Sunday, 1 August 2010

www Cracked

I've followed this website for a couple of years now. The articles they write on there are always really interesting, random and funny – something to read in your spare time.

Proportion: Richard Padovan

Proportion: Richard Padovan — Part 1

I've been trying to get through this book so that I could put up a single post about it but it's 370 pages of detailed information that I think will warrant at least five posts! As I'm almost half way through, I thought I'd mention a few points that Padovan, the writer, has made thus far. Padovan, incidentally, was/is a lecturer at Bath University only a few miles from Bath Arts Uni campus that I attended (so I'm a bit annoyed I didn't find this book then).

The book is, as I say, packed full of really insightful points made by the author and those architects/mathematicians etc he quotes. The following will resemble a bullet point list, unfortunately, until I get my head around it a little more. I can see a mass network of interlinking bits of information coming together from what I read about proportion; architecture; modern researchers like Hambidge, Wittkower and Ghyka; Renaissance architects and painters like Leon Battista Alberti, Vasari, Brunelleschi; the Florentine writers – Ficino, Mirandola, Poliziano; right through to Plato, Plotinus and so on; and then there are all of the lesser related, but significant, subjects like 15th century Poland, the Hungarian Empire, Renaissance Milan and the Academies, Alois Reigl and Nietzsche (whom I also found while writing my dissertation on the Vienna Secession). I began to learn about proportion as an aid to my design work, but I've found more and more than it is intrinsically linked to my other interest – Renaissance Florence/Italy.

Early on in the book Padovan brings up the question of whether proportional systems are to be applied first, as a sort of code of conduct, or last, as a corrective device to improve what has been done up to then. Either way, there are questions to be asked about the process. For instance, can proportional awareness create a monotonous feeling in works? Can it void all sense of talent if used well? What do we mean by talent? Is talent necessary/important? Gustav Fechner proved that the majority of people he chose preferred, out of a large group of rectangles (and a square – being a 1:1 rectangle), the one whose sides followed the Golden Proportions 1:618. Others chose either a rectangle very similar to the Golden Rectangle or the square. What, then, does talent mean with regard to proportion?

Padovan goes on to consider Le Corbusier's/Alberti's idea of the relevance of proportion (in architecture) where the eye cannot see it (in graphic design, this may be a proportional system working very obscurely, in some way). Considering we cannot see, and do not yet understand, all of the universe, we are to assume it is all based on some binding mathematical principal. So their argument is to continue what we assume occurs in the universe by applying an overall principal of proportion to whatever we put into the universe. What is the point of proportion where we can't readily see it? The book says 'the eye of God' but I have a problem with that, if it means the common religious God. Were it to mean the eye of Ficino's idea of the soul, I could agree. In simpler terms, we (I hope) wouldn't feel comfortable tidying a house by taking everything that was out of place and throwing it into a cupboard somewhere. That messy cupboard might rest on our thoughts and give us a guilty feeling. Someone might open it and your reputation as a good housekeeper may collapse! I think this is what is meant in the book by 'the eye of God'. At least, that's how I'd argue for the need to tie every part of a design into its proportional context.

Proportion: Richard Padovan — Part 2

An interesting point made by Hans Van Der Laan: 'The space of nature has three aspects that leave us at a loss…. The sheer fact that we refer to natural space using negative terms like 'immeasurable', 'invisible', and 'boundless' indicates that it lacks something for us. We do not feel altogether in our element within it. Architecture, then, is nothing else but that which must be added to natural space to make it habitable, visible and measurable.'  Something to consider, but I couldn't disagree more with his conclusion. Why do so many people like to 'retreat to the countryside'? I've heard many more people use the word 'beautiful' to describe most parts of nature. If it were beautiful we're saying we need add nothing to it but that which sustains us. Furthermore, it is of nature that we build in the first place. Also, how often do we hear people around the Eiffel Tower saying 'wow', 'incredible', or the French 'incroyable'! (Fun to say). These terms may begin with the prefix 'in' but are not negative – we are praising it and saying how it cannot be believed/measured/understood. And yet, in a previous post, I have already shown the Effiel Tower to be measurable by Phi.

This is why it is so useful to stop ourselves from using interjections like 'wow' and run-of-the-mill adjectives like 'amazing' or 'fantastic' when we see something we like. Next time you see something you 'like', stop and think about it. What caught your eye? The colour? Size? Shape? Message? Idea? Then ask yourself why. It must relate to other things (like objects, or your experiences): what are these things and how does it relate? Answer all these questions honestly and you may find yourself understanding that which, at first, was an allusion to you. I suppose it's similar to how some people fall in love, thinking so highly of one another, only to end up sick of each other a few decades later, after they each know/understand their partner as best they can.

I can't remember why but Van Der Laan's comment made me think about the saying 'it's not what you do but how you do it'. In learning about proportion, it's very easy to start believing this saying, as it relates to Padovan's early comment on whether proportion systems negate talent. If 'how' were all that mattered, 'talent' could be meaningless. Some Renaissance artists have said that the Golden Proportion is not the conclusion of art, but the beginning. It is, according to them, not as simple as creating a pleasing composition. I'm sure the typographer, Jan Tschichold, would agree. Meaning affects composition, and vice versa. If 'how' were all that mattered, does it mean that the work of Dante Alighieri, who was well received because he wrote in Italian with masterful ability (rather that the less practical Latin), loses some of its original merit when translated?

Van Der Laan is again quoted: 'Breathing begins at birth with an inspiration and ends at death with an expiration; so too when we make something we must conceive the influence of forms upon our mind as the initial life-giving movement'. Padovan explains that this is a description of how we operate when building/making. I read it as meaning that whatever we can build or create will be a model of what we have taken in from the world and put together in our mind. This forms one side, anyway, of the narrative that runs through Padovan's book; the tussle between 'empathy' and 'abstraction'. 'Empathy' is the argument that knowing is belonging – what we do we take from nature. What we put into nature is already found there in another form. There are limits that come with the empathetic stance; we are only as advanced as nature allows us to be. 'Abstraction' is the opposite extreme whereby human beings have the ability to operate independently of nature and our architecture etc is imposed upon it; for example, the square, accord to supporters of 'abstraction' is not found in nature. I think there may be another question to it; does nature not include the human mind? Where does nature end and living organisms begin? Surely the human mind and its capabilities are part of nature. A square, then, is conceivable, and part of nature. After all, nature does not end with what we see. 

I recently read something written by Marsilio Ficino, a Florentine during the Renaissance, that may add to this: 'Do you desire to look on the face of good [not God]? Then look around at the whole universe, full of the light of the sun. Look at the light in the material world, full of all forms in constant movement; take away the matter, leave the rest. You have the soul, an incorporeal light that takes all shapes and is full of change. Once again, take from this the changeability, and now you have reached the intelligence of the angels, the incorporeal light, taking all shapes but unchanging. Take away from this that diversity by which any form differs from the light, and which is infused into the light from elsewhere, and then the essence of the light and of each form is the same; the light gives form to itself and through its own forms gives forms to everything.'

A further point that Pandovan touches on, and the final one I'll mention here, is the need to combine unity and complexity to create 'true order', where 'unity' is a constant and 'complexity' is an unexpected outcome. For instance, to work with irrational numbers like 1.618 is to give 'complexity' to the 'unity' of the number 1. Combining a rational number like 2 with the 'unity' in 1 is not a method of true order. Jay Hambidge puts the two outcomes down to 'static' and 'dynamic' symmetry; irrational numbers will create unexpected outcomes in proportion systems, like Phi, and are therefore the creators of a 'dynamic' symmetry. Rudolph Wittkower, similarly, puts the two distinct methods down as the 'geometrical' and 'arithmetical'. This idea of unity with complexity can be found in other formats though; even just to look at the decorative elements in Renaissance armour, as shown in a previous post, we find 'unity' in the fact that the illustration sits upon a central mirror axis and 'complexity' in the actual content of the illustration.

I did read about Van Der Laan's recording of the 'plastic number' and have found that I came across it myself by accident in a previous post. I didn't know it was so significant at the time but I'll have to repeat the post and add into it what I've read in Padovan's book. So, more to come on this, for sure.
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