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Pattern recognition is central to what architects do, as the Topkapi Scroll shows

Black Box: Copying patterns is what architects do for a living

During our trip to Istanbul, critic Gökhan Karakuş picked up on a common trick employed by foreign architects that pitch up in Muslim countries with contracts to design keynote buildings.

They grab a geometric tile pattern they like the look of and slap it the facade irrespective of its meaning, or how it was conceived, he said during a lecture arranged by the Turkish Ceramics Promotion Group.

Copying patterns, however, is what architects do for a living, and have been doing it, appropriately or not, for hundred for years. The Topkapi Scroll is proof of that. Dating from the 15th century, nearly 100 foot-long, and with 114 individual geometric patterns for wall surfaces and vaulting, this was the pattern book of the day for the artisans labouring under Timurid and Turkmen dynasties in Central Asia, Turkey and Iran. Buildings from Samarkand to Sultaniyah and Konya to Isfahan were constructed with reference to it.

Topkapi Scroll

Topkapi Scroll

It came into the possession of the Ottoman sultans some time in the 17th century and takes its name from the royal palace in Istanbul, where it is kept to this day. I saw it on tour in London at the Royal Academy in 2005. It looked new, contemporary, like a digital print-out, but ancient and numinous too – like something Indiana Jones would seek out, or Dan Brown would weave a novel around.

It’s a startling artefact and crucially, offers proof that construction drawings were essential to non-European architectural cultures too. It belongs to a once-widespread Islamic tradition of scrolls in which geometric patterns ranging from ground plans and vault projections to epigraphic panels and architectural ornament in diverse media appeared side by side.

Alongside the patterns, the scroll has illustrations that show the underlying geometries that generate the patterns, which can be used to compose three-dimensional space as well. Recently, it was used to prove the widespread application of what we call the ‘Penrose tile’ 500 years before British mathematician Roger Penrose ‘discovered’ the building blocks of non-periodic pattern-making, two repeating shapes nicknamed ‘kites’ and ‘darts’, in 1974. Together they can generate a geometric pattern that will never repeat when infinitely extended.

In 2005, Harvard physicist Peter J Lu first saw links between the Penrose tile and Islamic geometries during a visit to Uzbekistan when he saw the tilework applied to a 15th century Madrasa in Bukhara. Intrigued, he studied other buildings of the era in more detail and on the portal of the Darb-e Imam shrine in Isfahan dating from 1453, he found its girih tilework formed a near-perfect Penrose pattern. But was this a coincidence or the deliberate application of highly advanced mathematical knowledge?

The Topkapi Scroll would suggest the latter. It features five shapes which together make two shapes – kites and darts – that denote the Penrose tile, proof that the girih pattern on the shrine was not a fluke, but rather part of the design repertoire of master craftsmen in that region and period. It would also allow craftsmen to make highly complex designs without resorting to mathematics and without necessarily understanding their underlying principles. So while Karakuş has a point, those architects who swipe patterns blissfully unaware of their origins, are part of a great tradition.

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