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Design by numbers

review Proportion: Science, Philosophy, Architecture by Richard Padovan. E & FN Spon, 1999. 400pp. £24.99

How sad it is that recent books on architecture so often lack content. In my local Waterstone's they vie with the towers of foodie books on adjacent tables and, for myself, are just as unappealing. Not so Richard Padovan's Proportion, whose content is rich, clear and memorable.

The English translation of Le Corbusier's Le Modulor was published in 1954, but his system was never taken up seriously by architects, though many tried. Since then, there have been few alternatives offered until Padovan's translation of Dom Hans van der Laan's Architectonic Space (1983) and his later book, Dom Hans van der Laan: Modern Primitive (aj 6.4.95), with that thinker's use of the plastic number.

We are therefore in the good hands of an architect who has played with ordering systems since he was a student, when Le Modulor appeared, but whose mind remains open and who would not try to sell us some gimmick.

Rather, Padovan takes us on a fascinating journey through Western civilisation, from Pythagoras onwards to today, to meet the scientists, philosophers and architects - not forgetting the historians and commentators - who have contributed to mankind's beliefs about proportional ordering.

The journey is clarified, on one hand, by using carefully edited quotations from the main characters themselves and, on the other, by the author's own very simple, single line drawings. Padovan realises that with such a vast subject for which there is no easy answer - his own basis is largely empirical - readers need time to develop their thoughts.

In the Medieval Gothic period, for instance, it is encouraging to find Padovan suggesting that theosophical summas more likely followed than preceded the building of the cathedrals that housed them, for the assumption that new architectural form must necessarily follow theory was only ever made by the theorists, not the visionaries. A heartfelt comparison (without predetermination) of Brunelleschi's buildings and those of Alberti would surely support this contention.

My only disappointment with this otherwise excellent book is the lack of any reference to Francesco Colonna's Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. It is reasonable proof that a definition for architecture, as against Alberti's De Re Aedificatoria, depends on many other things than number alone where the soul is concerned. Soane possessed three copies of the book, and I know that Aalto also knew it.

While Padovan does not point to any single measure as best, certainly van der Laan's plastic number - closer in spirit to Ancient Greek mathematics than to twentieth-century science - appears the most profitable.

Quick references are given at the foot of each page containing quotations, but full references - really a bibliography - are found at the end before an adequate index. The necessary reading has been immense but although Padovan reveals his scholarship, the work is mercifully free of the academicism often associated with that term, largely because the author is a practising architect and not only a theorist. I therefore recommend the book thoroughly to architects who need to broaden their philosophical outlooks - and most especially to students.

Patrick Hodgkinson is emeritus professor at the University of Bath

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