The Importance of Golden Ratio in Contemporary Architecture

May 12, 2016

The Golden Ratio is considered to embody a perfect proportion between two quantities. Although the rationale of the phenomenon is rooted in mathematics, it seems to appear in many other spheres, such as the visual arts, architecture, design, philosophy, even science. But what is even more interesting, this ratio has supposedly been detected in many natural occurrences as well, leading to a conclusion that there is something otherworldly about this ratio, which has consequently made the entire humanity fascinated and inspired by the mysterious number Phi (which now stands for the numerical value of the Golden Ratio, after Phidias - not to be confused with another mysterious number, Pi). It is presumed that the Golden Ratio has been successively rediscovered throughout history, but there is no factual evidence to tell us which one came first: human study, dating from Ancient Greece or maybe even Egypt, which came to realize the alleged aesthetic power of this ratio; or some kind of a suggestion from nature, which made humans find the logic and start applying it. Whichever of these is true, the influence of this powerful canon has resonated through the history of civilization, and it is particularly evident in architecture - or so they say. Our first question could be related to the authenticity of these claims, since not every architect was able or willing to confirm the intent to use the Golden Section in the first place. But there is another question which could be even more interesting, and that is if this incarnation of harmony and balance is still as important a factor in contemporary architecture as it was before - now that the post-structural thought has reshaped our perception of both architectural theory and the discipline itself.

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The Parthenon - Finding the Golden Section everywhere

Golden Ratio in Architecture?

Let us remind ourselves of the Golden Ratio through spatial relations that we can imagine. If a line consists of two parts, and the ratio between the longer part and the shorter part is the same as the ratio between the entire line and the longer part, then this line is quite a good example of the Golden Ratio - it is really as simple as that. But is architecture really that simple? When in form of a blueprint, architecture is represented through the medium of drawing, which is obviously much about lines. However, architecture itself is not merely about lines, and it doesn't simply come down to a bunch of spatial relations. It is therefore hard to speak about the Golden Ratio in architecture, since such abstract occurrence is something that can certainly be applied to many things, and not only the most obvious ones (such as the proportion between two architectural elements). Therefore, people were able to find the alleged use of Golden Ratio in numerous iconic buildings, such as the Parthenon, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the Taj Mahal, etc. Even one of the most popular protagonists of Modernism, the famous and equally infamous Le Corbusier, apparently used to deploy the Golden Ratio in architectural design, although this principle was based on his utter faith in science and mathematics, rather than a desire to achieve beauty. Another famous architect from Switzerland, Mario Botta (the author of the old SF MoMA building) is also familiar with this pattern.

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SF Moma (old building by Mario Botta, new building by Snøhetta)

The Golden Ratio is a Thing, but so is Apophenia

Before we proceed to the role of Golden Ratio in contemporary architecture, I would like to reflect on another term - apophenia, which is defined as "the human tendency to perceive meaningful patterns within random data". When you come across an image of a building overlapped with the famous Fibonacci Spiral drawing (which aims to approximate the Golden Spiral, one which is irrational since the number Phi is irrational), it will usually give you an impression that the facade has been designed according to these harmonious proportions. There was, indeed, a long period in history in which the facade was designed with particular attention, almost as if it were a piece of canvas - starting from the Parthenon for example, and throughout the entire history of architecture up until the 20th century. The Greeks really did pay enormous attention to geometry and the way we perceive it with our imperfect vision, but it was never officially confirmed that the Golden Ratio was, indeed, applied to the elements of the facade. Unlike the aforementioned apophenia for example, which is a confirmed theory attributed to the German psychiatrist Klaus Conrad.

Contemporary Architecture - Deconstructivism and Phenomenology

Even if we all agree that there is something beautiful about a certain proportion, I can assure you that contemporary architecture will remain ignorant. Long gone are the days in which architecture was designed to be beautiful. But even if we consider the Golden Ratio as a useful design tool, like Le Corbusier did, we are still not even close to understanding the predominant streams in contemporary architecture. Although defining the current moment in history is always the hardest, it could be said that most of today's architecture reflects on deconstructivism, which stems from the philosophy of Jacques Derrida. Derrida was closely related to architecture thanks to his relationship with the architect Peter Eisenman, and this collaboration has influenced a line of architects further. Both in philosophy and architectural theory, deconstructivism examines the metaphysics of presence, taking architecture's capacity to exemplify presence and to convey meaning as a point of reference. Deconstructivism is not really a clearly defined style, but its derivatives have been found in the philosophy behind the projects of many Eisenman's contemporaries and successors, such as Bernard Tschumi, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, etc. Other way to look at contemporary architecture is to examine phenomenology, another philosophical aspect embraced by architects for a completely logical reason. Architecture is the only form of artistic expression which has to be experienced in person, perhaps even lived in, in order to be entirely perceived (if it is a form of artistic expression at all) - and phenomenology is mainly concerned with experience as such.

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Bernard Tschumi - New Acropolis Museum, Athens

Architecture Doesn't Really Care

In short, contemporary architecture doesn't care about the Golden Ratio. Just like art has fundamentally changed during the 20th century, architecture has changed as well. Architects have realized that it is neither the form nor the function that makes architecture "architectural" - and that doesn't leave much room for the Golden Ratio to become important. It is the experience, the event, the idea behind the process that matters today. Ultimately, from the most nihilistic perspective on the subject, Tschumi explains how built space has nothing to do with its program per se - the same event could, arguably, happen in a church and in a supermarket. Paradoxically, even though architecture is no longer made to be "beautiful" in the classical sense of the word, the contemporary process behind an architectural project is starting to redefine the canons of beauty. So it is only a matter of time when this new beauty will start being universally accepted, and we're already getting there. And just a piece of information to exemplify this theory - one of  Tschumi's most recent projects (New Acropolis Museum) stands less than 1,000 feet southeast of the Parthenon.

Before we rest this case, it should be noted that there is a handful of architectural studios which take on the remnants of Postmodernism, and implement humor and satire in their work. Thanks to them (Fashion Architecture Taste, for example), you will be able to find some strange theses on which actual, serious projects are based. There is a chance that you will come across the subject of Golden Ratio among them (and when you do, please let me know), but these practices border on experimentation, sculpture and decor, as opposed to standing on the progressive, "academic" side of the discipline. Which is not to say that their role is less important.

Editors’ Tip: Bernard Tschumi - Architecture and Disjunction

In order to understand why architecture is not concerned with the Golden Ratio at all, you might consider reading a book of essays written by Bernard Tschumi, whose name was outlined above. Tschumi is perhaps even more famous for his writings and essays than his projects, as his texts are revealing, interesting and genuinely avant-garde, written in a manner understandable by architects and the people who have nothing to do with the discipline, as well. The essays develop different themes in contemporary theory as they relate to the actual making of architecture, attempting to realign the discipline with a new world culture characterized by both discontinuity and heterogeneity.

Featured image: Bernard Tschumi - New Acropolis Museum, Athens. Photo via ArchDaily. All images used for illustrative purposes only.