Even in the midst of a busy workweek, the notice got my attention: an invitation to a Venetian palace during the 56th Venice Bienniale, the stylish arts, film, and architecture festival that is a sort of continental combo of TED and Burning Man, with its inexplicable art installations astride gondola-dotted canals.
The Axel & May Vervoordt Foundation and the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia, I read, were proud to present a show called PROPORTIO at the Palazzo Fortuny—an exhibition that “will explore the omnipresence of universal proportions in art, science, music, and architecture.”
The exhibition, the notice continued, will refer to such touchstones as the Sacred Numbers, the Fibonacci sequence, the hypotenuse, Squaring the Circle, and Le Corbusier’s Modulor. It will be an invitation to reflect on nothing less than “the dynamic relationship between order and chaos.”
Whoa. Dude. I’m going to need a fresh glass of Chianti.
But it turns out that the esoteric Italians aren’t the only ones on a quest to understand what is otherwise known as the Golden Mean, a fundamental, universal truth underlying all of design. And this secret garden has some very practical, real-world applications.
The notion that there is a single standard for what we all find visually appealing—which may have inalterable biological, evolutionary, and genetic roots—informs everything from smart phones to streetscapes, workplaces that inspire productivity, hospital rooms where patients recover faster, and more inviting public transit.
The basic idea is this: take a rectangle with the proportions of about five by eight inches—a common index card, or a book on its side, or a paragraph in this essay, or a nice flat-screen TV hung on the wall. Place a square within that rectangle, and what’s left is another perfect rectangle. In mathematical terms, that repetition creates a perfect spiral into infinity. We like that; we find the order soothing, beautiful, and reassuring.
The fine line between order and chaos noted by the Italian curators has to do with this kind of symmetry, which occurs naturally and seemingly at random: the branches of a flooding river, snowflake crystals, or the blossoming shape of a big tree. We like that, too—or more specifically, our primitive minds like that. Fractal patterns conjure a sense of vitality and ample water and food, harkening back to our days on the savanna millions of years ago. Seeing certain patterns feels good because it tells us good things should happen, or at least that chances are better for survival.
Mathematical and biological foundations for good design? It sounds like there should be a template. And indeed, the subject of my recent narrative biography, Le Corbusier, tried to establish one. The Modulor was a system of measurement drawn from the way a six-foot-tall man moves around in designed space. The Modulor Man is portrayed with one arm raised up, a riff on Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. The dimensions to accommodate human movement could be used to build an efficient apartment, an office building, or his very own beach cabin in the South of France.
Le Corbusier intended the system of the Modulor to be made available everywhere, as a blueprint, and invited all to improve upon it—open-source 50 years before its common use today. The man from Paris never meant to suggest that designers could just crank numbers into a formula and come out with beautiful things. If that were true, architectural firms could cut a lot of staff—and the towering figure of the architect would lose power and luster. (Le Corbusier also attached almost mystical significance to the Golden Rectangle, with strange associations in religion and the occult and ancient Sanskrit texts, all much more trippy than nerdy).
Although the Modulor never really caught on, some in the design professions are suggesting we pay more attention to the science of why some designs are more successful than others. Perhaps the biggest champion is Lance Hosey, chief sustainability officer with the global design leader RTKL, a member of the AIA Committee on the Environment, and author of the book The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Design. Better design can have immediate, practical benefits, in green building, wayfinding, public transportation, and public space.
“We think of great design as art, not science, a mysterious gift from the gods, not something that results just from diligent and informed study,” Hosey wrote in an essay in The New York Times. “But if every designer understood more about the mathematics of attraction, the mechanics of affection, all design—from houses to cellphones to offices and cars—could both look good and be good for you.”
The magical proportions, after all, as Hosey points out, gave us the facades of the Parthenon and Notre Dame, the face of the Mona Lisa, the Stradivarius violin, and the iPhone. That’s not a bad lineup, and it’s tantalizing—and yes, a little bit trippy—that there is an underlying, universal structure behind them all.