boxcalf. The Japanese endpapers are dark blue and the flexible jacket is of varnished wood.
Runner-up: The pages have been divided into two bindings, ‘Water’ and ‘Waterborn’; both featuring machine-embroidered grey Dypion-style fabric and airbrushed endpapers. The sign was inspired by the light and shade created by sun and clouds on the surface of the sea, and echoes the marbling forms in the text.
Runner-up: The pages have been divided into two bindings, ‘Water’ and ‘Waterborn’; both featuring machine-embroidered grey Dypion-style fabric and airbrushed endpapers. The sign was inspired by the light and shade created by sun and clouds on the surface of the sea, and echoes the marbling forms in the text.
Bound in calf and various goatskins with palladium tooling, silver rhodium and gilded brass. Inspired by the idea of a drop of water landing on the dried mud and soaking through to the back cover, where dormant seeds spring to life.
Bound in calf and various goatskins with palladium tooling, silver rhodium and gilded brass. Inspired by the idea of a drop of water landing on the dried mud and soaking through to the back cover, where dormant seeds spring to life.
Mary Norwood has bound her book in black calf, with an arrangement of domestic water pipes (made from hand-dyed calf and goatskin) wound onto a framework of timber and clay and secured by leather straps. Brass labels are stamped with names of water sources, and laced-in linen tapes with illustrations have been sewn on.
Mary Norwood has bound her book in black calf, with an arrangement of domestic water pipes (made from hand-dyed calf and goatskin) wound onto a framework of timber and clay and secured by leather straps. Brass labels are stamped with names of water sources, and laced-in linen tapes with illustrations have been sewn on.
Polycarbonate covers varnished with car lacquer using airbrush techniques. Rotating sections of multicoloured airbrushed acetate are articulated within the front and back covers.
Polycarbonate covers varnished with car lacquer using airbrush techniques. Rotating sections of multicoloured airbrushed acetate are articulated within the front and back covers.

Some designers get very technical.

Peter Jones’s book has a spine and leather joints of scarfjointed blue and biscuit goatskin with blind tooling. The boards are constructed from alternating tapered strips of maplewood and clear acrylic sheet with leather inlays, threaded onto carbon fibre rods. Scarf-jointed and laminated Mingei endpapers with additional part-sheets interleaved with whites lead into the text.

There’s more examples here. You get the idea. Here’s a blank book with what’s known as coptic binding and finished with natural oak boards.

blank book

If that was a John Pawson book, this one then would be a Peter Zumthor Book.


This recycled ibook shows irony’s undead. Somebody put a stake through it. I first thought this next example might also be ironic but it takes itself a bit seriously. It “speaks so much of its contents” it seems like it’s trying too hard to become them. Somehow sad.

Roberta Lavadour's binding of Fat Chance may raise an eyebrow or two among traditionalists, but it speaks directly to its subject: Found diet pamphlets sewn all along on handmade leather belts that run through the center of the boards, with painted text block edges and French double headbands. Covered in three-quarter leather (goat) with Fabriano Roma fore edge covers and found measuring tape. Belt closures have standard holes, as well as extra holes hand punched to accommodate the added girth of the book. Everything about the book is purposely overscaled. The resulting book speaks to the futility of the quick fix while allowing us to relate to the person who bought so many of these pamphlets, each one of which initially held great hope.
Roberta Lavadour’s binding of Fat Chance may raise an eyebrow or two among traditionalists, but it speaks directly to its subject:
Found diet pamphlets sewn all along on handmade leather belts that run through the center of the boards, with painted text block edges and French double headbands. Covered in three-quarter leather (goat) with Fabriano Roma fore edge covers and found measuring tape. Belt closures have standard holes, as well as extra holes hand punched to accommodate the added girth of the book. Everything about the book is purposely overscaled. The resulting book speaks to the futility of the quick fix while allowing us to relate to the person who bought so many of these pamphlets, each one of which initially held great hope.

There are of course, shapeist books, but there’s no need to go there. If The Duck was a book ….. I can imagine the contents of the heart-shaped book but I’m unsure about the pizza book. Or is it cake? The Japanese cranes on the cover don’t tell us.


The Japanese. They already had a long history of adding value to objects under the guise of design and craft so, in the 1970s, they understood immediately what bookbinding was all about and took to it in a big way, generally making rather beautiful things whilst aestheticising the hell out of it.

Bookbinder Ohie Toshio (b. 1949) is an exemplar of the long Japanese tradition of adopting and adapting foreign art forms. The practice of bookbinding was first introduced in Japan by Ohie in 1974 after studying the art in France. Through Ohie’s efforts patrons began to see their favorite works of literature as treasures to be enshrined in a splendid binding, enhanced by graphic design and materials developed to suit the writing, and with illustrations by esteemed artists. Decorative bookbinding had to first be brought in line with Japanese tastes before local audiences could appreciate it. Ohie’s patrons were convinced to appreciate leather-bound books through the introduction of deluxe Japanese papers, the use of leather onlays in Japanese color harmonies, and the incorporation of frontispiece illustrations by popular Japanese artists.

Copper plate etching, watercolor on paper, chine collé.
Copper plate etching, watercolor on paper, chine collé.
Hardcover book: blue calf leather cover with onlays of leathers, gold tooling, flyleafs of suede, endsheets of calf leather with onlays, pages gilded on three edges, collaged color woodblock printed frontispiece and black and white etchings by Karasawa Hitoshi.
Hardcover book: blue calf leather cover with onlays of leathers, gold tooling, flyleafs of suede, endsheets of calf leather with onlays, pages gilded on three edges, collaged color woodblock printed frontispiece and black and white etchings by Karasawa Hitoshi.
Hardcover book: blue calf leather cover with onlays of leathers, gold tooling, flyleafs of suede, endsheets of calf leather with onlays, pages gilded on three edges, collaged color woodblock printed frontispiece and black and white etchings by Karasawa Hitoshi.
Hardcover book: blue calf leather cover with onlays of leathers, gold tooling, flyleafs of suede, endsheets of calf leather with onlays, pages gilded on three edges, collaged color woodblock printed frontispiece and black and white etchings by Karasawa Hitoshi.

Putting the word “contemporary” in front of any noun also usually spells trouble. Here’s a selection of contemporary bookbindings. Guess the book!


Yes, it’s Gulliver’s Travels bound in black goat skin with inner covers lined with dyed reindeer parchment. And five strands of black and dyed tan leather cord couched (huh? “to fasten a thread with small stitches at regular intervals“) onto the covers and with cast pewter beads at their ends. There’s more here. Here’s an interesting one from the same book-artist.


Ostensibly a book because it has some writing on it, the artist’s description makes for uncomfortable reading.

These sculptural book forms play with the notion of what can be considered a book. Some of them explore multicultural and ancient book structures. The array of materials used is without limits. When the book form meets artistic expression the results are visual stories what do not necessarily need words. They can be read from the interplay of materials,  textures and colours. 

:o= Here’s a clamshell book. Sigh.


Here’s a fancier one. The spine is the tanned skin of a barramundi, a large fish found in river estuaries in Northern Australia. It’s stronger than the hide of land animals apparently. A strong spine is a good thing.

I imagine the appeal of clamshell books is they’re satisfying to hold open in the palms of one’s hands. If that’s how you like holding your books. They must be a genre because here’s a fake one. I’m trying hard to be outraged.


Our journey through this strange planet of designer bookbinding is almost over. I’ll leave you in the very strange world of avant garde book binding. Daniel Essig‘s books cross the line. He’s making objets d’art. The pages are there so it can be called a book. It makes no difference what the text is. Here’s his Book of Nails.

the book of nails

Most of what’s called Book Art riffs on the fact that books contain words that mean stuff. It’s not necessary to know what they are. Completely breaking orbit now, this last example is a statement about censorship and, although the artist has “bound” and nailed this book well closed, it’s in the name of art and has nothing to do with bookbinding.


* * *

A quote from designer bookbinder Faith Shannon.

“The book offers the perfect vehicle for the combination of a painter’s eye, a designer’s training, a craftsman’s skills, an artist’s imagination, a soul, a love of invention – and a sense of humour!”

* * *


Penguin Books was founded in 1935 by Sir Allen Lane,[2] It was his experience of the poor quality of reading material on offer at Exeter train station that inspired him to create cheap, well designed quality books for the mass market.[11] Penguin revolutionised publishing in the 1930s through its high quality, inexpensive paperbacks, sold through Woolworths and other high street stores for sixpence. From the outset, design was essential to the success of the Penguin brand. Eschewing the illustrated gaudiness of other paperback publishers, Penguin opted for the simple appearance of three horizontal bands, the upper and lower of which were colour-coded according to which series the title belonged to; this is sometimes referred to as the horizontal grid. In the central white panel, the author and title were printed in Gill Sans and in the upper band was a cartouche with the legend “Penguin Books”. The initial design was created by the then 21-year-old office junior Edward Young, who also drew the first version of the Penguin logo.


Aesthetic Effect #5: COMBINE

COMBINE is the name I give to the aesthetic effect that arises when what we see is reinforced by what we know. That simple term “what we know” includes all those subjective things resulting from culture and education that something we look at makes us think of, remember or recall, regardless of whether or not some designer wants us to or not. If the result is some sort of aesthetic pleasure, then we’re talking about the mechanisms of aesthetic response and in this and similar posts I plan to probe the sources and types of that aesthetic pleasure. I’ll cover Aesthetic Effects Nos. 0:SEPARATE, 1:UNITE, 2:DETACH, 3:ATTACH, 4:EXTRACT in later posts and will start with 5:COMBINE because it’s one of the easiest to understand. I’ll talk about its uses in architecture at the end of this post.


But first, some Shakespeare. I have Helen Vendler’s forensic analysis of Shakespeare’s sonnets to thank for these next thoughts. [Vendler, Helen (1997). The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Cambridge: Harvard University Press] It’s brilliant. She takes nothing for granted. All mystery is there to be analysed. She identifies the structures, techniques and skills that underlie Shakespeare’s Sonnets and which make them Art. People like me welcome this. Some others would rather not know, preferring they stay inexplicable and allow them to remain in awe of the magic and mystery of the creative process. 

The following is an extract from an interview in Paris Review.

During the nineteenth century, the study of Shakespeare’s sonnets was governed by a biographical agenda. Later, it was also governed by the “universal wisdom” agenda: the sonnets have been mined for the wisdom of friendship, the wisdom of the acquiescence to time, the wisdom of love. But I’m more interested in them as poems that work. They seem to me to work awfully well (though not everyone thinks so). And each one seems to work differently. Shakespeare was the most easily bored writer that ever lived, and once he had made a sonnet prove out in one way, he began to do something even more ingenious with the next sonnet. It was a kind of task that he set himself: within an invariant form, to do something different—structurally, lexically, rhythmically—in each poem. I thought each one deserved a little commentary of its own, so I’ve written a mini-essay on each one of the one hundred and fifty four.

For now, just consider the line “When I do count the clock that tells the time” from Shakespeareʼs twelfth sonnet.


Upon hearing this, an attentive person with no understanding of English might think the iambic pentameter of the first line reminds them of the ʻtick-tockʼ of a clock because the stress on every second of these single-syllable words makes that sound. (Not everybody will recite it this way but that’s okay.) Appreciating the meaning of those words depends, of course, upon understanding English. The meaning of that line – its “lyrical content” – is reinforced by the clock-like pattern of sound that illustrates it. We have a combination of tangible and intangible. The tangible sound can be heard by anyone, but the intangible knowledge must be present if any connection is to be made. An attentive listener might also think that the meaning of each line gets determined only on the final word of each line and this forms a secondary rhythm not unlike the swinging of a pendulum. Analysing poetry is tough work. 

Interestingly, there were two or three sonnets Vendler wasn’t able to crack. She said it  was unlikely there was nothing to find – it’s just that she “hadn’t yet managed to find the spring that opens the lock”. Her book shows us that none of this poetic beauty is beyond explanation. Beauty is not the result of magic or inspiration and creativity, but the result of the creative application of knowledge and mastery of the craft. What we think of when we encounter Art may sometimes be spontaneous and uncontrolled, but a poem or any other aesthetic endeavour usually only affects us in a certain way because someone has designed it to do so. That person responsible was following certain rules either consciously or unconsciously and with some aesthetic goal in sight. COMBINE is one of those rules.

* * *

Music has many examples of COMBINE, particularly in opera where characters or events are regularly given signature keys or motifs that shift and develop as the drama unfolds. In Puccini’s Madame Butterfly for example, the climax of the Act I love duet between Pinkerton and Butterfly occurs when, after much conversational and harmonic to-ing and fro-ing, Pinkerton and Butterfly gradually sing together and then in unison for the first time, declaring their love. When that happens, they are also for the first time singing in the same key (her, in his) implying that the entire exercise was, after all that, a seduction. Sure, it’s all very well to say that, for opera is a fusion of music and drama and voice, but COMBINE is how they are fused.

Or how about the famous “Slaves’ Chorus” from Verdi’s Nabucco? In this clip you get to see a bit of what goes on inside an opera house – in this case the one in Oslo by Snøhetta.

The power of this comes from the combination of everybody singing the same song in the same way, made more forceful by the knowledge that they are (playing the role of) slaves. Each person has no identity other than as a slave. The composer is forcing a single status onto the diverse range of human voices and making them into a single instrument where all sing the same.

The juxtaposition of a tangible phenomenon along with some reinforcing knowledge is also found in more recent songwriting. Cole Porter’s Every Time We Say Goodbye has the line “How strange the change from major to minor”. This is a very literal example of a type of musical illustration that has been in and out of fashion since the Baroque.

The Cathy Dennis and Rob Davis song “Canʼt get you out of my head”, famously sung and even more famously performed by Kylie Minogue, makes its eponymous point by beginning with the chorus – unusual enough in itself for a pop song – but also with a fade-in as if the nagging chorus is working its way into our consciousness as would a headache.

Here’s those efficient lyrics, in full.

“Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”

La la la
La la la la la
La la la
La la la la la

I just can’t get you out of my head
Boy your loving is all I think about
I just can’t get you out of my head
Boy it’s more than I dare to think about

La la la
La la la la la

I just can’t get you out of my head
Boy your loving is all I think about
I just can’t get you out of my head
Boy it’s more than I dare to think about

Every night
Every day
Just to be there in your arms

Won’t you stay
Won’t you lay
Stay forever and ever and ever and ever

La la la
La la la la la
La la la
La la la la la

I just can’t get you out of my head
Boy your loving is all I think about
I just can’t get you out of my head
Boy it’s more than I dare to think about

There’s a dark secret in me
Don’t leave me locked in your heart

Set me free
Feel the need in me
Set me free
Stay forever and ever and ever and ever

La la la
La la la la la
La la la
La la la la la

I just can’t get you out of my head
I just can’t get you out of my head
I just can’t get you out of my head…

Repetitious lyrics and the repeating of lyrics are two tangible ways of illustrating and reinforcing the meaning those lyrics are conveying. Not only that, the very sparseness of those lyrics also works to highlight the criticality of the problem stated. (Repetition also features in the opening CGI sequences of the video but this is merely the use of a visual means to reinforce the combined effect of sound and lyric. It’s done well.)


All these examples have the same combination of a tangible phenomena and some type of knowledge combining to create a powerful aesthetic effect. COMBINE is merely one effect in a songwriterʼs bag of tricks.

Or an architectʼs. In this next example, each of the radiotelescopes has the same alignment as the others – a tangible unity. If we understand what it is a radiotelescope does, then we’ll know their alignments are also united in the common purpose of observing the same thing – or so we imagine, since we can’t see it. The power and grandeur of these radio-telescopes is due to their Alignment generating this aesthetic effect COMBINE.


Here’s an example of COMBINE for Position. It’s a lighthouse standing on a singular landscape feature. There’s the obvious physical unity of one thing and one place but, since we know what lighthouses do, we know it’s not there to look pretty but to warn ships of submerged dangers. This knowledge makes the lighthouse seem more “at one” with its position. The position of this simple building suddenly has that thing called “depth” or – to state the obvious – “meaning”.


Both these examples require knowledge of the building’s function and purpose. So does this next example of COMBINE, again regarding Position.

One building dominates one hill. However, if we know it’s a church and have an idea of the basic tenets of Christianity, then the fact that the building is atop the hill means it’s that much “closer to heaven” and thus in an appropriate position to mediate between God and the laity below. Knowing it’s a (Christian) church gives intangible meaning – some might say “depth” to its physical positioning.

This feeling of “at one” with its location is much valued in architecture. Clients like it, reviewers like it, historians like it and (therefore) architects like it.

Much talk about architecture is couched in the language of ideas that forge conceptual unities that reinforce some physical unity between building and land or cityscape. 

Much of this talk is talk about Shape, but Colour and Pattern are also commonly spoken of as “resonating”, “respecting”, “recalling”, being “redolent” of, “chiming”, or “echoing” with some nearby feature. The above examples show how Position can “resonate” with a location and Alignment can resonate with an orientation. So whenever you hear any of these words implying some sort of conceptual unity, just check that it’s not just some simple visual analogy trying to create the impression of a logical design process that led to an inevitable solution appropriate for a particular location. Take a second to ask yourself “Does it really?” If it doesn’t resonate quietly and strongly, it’s most likely just a soundbite or meaningless text to accompany an image.

The effect of COMBINE is a simple yet powerful sense of purpose.



The Tree is Not Trying to be an Asset

Everybody likes trees. This is a tree (in the front.)

IMG_0039It’s an overcast day, and almost evening so the tree’s not doing much in the way of photosynthesis or the other stuff that trees do incidentally as a result. Here’s a list of that other stuff from The Encyclopaedia of Earth.

Mitigation of heat islands effects is something we knew about already, if not necessarily from Paul Gut & Dieter Ackerknecht’s “Climate Responsive Buildings” (1993). What I didn’t know was that the rates of cooling for different tree species had been quantified. The given figures represent the reduction in radiation intensity compared with the unshaded situation.

tree cooling factor

Removal of air pollutants we know of. It’s a good thing. Did you know that

  1. In 1994, trees in New York City removed an estimated 1,821 metric tons of air pollution at an estimated value to society of $9.5 million?
  2. Standardized pollution removal rates differ among cities according to the amount of air pollution, length of in-leaf season, precipitation, and other meteorological variables?
  3. Large healthy trees greater than 77 cm in diameter remove approximately 70 times more air pollution annually (1.4 kg/yr) than small healthy trees less than 8 cm in diameter (0.02 kg/yr)?
  4. Air quality improvement in New York City due to pollution removal by trees during daytime of the in-leaf season averaged 0.47% for particulate matter, 0.45% for ozone, 0.43% for sulfur dioxide, 0.30% for nitrogen dioxide, and 0.002% for carbon monoxide?

CO2 removal is just what trees do. It’s good for them, good for us. Trees don’t see it as “removal” though.


Mitigation of stormwater runoff is something we’ve heard of too. I’d have thought they did this by increasing the % of humus in the soil but Encyclopaedia of Earth claims that

evergreens, conifers, and trees in full leaf can intercept up to 36% of the rainfall that hits them.

I never thought of that. But how much and for how long?

3893367448_368303cf86_zQuality of Life is subjective and difficult to quantify but, especially when property values are concerned, it won’t stop people from trying.

  1. Trees and vegetation can help reduce noise, which may be highly valued in urban areas.
  2. They also provide shade from harmful ultraviolet radiation, particularly in playgrounds, schoolyards, and picnic areas.
  3. In addition, trees and vegetation may increase property values, as several studies have shown that home values are higher on tree-lined streets.
  4. Lastly, community gardens and neighborhood parks can
    1. help reduce physiological stress,
    2. aesthetically improve an area, and
    3. provide an urban habitat for
      1. birds,
      2. animals, and
      3. insects.

All good, although from first-hand experience I can say that a thriving urban habitat outside one’s bedroom window is not always a blessing at sunrise.

Effects on volatile organic compounds would be similar to CO2 I thought but no. Trees are the bad guys because they produce VOC’s such as monoterpenes and isoprene that are responsible for those smells such as fresh pine and cut grass, but also help to form ground-level ozone which is a major component of smog. OMG! It’s no problem if there aren’t any nitrogen oxides but, since NOxs are formed by the combustion of fossil fuels, this is actually a problem. The US EPA forecasts a 5% global increase in NOx emissions between now and 2020, mainly due to agriculture, of all things.


Nitrous oxide molecules stay in the atmosphere for an average of 120 years before being removed by a sink or destroyed through chemical reactions. The impact of 1 pound of N2O on warming the atmosphere is over 300 times that of 1 pound of carbon dioxide.


Indirect energy use also isn’t something I’d have thought of, but trees in urban areas don’t just grow there on their own. They require guys in trucks to go around and water them and prune them and other people to rake up leaves and clean up after them. In return, trees do a lot for us and that’s why efforts to quantify and monetize their value are needed. People and municipalities have been known to chop down trees rather than pay people to prune them.  

Reduction in energy use of course refers to the reduction of energy use in buildings that have trees nearby. Quantifying this is a growth area and James Simpson has developed a simple method for doing so. His method provides a % value for energy use that can of course be easily converted to $.

simpson tree energy calculator

Data isn’t given, but one study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) placed varying numbers of trees in containers around homes to shade windows and walls. Savings in cooling energy ranged between 7% and 40% and were greatest when trees were placed to the west and southwest of buildings. Another study found that with a 20% tree canopy – roughly equivalent to planting one tree to the west and another to the south of a home – buildings could achieve annual cooling savings of 8% to 18% and annual heating savings of 2% to 8%. Plantimg trees to the west and south seems to be the conclusion. This clearly isn’t rocket science.


And there’s no reason why it should have to be. The problem is that we’ve become so detached from our environment that we can only understand what’s best for us in terms of economic value rather than deducing it directly from our (now largely lost) experience. The people living in those houses in the image above don’t need to be told of the benefits of trees or how much more comfortable their living spaces are as a result. Trees are as much a part of their life as a window, a door and a courtyard. In fact, the tree, window, door and courtyard all function as components of the same “cooling system” that has no cooling bill and thus needs no reduction in one to justify the presence of the tree.

I think most of us appreciate the many things trees do. In principle, it won’t hurt to know the dollar value of trees but our world is one where all kinds of value get reduced to this same metric of worth. Seeing everything in terms of economic value is still a modern disease, even if people and communities might be a bit more prepared to plant trees, care for them and pick up after them once they know exactly how much in it for them.

i-Tree steps in to address this unfortunate truth. As with many modern products, it’s difficult to tell if it’s part of the problem or the solution.


Within the i-Tree software suite, street tree populations are assessed using i-Tree Streets, which is an analysis tool for urban forest managers that uses tree inventory data to quantify the dollar value of annual environmental and aesthetic benefits: energy conservation, air quality improvement, CO2 reduction, stormwater control, and property value increase.

It’s an easy-to-use, computer-based program that allows any community to conduct and analyze a street tree inventory. Baseline data can be used to effectively manage the resource, develop policy and set priorities. Using a sample or an existing inventory of street trees, this software allows managers to evaluate current benefits, costs, and management needs.

* * *

To close (for it is the end) – a poem, in memory of a third way of relating to trees.

Tree At My Window by Robert Frost

Tree at my window, window tree,
My sash is lowered when night comes on;
But let there never be curtain drawn
Between you and me.
Vague dream-head lifted out of the ground,
And thing next most diffuse to cloud,
Not all your light tongues talking aloud
Could be profound.
But tree, I have seen you taken and tossed,
And if you have seen me when I slept,
You have seen me when I was taken and swept
And all but lost.
That day she put our heads together,
Fate had her imagination about her,
Your head so much concerned with outer,
Mine with inner, weather.

Architecture Myths #5: A is to B as B is to A+B

Let’s not bother with facts and definitions as we all know what we’re talking about here. However – and I’ll return to this – the A-series paper sizes are not trying to look beautiful.


Here’s one of many websites devoted to the Golden Proportion. I’m not the first to blog about the cult or myth of the Golden Ratio. This post, over at Laputan Logic, is one of the best. Amongst other things, it points out that this is not a logarithmic spiral.


A creature which has been greatly misused by Golden Ratio cultists is the poor old Nautilus pompilius. As if being pushed to near extinction wasn’t bad enough, the beautiful spiral shell of this animal, which is a relative of the octopus, has become a sort of totem for graphic designers who never fail to resort to it whenever they need a graphic to grace an article or book cover that might even tangentially refer to the Golden Ratio. But while it is rare to find an article featuring the Golden Ratio that doesn’t feature a luscious image of one of these shells, the reality is that there is no real connection between them. There are certainly many ways of parameterising a logarithmic spiral so as to closely match the curve of a nautilus shell but none of these except to most contrived comes anywhere near to the Golden Ratio.

14-10CYQHUUC00 (1)
What role did the Golden Ratio play during those terrible events in November, 1963?

Lap also gives suggestions for further serious reading. It’s an old site but this link is still live and a good one. Nobody is denying the fact that the Fibonacci Sequence exists in Nature and is present in the unfurling of petals, the packing of seeds and the distribution of leaves.


The amazing thing is that a single fixed angle can produce the optimal design no matter how big the plant grows. So, once an angle is fixed for a leaf, say, that leaf will least obscure the leaves below and be least obscured by any future leaves above it. Similarly, once a seed is positioned on a seedhead, the seed continues out in a straight line pushed out by other new seeds, but retaining the original angle on the seedhead. No matter how large the seedhead, the seeds will always be packed uniformly on the seedhead. [Thanks mathgeek]


That’s all fine. But then people started to find and see the Golden Proportion everywhere.


The big mistake is to assume that because things that might please us in the natural world use the Golden Mean, applying it to artificial things like paintings and buildings will therefore make them beautiful as well. This is not logic. It is an attempt to generate a notion of beauty by association.


These last two images, you’ll notice, find the Golden Proportion in completely different places. The following quote I’ve simply lifted from Laputianlogic.

The claim that the Golden Rectangle is the most pleasing comes to us via Adolf Zeising who is the one who single-handedly started the whole Golden Ratio craze in the first place. In 1855, he published a book which he modestly entitled: “A New Theory of the proportions of the human body, developed from a basic morphological law which stayed hitherto unknown, and which permeates the whole nature and art, accompanied by a complete summary of the prevailing systems.”

It was from him that we learn that the proportions of the human body are based on the Golden Ratio. For example, taking the height from a person’s navel to their toes and dividing it by the person’s total height yields the Golden Ratio. So, apparently, does dividing height of the face by its width. From here Zeising made the connection between these human-centred proportions and ancient and Renaissance architecture.

golden parth small

Not such an unreasonable jump, to be fair, but the connection to the Golden Ratio had no basis in reality. When measuring anything as complex as the human body, it’s easy to come up with examples of ratios that are very near to 1.6 (or 5/3). But there’s no need to jump from here to any conclusions about the Golden Ratio. [Laputianlogic]


Neufert (1900–1986), a disciple and employee of Walter Gropius, combines rational norming with an aesthetic impetus. He propagates the Golden Ratio as this architectural principle of proportion, that together with his own normed measures leads to a “spiritual permeation” and a renewal of architectural formation by “an inner law” in the spirit of Antique, Gothic, Renaissance, and Classicism of Palladio and Schinkel [Neufert 1936: 30]. [The Golden Section in Architectural Theory]

In The Golden Section in Architectural Theory, Marcus Frings debunks the whole idea of the Golden Proportion as a generator of Renaissance art and architecture. Nevertheless, the Golden Section travelled around the world, starting with Palladio


and reaching England via Inigo Jones. It’s application and associated stylistic hijinks quickly found favour with the upper classes. By the time the style trickled down to the lower classes of Georgian housing, only the window proportions and spacing remained. This process is merely the adoption in lower-class housing, of simplified (aka less expensive) features of the upper class housing at the time – aspirational decoration, in other words, and all achieved by only the proportions and spacing of windows. Elegant simplicity. Cheap and cheerful. Genius! The popularity of the Georgian townhouse in part rests on it being an aspirational product which doesn’t cost anything extra to build. Over time however, what we have is the continuation of the 2,500 year link between the Golden Proportion and the architecture of an elite.


It was Zeising who first made the connection between Classicism and Nature. If one combines the ancient Greek affinity for the Golden Section along with its practical applications in Nature (as opposed to possible sightings) and then add a bit of marketing savvy, then we have the perfect conditions for the marketing of architecture. Wright had two out of the three but Corbusier put it all together first.

Does ModulorMan never have a lie down?

By peppering one’s elevations with the Golden Section, it’s possible to be Classical and Romantic/Natural/Organic at the same time. It’s a powerful thing, especially when you’re trying to sneak in new building economies (such as the absence of ornament) under the table.


Colin Rowe’s 1947 essay The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa perpetuates the myth of the Golden Proportion and uses it to explicity link Classical architecture, Corbusier and “natural” beauty. 

images (1)

Thus, either because, or in spite of theory, both architects share a common standard, a mathematical one, defined by Wren as “natural beauty”; and within the limitations of a particular programme, it is not surprising that the blocks should be of corresponding volume – 8 : 5½ : 5. Corbusier has carefully indicated his relationships by regulating lines, dimensions and figures, and over all he places the ratio of the golden section, A : B = B : (A+B). Thus he indicates the ideal with which he would wish his façade to correspond, although in actual fact the figures 3 : 5 = 5 : 8 thus represented are only approximate.


But how natural is all this? The application of the Golden Mean to building plans or façades whether Corbusian, Palladian or Athenian is an example of biomimicry but with no functional advantages to be gained. It is clear that we have a preference for The Golden Section but what we don’t know if it is any of the following.

One. Because we are still keen to ape the Greeks? No.

Various authors discern golden ratio proportions in Egyptian, Sumerian and Greek vases, Chinese pottery, Olmec sculptures, and Cretan and Mycenaean products from the late Bronze Age, which predates by about 1,000 years the Greek mathematicians who were first known to have studied the Golden Ratio. However, the historical sources are obscure, and the analyses are difficult to compare because they employ differing methods. [w]

Two. Maybe we are simply educated to appreciate the Golden Proportion and use it as shorthand for “pleasing” or “beautiful”, however meaningless. In other words, it’s a cultural thing. Amongst architects, I suspect this is the case. This is Frings’ conclusion.

For a long time the Golden Section does not occur in architectural theory. It first appears in the 19th century, through Zeising and Fechner, and then rises to a certain fashion in the third and fourth decade of the 20th century, from which Neufert and Le Corbusier get to know it. Neufert held out great hopes for a renewal of architecture through the Golden Mean, but he soon became sober.

images (2)

After early experiments Le Corbusier uses the Golden Section to develop his catalogue of measures, which has — due to roundings and combinations — not much in common either with the Golden Mean or with the Fibonacci series. In fact, Neufert and Le Corbusier seem to use the Golden Section as a way to embellish their own subjective artistic creation by theory and ratio. In any case, the Golden Section certainly does play a role in the writings of these architectural theorists. Prior to the 19th century, however, the Golden Section is simply absent in written architectural theory.

Three. Maybe it’s because our eyes, due to their physiology, actually have a preference for this proportion. In other words, they can’t help it, they’re made that way. This seems increasingly likely. I was looking for some more information on things like the position of the optic nerve vis-á-vis the retina/cornea or something and came across this interesting link about chemical and biological relationships. Treat it with suspicion as it’s very keen to use the term Divine Proportion. This site however, contains some useful-looking information about the relationship between hydrogen bond distances and diffraction patterns in quasicrystals but it only leads to further questions such as “is the cornea a quasicrystal?”. Answer: YES.  

Quasicrystals is exciting new stuff. The Nobel Prize Committee thinks so.

2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry: ‘Quasicrystals’ Once Thought Impossible Have Changed Understanding of Solid Matter

Oct. 5, 2011 — The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2011 to Daniel Shechtman of the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel, for the discovery of quasicrystals: non-repeating regular patterns of atoms that were once thought to be impossible.

Aperiodic mosaics, such as those found in the medieval Islamic mosaics of the Alhambra Palace in Spain (shown above), have helped scientists understand what quasicrystals look like at the atomic level. In those mosaics, as in quasicrystals, the patterns are regular -- they follow mathematical rules -- but they never repeat themselves. (Credit: © cbomers / Fotolia)
Aperiodic mosaics, such as those found in the medieval Islamic mosaics of the Alhambra Palace in Spain (shown above), have helped scientists understand what quasicrystals look like at the atomic level. In those mosaics, as in quasicrystals, the patterns are regular — they follow mathematical rules — but they never repeat themselves. (Credit: © cbomers / Fotolia)

Just in passing, here’s a link to a site that explores computer-generated two- and three-dimensional Islamic Star patterns.

Moving on though, this next quote, from soicionomics clarifies the link between the Golden Ratio and all biological structures.  Sensibly, it refers to the Golden Whatsit as φ (phi). This is probably what I should have been doing all along.


The source of all these biological structures is DNA. Given current best measurements, the length of one DNA cycle is 34 angstroms, and its height is 20 angstroms, very nearly producing the Fibonacci ratio (see Figure 15). Stanley et al. note parenthetically in their power-law study, “The DNA walk representation for the rat embryonic skeletal myosin heavy chain gene [has a long range correlation of] 0.63,”16 which again although not mentioned in the study is quite close to phi. A bit of data integration, then, shows that living systems are permeated with phi-based structures.

We can be pretty sure that

  1. DNA is not trying to look beautiful
  2. the form of DNA has something to do with the functioning of DNA.

All organic matter contains φ. If diffraction patterns in the quasi-crystals that make up our retinas cause φ-patterns to somehow resonate or stimulate the retina more than non-φ patterns do, then what we have is a physiological explanation for certain notions of visual beauty.

This wikipedia entry introduces the work of Adrian Behan in Constructal Theory.

The constructal law is a first principle of physics that accounts for all design and evolution in nature. It holds that shape and structure arise to facilitate flow. The designs that happen spontaneously in nature reflect this tendency: they allow entities to flow more easily – to measurably move more current farther and faster for less unit of useful energy consumed. Rain drops, for example, coalesce and move together, generating rivulets, streams and the mighty river basins of the world because this design allows them to move more easily.

I mention Constructal Theory because it provides a greater scientific context for nature’s efficiencies such as φ. If the processes of nature can generate systems that accomplish specific goals with the minimum of resources and energy then, rather than imitate certain structures or systmes, it might be a good idea to apply this one and only principle into everything we design or make.

Four. The next and last question is “Is there is some evolutionary reason why our eyes should have developed so? What evolutionary advantage could there be to having eyes that respond preferentially to certain patterns and structures?” I’m no evolutionary biologist but if something to do with vision has an evolutionary or biological basis, then it’s probably because it enhances the ability to judge whether you can eat it, or whether it can eat you. Being able to quickly recognise living things would make for more efficient hunting and foraging.

To finish, the following is from sciencedaily.

Bejan argues that the world — whether it is a human looking at a painting or a gazelle on the open plain scanning the horizon — is basically oriented on the horizontal. For the gazelle, danger primarily comes from the sides or from behind, not from above or below, so their scope of vision evolved to go side-to-side. As vision developed, he argues, the animals got “smarter” by seeing better and moving faster and more safely.

Cheetah Brothers Hunt Together - Serengeti, Tanzania
Spot the animal! Lateral vision in action.

“As animals developed organs for vision, they minimized the danger from ahead and the sides,” Bejan said. “This has made the overall flow of animals on earth safer and more efficient. The flow of animal mass develops for itself flow channels that are efficient and conducive to survival — straighter, with fewer obstacles and predators.”

For Bejan, vision and cognition evolved together and are one and the same design as locomotion. The increased efficiency of information flowing from the world through the eyes to the brain corresponds with the transmission of this information through the branching architecture of nerves and the brain.

“Cognition is the name of the constructal evolution of the brain’s architecture, every minute and every moment,” Bejan said. “This is the phenomenon of thinking, knowing, and then thinking again more efficiently. Getting smarter is the constructal law in action.”

While the golden ratio provided a conceptual entryway into this view of nature’s design, Bejan sees something even broader.

“It is the oneness of vision, cognition and locomotion as the design of the movement of all animals on earth,” he said. “The phenomenon of the golden ratio contributes to this understanding the idea that pattern and diversity coexist as integral and necessary features of the evolutionary design of nature.”


In numerous papers and books over past decade, Bejan has demonstrated that the constructal law (www.constructal.org) predicts a wide range of flow system designs seen in nature, from biology and geophysics to social dynamics and technology evolution.

Constructural Theory has huge applications for the design of buildings as well as their construction, the project management of that construction, and how we live in those buildings after their construction. The principle of economy of means is the one principle of Nature that we should be applying. Unfortunately, the overriding principle of high-end architecture is the opposite – decadence of means, and often in the form of using the maximum possible resources to achieve the appearance of a natural object that uses the least. Although Architecture has survived as a social phenomenon on this basis, it does not seem like a responsible way to head into the future.


The A-series paper sizes is one of the best-known examples of the Golden Proportion. It is also one of the few (only?) man-made applications of the Golden Ratio that comes anything near to what Nature achieves with its applications of the Golden Ratio. A-series paper sizes were first proposed in 1786 by the German scientist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg.


Georg Christoph Lichtenberg
for producing one of the few examples of humanity using the Golden Ratio
to create something
with fewer processes and with less wastage
Misfits salutes you!

Portrait of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg
Portrait of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)