THE HARMONIC SYSTEM IN ANCIENT EGYPTIAN DESIGN: THE ORIGIN OF PROPORTION IN WESTERN ARCHITECTURE?

A joint lecture by Victor Suchar and Corinna Rossi. 8th. December 1997

 

I first introduced Corinna Rossi, an architectural historian and Egyptologist in the Faculty of Oriental Studies, Cambridge. Ms. Rossi has conducted several field surveys and excavations in Egypt, and has lectured on “ Construction and representation of space in ancient Egypt” and on “ Ancient Egyptian Drawings and Modern Proportional Theories”. I invited her to join me as co-speaker in order to provide first hand archaeological and documentary evidence. Both of us read Alexander Badawy’s “ Ancient Egyptian Architecture Design: A Study of the Harmonic System”, in my case pursuing an interest in the history of proportions in architecture, in hers as the basis for her M. Phil. dissertation. This is a seminal work on the subject, and we divided the session into my presentation of Badawy’s theories in the first part, and in her critical assessment of the evidence in the second.

The attempt to hang architectural principles on proportions spans the entire history of design, from the ancient Egyptian architects to Le Corbusier. I started with a description of Modulor, Le Corbusier’s system which he intended to use in the design of prefabricated housing in the early 50’s. The system is based on proportions found in measuring the human body, which are then idealised and expressed mathematically by the Fibonacci series and the Golden Section. The Fibonacci series (i.e. 3, 5, 8,13 …) is a summation series widely found in nature, in which each member is the sum of the preceding two (8 =5+3), and in which the ratio of two consecutive members approaches 1.618, the mean of the Golden Section (8/5=1.6- this approximation becomes more accurate at higher numbers) The Golden Section is a method of dividing a line drawn between two points , in such a manner that the ratio of the whole to the longer part equals the ratio of the longer to the smaller part. I then described the geometrical method used by Le Corbusier in developing the system, and noted that these concepts were used by the Renaissance architects, (as mentioned by Prof. Tavernor in an earlier lecture), who in turn obtained them via Vitruvius’ work from Greek architecture. The Greek aesthetic, psychology and metaphysics were governed by the notion of rhythm as an idealisation of pattern found in nature, and rhythm affected architecture by subjecting design to proportion. The laws which defined the exact relations of the parts to the whole were known as symmetry, and symmetry led to a successful (pleasing) rhythm, or Eurythmy. The Golden Section was the aesthetic expression of this view.

The main historical styles: Greek, Roman, Romanesque, Gothic followed these concepts, which were made explicit by Renaissance architects. Their assumption, supported by 18th and 19th. C. scholars was that the system of proportions was the creation of Greek mathematics and philosophy. This view was challenged to some extent by two 19th C. architects :Violet Le Duc and A. Choisy, and more recently by Eric Iversen ( Canon and Proportion in Egyptian Art) and by Badawy, who claimed that the use of proportions was initiated by the ancient Egyptians, based on their study of Egyptian building, sculpture and painting.

Badawy’s main propositions are as follows:

1) The ancient Egyptians developed a grid system for use in sculpture. By maintaining certain proportions, this helped them reproduce statues of varying dimensions. The grid system was originally composed of 18 squares, later changed to 21 squares when the cubit ( the unit of length measure) was changed from the smaller craft cubit ( 45 cm.) to the Royal cubit( 52.5 cm, or 7 palms of 4 fingers each). This change was made to reconcile the proportions of the grid to 1.618, the mean of the Golden Section and to significant points in the Fibonacci series (eye level to rounding of shoulder: 3 squares; eye to nipple: 5 squares; eye to navel: 8 squares; eye to lower end of loin cloth: 13 squares; eye to sole of foot: 21 squares).

2) The ancient Egyptians were skilled surveyors (due to the need to reproduce measurements after the annual floods of the Nile), and had detailed knowledge of triangulation, including the construction of the 3/4/5 triangle( but probably not of the Pythagorean formula)

3) They used the system of proportions derived from the human figure and the system of triangulation, in laying out their monumental buildings.

Ms. Rossi then presented the evidence based on her detailed study of actual Egyptian drawings and documents. Her conclusion is that the evidence does not support Badawy’s theories except for two instances. The few papyrus drawings in existence do not agree with modern measurements, and modern measurements do not reveal intentional use of proportions or of geometrical methods in laying out monumental buildings. Rather, the evidence leads to the conclusion that layout was entirely determined by the practicalities of the site, by the need for aligning columns and by the heavy materials in use. According to this view, the ancient Egyptians were instinctive designers and skilled builders , who developed their techniques over a long number of generations.

I felt that it is important to express both views in this session. My own is that Badawy is right to the extent that 1) the ancient Egyptians developed a grid system for use in sculpture; 2) The grid system had to include certain proportions in order that it could work on different scales; 3) These proportions were based on the measurement of human body; 4) It is probable(or at least not impossible) that after continuos use, a system of notation similar to what we now call the Golden Section and the Fibonacci series could of emerged. 5) It is probable that a triangulation system was used in layout- it is a much simpler procedure if the surveying skill exists; 6) It is also possible that the horizontal and the vertical systems were combined- once again it makes the execution (the actual business of building) simpler .One has to be aware of the difficulty of reproducing design drawings on the construction site even today. In ancient times, the gap between intent and actuality was vast and therefore the attempt to fit various triangles to a plan has about the same probability of reproducing reality as fitting a continuos curve through a set of discrete events by a modern economist (and yet we try).

In any event, reconstruction of the past is a creative process which has to combine specific evidence applied to the building (measurement, materials, building techniques), with wider appreciation of the mentality and context in which they were built. One of the quirks of the architect, from the earliest of times, is his insistence in putting something of himself in the design, and that- the mentality of the designer- is unfortunately usually unfoundable in the narrow evidence.

This is the reason why I thought that this session, as the earlier one on Renaissance architecture, would constitute a fitting introduction to the Architecture Masterclass series starting in January and to the Grimshaw presentation of the design for the Bath Spa in March.

What is their intent?

Victor Suchar