Through years, harmony has always been seen has a perception of a global perfection of beauty. The connection between two or more parts combined together and making a good relationship with each other is what defines a harmonious beauty. This pleasant relationship can be found between people, feelings, nature, sounds, colour and science. All things on earth live in harmony with each other.
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At first, harmony was perceived by the Greeks and Egyptians as a kind of calculation seen as a form of combination of notes that brings melody and rhythm to music. As a result, after understanding the meaning of harmony in music, it becomes a universal experience that can be seen or felt. Various philosophies, art and science around the world had adopted the theory of harmony. For instance, the Chinese philosophies between man and his environment or between the different elements of nature take place in this concept of harmony.
However, in design, the philosophy of harmony had been seen and interpreted in many different ways. The perception of harmony is made of proportion, scale, symmetry and asymmetry. The architect, Vitruvius, had seen and described harmony as the perfect beauty made of proportion. This beauty needs to be the reflection of the proportion and symmetry of the human body. After Vitruvius concept of harmony, many architect and designer had adopted approximately the same interpretation of proportion. It became a huge impact and had affected the work of architects, designers and artists.
Nevertheless, through architectural movements, the idea of proportion by using geometry to create symmetrical spaces had developed to more asymmetrical proportions. In the Bauhaus period, the idea of adopting a more modern and dynamic design was to bring asymmetry into spaces and forms.
The main idea in special design in my opinion is to bring different perception of harmony to the people discovering spaces. This essay seeks to define the notion of harmony and will elaborate its evolution and how it is perceived in spatial design. The notion of harmony is questioned as to if it is still relevant to the contemporary spatial design?
The perception of harmony
Harmony is a form of beauty that comes from a combination of parts that brings a pleasing relationship between them. This pleasant relationship can be found in various experiences: in colours, numbers, movement, natural elements, behaviours, poetry, design, man-made things and so on… Harmony in different culture had various definitions but overall the basic remains the same, all things on this earth live in harmony with each other.
Cambridge definition of harmony was defined in tow category.
“When people are peaceful and agree with each other, or when things seem right or suitable together”.
“A pleasant musical sound made by different notes being played or sung at the same time”.
The first definition of harmony was to create a good and peaceful relation between humans and nature. For this, the Chinese philosophies put human and nature in relation with their live concepts. For instance, the meaning of the Yin and the Yang philosophy refers to all opposites on this earth. Nature had connects its opposite together such as hot, cold, light, dark, male, female to create a harmony and a to provide a balanced nature. This is the reason that the Taoist religion uses the symbol of Yin-Yang to express their philosophy of life: harmony through dynamic balance between Tao, life and nature. As mentioned by Charles Courtney and Jung Young Lee (1997, p. 15) that Tao means “path”, and it determined that following the path will bring happiness and harmony between live and nature.
The environment in where people live in also meaningful for the concept of harmony. Feng Shui is part of the Chinese philosophy that is governed by a spatial arrangement and organisation of things in relation of the yin and the yang theory. It is the reflection of a special energy within a space on taken on consideration the placement of object or forms in the manner to provide a harmonious energy.
The second definition of harmony was the interpretation of musical sounds. The first meaning of word harmony comes from “harmous” a Greek word that means “to join”. The basic meaning of harmony in the Greek philosophy came from music. Chung-Ying Cheng (2009, p11-12) claimed that music notes was perceived as an overall support to the melody. The musical harmony is made of different part and each part is related to other part and they all contribute to the formation of an entire melody. In other words, the sound forms one unique melody and there is no domination by any notes. From the basic understanding of musical harmony of “one is related to another”, it had become a universal human experience.
In the same way, the Egyptian theory of harmony was defined by the philosopher Pythagoras how was a mathematical genius. As mention Jason Marlis (p. 145) Pythagoras theory was that all things were numbers and music had a mathematical relation between notes. Music was considered as a measurement in distance and vibration. Moreover, Moustafa Gadalla (cited in Egyptian Harmony 2003, p. 15-16) that harmony was applied to sound and forms. The relation between harmony in music and architecture came from the same word bait, which means build and rhyme. Architecture and musical harmonies are both based on mathematics. Hence, music is a geometry that is translated into sound and in the same way architecture is a geometry that is translated into proportions.
The perception of harmony in design can be defined as a combination of visual elements such as forms, proportion, symmetry, asymmetry and scale that will create a perception of beauty. This perception will bring to the special design a pleasant relation with each part of the space. There is a variety of ideas and theory of how harmony in design had been seen through centuries. The relationship of proportion of natural elements is the main expression of how the perception of proportion is made in design.
There is for why the basic theory of Japanese design through centuries was too considered that harmony is shown between man and nature. To keep nature within our living spaces it is essential to incorporate design into nature and nature into design. Japanese design is meant to integrate and too take in consideration the nature that surrounds it. Their design philosophy is that human must not destroy the relationship between men and nature. This is the reason a kind of fluidity between the inside and the outside is seen in Japanese design. The integration with their natural environment is essential. In addition, as mention Nishi kazuo and Hozumi Kazuo (1996, What is Japanese architecture, p. 10-11) the design is usually made with natural materials such as wood, water, paper and stones to have a bigger integration within their surroundings. Over centuries design had always had the expression of proportional design of forms that can be linked with the natural proportion of natural structure.
Formerly, the Egyptians and the Greeks and various philosophers had shown and expressed design proportion form natural structure and became an ideal of universal laws. The basic idea of the universal laws is that proportion is made of relations of sizes between systems of dimension that have been developed through centuries. These dimensions will be calculated with quantity or degree called geometry and determined the form and shape.
Ancient civilisation combined harmony and geometry and came up with the rule of proportion in architecture. Corinna Rossi, claimed in her book (2004, Architecture and mathematics in ancient Egypt p. 2-5) that it becomes a universal rule to harmony and balance in architecture. Moreover, this method of dimension of proportion was based at first to measure an ideal of beauty in architecture. This system helps in the first place, to work out the layout of the spaces. In the second place, it is to create a sense of harmony and balance within the space. This mathematics of space planning is based by the element of proportion and scale. The philosophy went from the human proportion, geometry, Fibonacci numbers, pentagram, golden ratio were all applied as part of the practice of architectural design.
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Accordingly, to the theory of the Golden Ratio that was influenced by the classical Greek architecture. The number phi 1.618 is a numerical content that relates to mathematics, biology and art. It is a simple form that acclaimed divine proportion that is found everywhere in nature including shells snowflakes, plants, etc… The Greeks used this concept to reflect balance of symmetry and asymmetry in their design and art. The best example of the proportion of the golden ratio is the Parthenon in Athens; a reciprocal rectangle forms the height of the architrave, to the top of the monument. Different segments divide the monument and it reflects the perfect proportion. (figure ..)
The theory of harmony in architecture was to create order with symmetry as mention Vitruvius (Harry Francis Mallgrave, p. 6-7). Harmony is an idea of beauty that is made of symmetrical order. The idea of Vitruvius was that harmony has a universal sense of beauty that can be applied to everything, to humans and forms. Accordingly to his believes the structure of natural design was based on universal laws, proportions and symmetry. He compares forms to the perfection of the symmetrical beauty of the human body. Thus, he’s concept of harmonious design must refer to the perfection of the body symmetry and proportion.
Similarly to Vitruvius, Alberti had the same vision of harmony and proportion. Harmony is a relation of all parts to each other and everything was governed by mathematical laws and proportions. For instance, Alberti describe (2004, p. 109-110) that a building is made of lineaments which are constituted of numbers, scale and order of each part of the building. He compared it to the mind and body of a human being. His vision was that the mind of the body will be represented by the proportion of the design. The body will represent nature and material. It does not mean that lineaments are materials but more like an overall projection of a form. Likewise, Le Corbusier tried to improve the appearance of design on using the proportions of the human body of Vitruvius and took his one body height and used the golden ratio and the Fibonacci numbers of the human measurements to create his one system. His idea was to refer the symmetry and proportion of his one modular system.
The main idea of symmetry is an equal distribution of forms, weight, and distance between structures. These structures need to project a physical balance of form and proportion to bring certain equilibrium to the design. To provide this equilibrium, the design is seen as it was divided into two parts on an axis, the same amount of weight on each side: as a reflection on a mirror. This distribution is associated with symmetrical balance. This symmetrical balance is shapes that are repeated in the same level or positions to both sides of the design. As in the Greek classical architecture, symmetry was usually centralised in the special layout of the design. This symmetry brought a sense of balance to the space on projecting the same image on both side of the design. Besides bringing a concept of balance of geometry, symmetry is also an aesthetically pleasing proportionality that reflects beauty and perfection. As we can see in the uniformity and arrangements of the Greek architectural columns, the order, dimension, placement, repetition and position reflect a harmonious beauty of perfection. (figure…)
Furthermore, the Egyptians principle of the symmetry and repetition has been the main objective of the Egyptians architecture. One example of symmetry might be found in the inscription grids of the Egyptians which were based on parts of the body and their symmetrical relation to each other, fingers, palms, hands, feet, cubits, etc… The human proportions was their basic idea of perfection and it could be found everywhere from their hieroglyphs to the buildings where people lived.
However, the first influence of a non symmetry distribution was seen at the Bauhaus period. In the 20’s and 30’s architecture was influence by the modernist philosophy of the Bauhaus, and that period was considered as a pioneer of the asymmetric revolution. Some designers saw asymmetrical design as a more modern and dynamic approach to design. The idea of creating a non equal distribution of weight on either both side of the axis will determine an asymmetry balance. This modernised view of design and will bring a more interesting schema of forms that has the same straight and can also bring balance to a space. Designers as Gropuis where always designing their buildings and spaces with asymmetrical proportions. He’s idea was to create a provocative impression within the elements of the buildings and this facade. The concept of Mies Van der Rohe, was similar to Gropuis. His idea of combining symmetry and asymmetry design will be for him a provocative impression to the building. Mies wanted to approach his spaces by the contrast of density, openness and asymmetry and symmetry. He was convinced that the contrast will provide a dynamic experience. (figure…)
After the Bauhaus period the influence of the asymmetry and the schemas of organic forms began to pop out. The elements of order in design still continued to glow but on using the path of natural structure to produce harmonious symmetry or asymmetry balance. Designers like Frank Lloyd Wright who balanced volumes on expressing organic contextual designs the asymmetry in his design. He created amazing work without the simple mathematical order of things. Other designer used the reflection of a complete organic shape, as in for the architect Antonio Gaudi where the image rises up into looking like natural organic forms.
Organic architecture is based on the idea of nature. Two case studies of designer how creates a free flow of curves and asymmetrical lines to express the forms of their design concept.
In the first place, the work of Santiago Calatrava was not inspired by the measurements of the human body but to incorporate the existing shapes of the human body. The observation of how the movements, gestural, postures, flow and structure of the external body are made, he came with his own inspiration and concept. His work on the Planetarium in Valencia the “Eye of Wisdom” (figure…) was build in the representation of a semi eye with its pupil. The location of the building allowed the reflection on the water of the building and was seen as a complete eye.
The second case study is the famous architect Zara Hadid. Her work consists to show an irregular geometry in organic forms. Her main focus is to translate harmony proportion into a contemporary dynamic process that project round and curvy forms. The classical proportion is for her like an enclosed and rigid solution, so her point is to bring its harmony in a softer or smoother sensation. On many of her works, the emphasis on the skin interface or environment is a way to project an unconventional, softer but dynamic design. In the new Guggenheim Museum in Taichung, there is a strong ambition toward a new organic language. There are two main galleries corridors that looks like there are melding within each other in the central part of the architecture. Instead of a mathematical intervention to bring the two portions together, there is only a realistic idea of how things can be fusion together naturally. This is translated by a smooth intervention with non added parts, but an overall unique composition.
In my opinion, the classical method of mathematics to project harmonious balanced proportion and order is relevant for a few contemporary designers. For other designers, the idea of breaking the convention on using harmony in an asymmetry and unbalance is their perception of new modern design.
The idea of harmony in symmetry or asymmetry for the first category of designers is still the ideal of designing beauty. Design and nature is now an old discipline and still used in contemporary spaces or forms. In my research I found that already in the 60s organic shapes began to rise with aesthetically pleasing form and on integrating to its environment. Their inspiration and concept was toward proportion but with new approaches towards forms. These new organic approaches was seen in organic contextual concepts or in a curvier look as Antonio Gaudi or Frank Lloyd Wright works. However, some designers became more oriented to organic shapes and natural forms rather than straight lines. The information towards ecology and biology in our days is so complete. Natural structure, patterns, forms that we seen a flower, a leave, a stone, a seed, a seashell are still viewed and connected to the natural law of Fibonacci numbers and golden ration. Instead of using the natural laws, I think that designers stay more focus on the geometry of symmetry or asymmetry balance.
The second category of designer is going through the path of a more asymmetrical unbalance approach toward design. Going away from the rules of geometrical proportion or the golden ratio, designer based their design on organic proportion and uses directly the shape of natural structures. The example of the concept of Calitrava is not to use the measurement of the human body but on looking to its body language. Nevertheless, this approach can be seen as a geometric perspective, but it is controlled and it is an intuitive vision of proportion. Zaha Hadid for example is a famous designer that had broken the convention rules of proportion. Her vision organic forms and her of unbalanced compositions thought asymmetry brings a true contemporary dynamism to design. He idea is to bring an irregular geometry and on the same time that the irregularity brings a smooth and flow feeling of flowing in space.
I think that we are going thought a century of new boundaries and reflection of why not doing in this manner instead of the convention way. Designers are more and thirstier of new adventure and discovering new limits in design. In my perception, the future design will always find a new path of experimentation even if the old notions rise time to time and fusion with new ideas.