Proportion: Science, Philosophy, Architecture

Proportion: Science, Philosophy, Architecture

Proportion: Science, Philosophy, Architecture

Proportion: Science, Philosophy, Architecture


This book provides a well-illustrated and readable comparative guide to proportion systems in architecture, setting out the mathematical principles that underlie the main systems and illustrating these with examples of their use in historical and modern, buildings. The text traces the interplay of abstraction and empathy through the history of science, philosophy and architecture from the early Greeks through to the two early twentieth-century architects who made proportion the focus of their work, Le Corbusier and Van der Laan, and ends with a reflection on the present and future role of proportion in architecture.


In my schooldays, mathematics was for me a nightmare. What made this worse was that from an early age I wanted to be an architect, and my elders warned me that mathematics was essential for architecture. It seemed that my inveterate inability to get a sum right would for ever bar me from my chosen profession.

Nevertheless, I somehow got to architecture school, where a number of things helped to cure me of my phobia. First, I was relieved to find that most of my fellow students were no better at mathematics than I was (or alas, still am). But above all I began to discover what my previous teachers had never suggested: that numbers and geometrical constructions are beautiful in themselves, and moreover that they are a source of beauty in the things around us, such as crystals, plants, animals and buildings.

In the preface to my earlier book, Dom Hans van der Laan: Modern Primitive, I tell the story of my early captivation with Le Corbusier’s modulor, followed by a virtual loss of faith in proportion systems until a chain of happy accidents brought me into contact with Van der Laan and his work, and revived the old fascination. In that book, however, only one chapter is devoted to proportion, and then almost exclusively to Van der Laan’s own proportion system, the plastic number.

My original intention in writing the present study was to broaden the scope of that single chapter, bringing together everything I had learnt about architectural proportion in the nearly fifty years since I first became aware of it. I described it to my publisher as ‘both a handbook and a polemic’. The book was to have two aspects: on the one hand, it would be a comparative guide to the known proportion systems, and on the other it would set out various arguments for and against the use of mathematical rules of proportion in art. In the end, although the text has become much longer, its scope has become narrower. I concluded that it must be either a handbook or a polemic; it could not be both, and I chose the latter. Furthermore, a polemic could not present all the arguments and counter-arguments, but must focus on one.

Paradoxically, the argument that finally took over the whole book was the one that initially I had planned to

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