Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Design Studies: Vitruvian Man

Jonathan had recently emailed us with a link to iPlayer, about a new series on BBC4. It's a series about diagrams, and their importance. The first episode of the series "The Beauty of Diagrams" was entitled Vitruvian Man, in which Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece is explored. Mathematician Marcus du Sautoy explains what da Vinci was trying to do, and what it is suspected to be the meaning of the complex mathematics behind the Vitruvian Man, circa 1480.

What I did not realise until I had watched this, was that this piece was actually drawn with regards to proportion which later was incorporated into architecture. The proportions depicted within the human body are subconsciously seen as being the perfect geometric form, and thus by using these as a template for architecture - creates equally perfectly proportionate architecture. Leonardo da Vinci himself is after all quoted to say "man, is the model of the world".

He was inspired by Roman classical writer and architect, Vitruvius. Vitruvius is quoted to have claimed that for a building to be seen as beautiful, it must have perfect symmetry and proportions in it's form, not unlike nature. Since natures most perfect creation is man himself, a building should therefore be proportionate to the human body. This was what particularly inspired da Vinci, and what ultimately lead him to create the Vitruvian Man. He was trying to incorporate Vitruvius' rules of beauty in a mathematical sense - solving the problem in hand - how to calculate perfection. It reality, Vitruvian Man was a mere response to a brief, not unlike a designer gets and then responds to in their chosen line of work. 

A lot of architecture seen from this period has the aforementioned symmetry and proportionate shapes, such as triangles above doorways and so on - and may otherwise not have been if it weren't for Vitruvius' work. His texts had been distributed around Europe during this period - thus being how da Vinci and other architects, engineers and mathematicians had come across such writings - which later became crucial as it aided the creation of some of the world's most influential masterpieces.

Andrea Palladio's Church of the Redeemer, Venice (1592)

Form, function and beauty were seen to be interlocked, and you could not have a perfect object without all three aspects being met. Andrea Palladio's Church of the Redeemer (above), is an example of perfect symmetry and geometry. It has been described as harmonic in terms of form, with the symmetry causing a sense of stability and strength. This, in terms of Vitruvian philosophy, is a perfect example of the perfect building.

So it seems even the great minds of the world are influenced by even greater ones. Leonardo da Vinci was influenced by Vitruvius, and as mentioned in a previous post, J.K. Rowling was influenced by J. R. R. Tolkien, who in turn, was influenced by works such as Scandinavian myths, who - it is claimed - were influenced by the works of Homer. You could follow influential works back until, well, the start of time, I guess. 

Sometimes I feel it's a shame that technology has taken over in the modern era. Rarely these days do designers take heed 
of what our predecessors in the field achieved, and therefore run the risk of trying too hard to innovate rather than appreciate. Mathematically and engineering wise, we have become more advanced, however I think a lot of the time people need to stand back and take a look - and really weigh up the pros and cons of modern architecture.

Building abilities have improved ten fold in height, speed, and quantity - but my concern lies with quality. 
In 450 years, will people be standing in front of what is modern today, appreciating the off set angles, large glass fronts and plasterboard interiors? What will be thought of The Scottish Parliament Building in 2510? 


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