One day in the second grade at Saint Basil’s Elementary School, Mrs. Desmond taught us how to draw a clock. She drew a circle on the black board then she wrote a 12 at the top a 6 at the bottom a 3 in the middle of the right side and a 9 in the middle of the left side, then she filled in the 1,2,4,5,7,8,10 and 11. Our teacher was demonstrating how easy it was to draw the clock when first you divided in half, then divided the two halves into half and then each quarter into thirds.
The clock is a geometric representation (and simplification) of the hours of a day and it enjoys tremendous symmetry—bilateral, trilateral and quadrilateral. Mrs. Desmond’s technique works so elegantly because the clock’s numbers can be arranged in geometric proportion (3:6 as 6:12) – by first beginning with these relationships you are more likely to succeed in drawing the clock then if you were to simply start at 12 and move on to 1,2,3 etc.
Architects refer to “reading” a floor plan or a site plan. It’s a map (how most people read it), a section that reveals a buildings innards (like a slice through a grapefruit), a diagram of dimensional relationships, a pattern, sometimes with its own internal logic, a picture (a snap shot that conveys the big picture of how a building works) and even a symbol (sometimes the shape of the plan means something, perhaps the most well-known being the cruciform shape of a Catholic church).
To master the drawing of a plan we learn to: 1) imagine three dimensions when only two are present and 2) size its components, make relationships among them, create a composition. In crafting the latter we will start with some givens—such as the site and the building program—which provide constraints and invariants like the presence of a property line or the required size of a room. While this information is necessary, it is rarely enough. There are always variables at play. How do we manage the variables? Where do we start?
In architecture school we were offered lessons (somewhat half-heartedly) on rules of composition, all the kinds of symmetry and systems of proportion that architects employed over the years to assist in sizing things: how the master builders in the middle ages decided how wide and how tall to make a cathedral nave, how 16th century Italian architects sized rooms in a villa or a palace. We learned that they used different systems of proportion that were not only practical but also derived from a coherent and all-encompassing view-- characteristic of their era-- of the physical and metaphysical ordering of the world and the universe. Various eras employed different systems and they all believed theirs was right.
Then we endured lessons on so-called “dynamic symmetry” based on the incommensurable “golden ratio” theory of composition that became popular in the early 20th century (it was considered more natural than old-school static systems). Art historians and theoreticians promoted it and some modern artists and architects adopted it. Supposedly it explained why ancient masterpieces such as the Parthenon were beautiful. We spent hours imposing geometric scaffolding over pictures of buildings or their floor plans to demonstrate how systems of proportion ruled their composition. We didn’t really buy it.
By the time modernism took hold in the no-nonsense mid-century era, certainly by the time we were in school, the metaphysical content had dissipated and we were left with only the supposed pragmatic benefits – easy to use and systematic ways to take measure of and relate the sizes of things. But if we never really believed the after-the-fact theorizing we certainly didn’t adopt it as a drawing technique. No architect I know employs a coherent system of proportion to arrive at the dimensions of things.
Was it always interesting only in an academic way? We all certainly do still think of buildings and rooms as “well proportioned” when we see good ones (not to mention people and all sorts of things natural and man-made). But in practice architects today arrive at good proportions mostly via intuition and feeling, not math. I wonder though if there isn’t math behind the intuition. Conversely, I wonder if when we make drawings by typing commands into a computer as we have now for the last quarter of a century whether that math has gotten in the way of our intuition.
When faced with the void of the computer screen and the empty space contained within it or drawing a wall by first composing how its built, typing instructions and moving a cursor there is less of an impetus to first “take measure” to understand how big something is relative to something else. It’s too easy to start with the details, to start in one corner and make your way across the screen without ever stopping to assess the relationships among the parts. This has practical consequences: we must still lay out all aspects of a building with some degree of order if for no reason other than convenience, efficiency and constructability: structural framing grids, mullions in a glass wall, lighting in a ceiling, tiles on a floor and so on. The more each of these aspects or “systems” of a building relate to one another within a coherent geometric network, the more integrity in the design—which we do see and feel in experiencing the building.
What, then, was Mrs. Desmond teaching us? Was it how to draw a clock or how to think, how to order the world around us, understand our place in it? We learned that the easiest way to draw a clock was to compose it, to appeal to our sense of proportion-- halving, then halving again. It is this feeling for the relative sizes of things, where to start and stop a composition of parts that I believe drawing by hand empowers and typing on a computer only minimally allows. Even as we embrace digital technology for all the huge benefits it has yielded, we still do look forward to its continued advancement. Artificial intelligence may be the answer; maybe it will deliver a drawing machine that more closely replicates and enables how we actually think when we draw a building.