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Dr.Joachim Langhein
Project Description for the Database:
"Proportion in Architecture, the Arts, and Nature"

A Progress Report on the Status and Applicability of the Research

1. Introduction

My interest in proportion, measure (i.e. metrology) and geometric forms originated in the course of preparing a geographical thesis on the long-term sustainability of the earth as an ecosystem. One of my conclusions was that human beings in their civilized form maintain a parasitic relationship to the earth's ecosystem. They take what they want and give little in return for the welfare of their host which is their life-support system. Finally, I realized at the end of my research that the instability of lifeforms and human organizations in modern civilization had to be identified as the prime threat to humanity and other forms of higher life.

From this perspective, the aesthetics of everyday life (i.e. the gestalt qualities), particularly the visual and acoustic aspects, are due to gain significantly higher priority and can have permanent effect on the fulfillment of man's basic needs. This fulfillment is one key to the stability of man.

This database assumes from the outset that the more we study man and his stability, the more the aesthetics of everyday life and the way we perceive the environment become meaningful. There is an implicit interaction and feedback between human ecology and aesthetics. This has a lasting effect on man's well-being.

I am quite aware that the underlying assumptions of this database are alien to the predominant objectivism or Cartesianism of the mainstream science. Nonetheless, the questions of beauty and about the distinction between artificial and natural are penetrating the scientific disciplines thereby leading to more dialogue and discussion between the arts and sciences.

The loss of beauty can be seen in the ugliness, cheerlessness, and general lack of feeling safe and cared for just about everywhere in our artificial environments.

Goethe was one of the first to emphasize that aesthetics or beauty are based on objectivity. He stated that ugliness chokes our lives. I agree with Goethe and add that aesthetics of our everyday environment is a necessity, not just the spice of life! And proportion is one main constitutive principle of beauty.

2. Theoretical Parallels between Ecological Systems and Aesthetics:
    The Search for Objective Principles of Proportion

It is quite interesting that the same principles that define the stability and "health" of an ecosystem (or of any system, for that matter), also define beauty and aesthetic form. These principles can be summarized in the one broader principle of "unity within complexity".

Proportion serves as a bridge between unity and configurative complexity. It becomes an even better bridge if it is based on simple geometric forms like circles, equilateral triangles, squares, pentagons, etc. (The designs of the vast majority of preindustrial buildings of any kind depend on such simple forms.) Proportion functions as a dialectical mediation between unity and complexity and should further be associated with animating principles such as rhythm, color, semantics and symbol. It prevents the disintegration of gestalts (figures) into chaos and monotony. It frees man from "compulsive perception". In short, there is no beauty without proportion, it is not just a luxury but a precondition of survival.

3. History of the Database

In the course of another thesis on art history I started to collect systematically all sorts of information from publications on proportion, not only in architecture but also in other branches of the arts and other disciplines. I came quickly to the revelation that the sources contained sometimes crass contradictions, and were hopelessly dispersed all over the world. Furthermore, many of the primary sources have been lost and we have to rely on secondary sources. At that time I was especially interested both in objective reasons for architectural beauty, in general, as well as in the proportions and modular regularities of folk architecture (vernacular architecture) of many countries in Europe and America, in particular.

Folk architecture was the architecture built by farmers and craftsmen, an architecture simple and diverse in configuration, scale and proportion, amazingly beautiful, graceful and functional. As recent as thirty years ago, wherever one looked around the world, one found an astonishingly configurative harmony between the artificial constructions (houses, stables, roads, bridges, dry walls, etc.) and the cultural landscape that man created over the centuries and millennia. This harmony reflected and still reflects the striving toward ecological stability and economic productivity.

These topics, general architectural beauty, the particular beauties of folk architecture, and how they relate to proportion and geometry, became topics for an organized enquiry by mail to experts throughout the world. From 1985 to 1987 I mailed approximately 6,000 letters of enquiry in sixteen languages. The response was surprisingly positive. I received about 800 answers, often with publications and copies of articles enclosed. These materials supplied the core of my database, which I started to feed into the computer in 1987. I simply collected the materials as whole pieces up to about 15,000 items; then costs for storage and filing became just too high.

The material influx progressed very fast and demanded much of my time. The whole process slackened due to professional obligations, time and budget considerations. The database is now ready to be released. I want to sell it to database hosts, research centers, and any interested clients.

4. Further Development

Now the database consists of about 54,000 sources. They include the usual bibliographical data with main headings both in German and English. The cataloguing in English will be concluded soon.

The Internet offers new perspectives for the development of the database. E.g., it is possible to search in the catalogues of North American, Australian, Hongkong and some European university library catalogues. One can also start longer searches in different search machines and modes. The Internet opens options to identify more systematically those resources of information to be entered into and secured in the database.

5. Contents

In the course of time it became increasingly apparent that the topic "proportion" is the "crystallization point" of a broad range of sophistication rediscovered in old and new practical know-how. Scholarship from many different disciplines confirmed this finding. In the European tradition proportion was intrinsically combined with its oldest philosophical, scientific and "speculative" traditions (e.g. Pythagoras, Plato and their followers). Ancient Greek included much vocabulary related to proportion (like eurhythmia, analogia, symmetria). The connection with mathematics or geometry as basic science was clearly acknowledged. This connection was also recognized in music, architecture, art, and the so-called realm of celestial orders. Since the Roman Empire the concept of proportion has played a major role in at least four of the seven "artes liberales", the "sciences of free men". Proportion was used directly and indirectly in the applied crafts, not only in western civilization, but also in many of the "high civilizations" of Asia and America. Both the Gothic cathedrals and the much older Egyptian pyramids had one thing in common. They both were based on the principle that the just or the right was the same as proportion. The Egyptians understood their "ma'at" as the right (world) order of nature, society, arts, and architecture; Pythagoras might have brought elements of that broad understanding to Greece.

This database is an attempt to record as many written documents as possible, independent of their historical origins, culture, and language. Hopefully this collecting process will continue indefinitely and have a snowball effect. The database includes and concentrates on both central and marginal topics and issues. Currently 26% of the sources are in German, 38% in English, 11,5% in Italian, 11% in French, and the other 50 languages make up about 10%.

Some examples of other related subjects in the database are: proportion and geometry in the arts, music, philosophy, religions, mythology; similar order relations in nature; configurative order and perception.

The database is useful in a variety of ways; for example:

I would like to stress one point which may seem strang to researchers outside Germany. German history of the arts has been strongly influenced by Konrad Hecht (+ 1980) who in a posthumously published book rejected outright any form of analysis of proportion because he found contradictions in the analyses of proportion in the Freiburg cathedral tower. Even though I agree that some speculative works, including proportional analyses, may be questionable, I do not agree with his general condemnation of any analysis of proportion. Even if a specific analysis may be insufficient, it still may be sufficient enough to identify some kind of configurative order in objects of high architecture or art. Generally, it must be said that proportion is not an exclusive domaine of art history. Often people don't understand that proportion is a major theme of aesthetics. Nor do they understand that environmental aesthetics is an important public concern entailing obligations.

If a researcher finds that a gestalt or configuation is "good" or complete (in the sense of classical gestalt psychologists, particularly of Christian von Ehrenfeldt, who called them also "gute Gestalt" or "praegnante Gestalt"), this coincides with the experience or judgement of beauty. Proportion, be it visual or acoustic, is an essential precondition to accomplishing "gestalt order" or "gestalt quality" ("Gestaltqualitaet", i.e. ordered configuration). If the configurative whole is o.k., then the perception tolerates some lack of sharpness. In space the order of the visual whole is particularly important. Human perception always tries to reduce the abundance and complexity of information to higher (or condensed) configurations with a much smaller quantity of bits which can more readily be grasped by perception (or the shortterm memory). In other words, it strives toward a simple unity out of the multiplicity of signs. This reduction or transition is immediate and unconscious in the perception of ancient architecture; in modern architecture it is the exception rather than the rule. The exceptions are common among the modern masters. Proportion and rhythm are the means to achieve a dialectical balance between order and multiplicity, unity and diversity. They facilitate and train the playfulness of perception. As a result, they widen the possibilities for ecological behavior, responsibility and problem-solving.

Ancient written records in the Near and Far East treated questions of proportion, geometry, metrology, mathematics, and combinations of these. They reached a surprising depth and sophistication regarding their meaning for the most noble aspects of life. The works of Pythagoras and Plato, Indian sulbas and other treatises, and many medieval philosophical texts are cases in point. In the Bible and other Jewish and Islamic texts (e.g. on the Temple of Solomon), the authors speak of the "just" measurement and proportioning.

There is no doubt that the majority of antique texts on proportion in the arts, architecture, music, and religion, which originated in ancient Europe, India, and East Asia, has been lost. They dealt with measurement rules, design based on geometry, the sacredness of geometry, the sacred and profane architecture, ornamentics, symbolics, music, cosmology, and philosophy. Pythagoras, Plato, and many of their followers placed them in the realm of transcendental ideas. For example, Plato put these disciplines in the realm of ideas. For example, he felt these disciplines were concerned with the essential meaning of life and the cosmos. Vitruvius, the famous author of the most ancient European treatise on architecture De Architectura libri decem, mentioned dozens of Greek treatises on proportion and architecture, treatises which were lost forever. In his History of Philosophy, Diogenes Laertius summarized the ideas of many philosophers for which we have no primary documentation. Many of these references also expressed a concern about proportion and geometry and the above related themes.

6. Range and Scope of Topics and Sources

The range and scope of topics and sources are far-reaching and comprehensive, a fact which reflects a deep concern for man's better nature. Aspects of proportion, metrology, mathematical (especially geometrical) order, scales etc., and how these aspects were embedded in art and architecture, were of both primary and secondary concern to the authors. Numerous treatises dealt with the utilization of proportion and geometry, and proved to be excellent pedagogical tools for the training of artists and craftsmen. The success story of these preindustrial treatises and their pedagogical applications is still waiting to be written. Up to now, the database identifies more than 2,000 such treatises. The discussions in them range from philosophy and religion, perception, aesthetics, function, statics, etc., to magic and mysticism.

And finally we should not forget the modern sources. The writings from Gestalt psychology, whose representives for the most part emigrated to the U.S. in the 1930s, offer fertile ground for research. Here in Germany, Hecht's defamation of any treatment of proportion within the history of the arts, carried on by his epigones, has caused a tremendous research gap in the last twenty years. The Americans Dan Winter, Barbara Hero and others have presented extensive and highquality materials in the Internet.

At this time, 80% of the sources of the database draws on Western cultures. India represents 3.9%, Islam >9 %, China 1%, and Japan 0.6% of the sources. Historically, 15% of the records derives from the Middle Ages, more than 10% from the Renaissance, 7.3% from the Baroque, 8% comes from Italy. Discussion and research seem to be intense and innovative particularly in the U.S., France, Italy, but also in many Eastern European countries like Russia, Poland, the Czech and the Slovak Republic, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Macedonia, Hungary, Romania, Croatia, Serbia, Greece, etc. Do not hesitate to ask for a product description, please.

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