Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Claude Perrault and the knowledge of architectural proportion. The relation between culture and cognition in historical perspective

Knowledge and culture subproject 3: "Visual arts and geometry" of Leiden University Centre for Linguistics

2013 - 2017
NWO Horizon Grant NWO Horizon Grant

Subproject implementation

In architectural history, the study of proportion has perpetually been related to the subject of universality and cognition. Is the knowledge of proportion a cognitive capability generally present within humans and manifest in different forms of art, from architecture to music and sculpture? Or is the knowledge of proportion part of the genius capabilities of a learned architect and hence only comes to light in highly developed cultures? The question often remains unresolved which gives numerous writings upon architectural proportion an ambivalent nature. The architectural historian Wittkower for example, considered proportion to be the main characteristic of Renaissance architecture. The emphasis in his seminal Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism(1949) lay with the cultural context of the use of proportion of this specific period. Paradoxically, the author was also convinced that the search for proportion was very likely to be inherent to human nature and an a-historical feature of architecture.

Interestingly, this long-standing discourse has been recently reignited in the related cognitive sciences. Due to new techniques and a more comparative approach, these studies propose that infants and people from non-literate societies know more than was previously presumed based on their age or background. Our knowledge of arithmetic proportion for example, was generally thought to be only acquainted by humans of a mature age living in a culture with a sufficiently developed system of mathematics. But as Dehaene explains in his classic survey on The Number Sense (1997), cultures lacking any developed counting system are able to distinguish between large quantities depending on their ratio. Numerous studies on the cognition of number and space jointly claim that proportional reasoning is in fact universally involved with the most basic aspects of mathematical and spatial knowledge, ranging from the understanding of rational numbers to the comprehension of quantities and the notion of spatial reasoning.

Hence, the research is readdressing the question as to which extent cognitive capabilities are culture specific and how the relation between universal and cultural knowledge evolves during the development of humans and the societies they live in. The purpose of the Horizon research program ‘Culture and Knowledge’ is to relate these findings from the field of the cognitive sciences to the research field of the humanities. The central question is whether the manner in which our cognitive system operates, and knowledge on specific areas such as number and geometry is acquainted, may have affected our cultural achievements such as our modern mathematics or artefacts like buildings. As efforts bridging the presently distinct fields of the social sciences and the humanities are only recent, the method applicable for this kind of research constitutes a secondary research topic.

The objective of this study is to contribute to this discussion through the study of the historicity of the relation between the knowledge of proportion and cognition in architecture, a field where this research subject has traditionally taken a central role. The question of what architectural proportion actually is or ought to be has invariably been discussed in relation to man's body and mind, and how these were involved in the creation of buildings out of natural resources. The work of the seventeenth-century medic, anatomist, physician, architect and author Claude Perrault (1613-1618) provides an illustrative research case with this respect. The French scientist, who was simultaneously an architectural practitioner and theorist, approached the topic of architectural proportion in a novel manner.

In his classical treatise Ordonnnance des cinq espèces de colonnes selon la méthode des Anciens(1683), Perrault introduced a distinction between positive and arbitrary proportions, the latter being the result of custom as opposed to natural laws. These arbitrary proportions were disconnected from their ancient triadic purposes of solidity and utility, and solely related to beauty. Next to this, architectural proportion became an exclusively mathematical concept, to be expressed in narrowly defined numerical and geometrical systems. What makes the work of Perrault further significant regarding the research topic of culture and knowledge, is the prime position of the working of our cognitive system within his theories. According to Perrault, proportions did not embody an inner beauty in themselves, but gave rise to an effect of beauty in the mind of the observer. Hence, beauty became situated in the subject rather than the object and the experience of proportion was confined to the visual realm.

Similar approaches towards the notion of proportion can be found in present day research from the field of the cognitive sciences as well as architectural history. The exploration of the historicity of the research questions of the Horizon program within the work of Claude Perrault may give insights into their inherent postulations and the factors to be encountered when researching this cross-disciplinary subject at the present time.

Research questions

This project will trace the provenance of the main topic of the Horizon program, the relation between culture and cognition, in the work of Claude Perrault by researching the following questions:

  • To what extent did the perception of the relationship between culture and cognition influence the notion of architectural proportion in the work of Claude Perrault?
  • What were the motives underlying the references to the psycho-physical make up of humans in the discussion of architectural proportion in the work of Claude Perrault?
  • How can the answers to the above questions be informative about the issues involved in present day research upon the relationship between culture and cognition in general? 
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