Sei sulla pagina 1di 7

THE SYSTEMS OF PROPORTIONING IN MEDIEVAL MUSLIM

ARCHITECTURE

Abstract
In the pre-modern Muslim world important developments in the field of geometry
occurred and a continuation of the classical traditions of proportioning prevailed in
architecture. However, our knowledge of Islamic geometry as an independent
discipline is more substantial than in the application of this knowledge in architecture.
There is no medieval text that discusses the process through which geometric
knowledge were transferred to architecture design, and contemporary sources are
rather silent regarding the role assigned to geometry in the evolution of the design
traditions of Muslim architecture. This situation has led to recent studies trying to
make analysis of the geometrical principles encountered in the surviving drawings
and the original work of architecture. This paper presents a fresh interpretation of
such analysis and tries to identify two of the methods used in proportioning. The first
method demonstrates the application of mathematical relationships to relate the parts
of the design to the whole, while the second is the use of primary grids as a tool for
measurements and proportion. In this method the setting-up of gridline network
derives from geometric patterns serving as basic modular units.

1.

Introduction

In the pre-modern Muslim world important developments in the field of geometry


occurred and a continuation of the classical traditions of mathematical proportions
prevailed in architecture.
The development of geometry and other scientific fields of inquiry in the
Islamic world were initiated during the eights and ninth centuries by translations from
ancient texts such as Greek and Sanskrit. By the tenth century, original Muslim
contributions to the sciences became significant; in this context important
development in the field of geometry and mathematics resulted from the work of,
Umar al-Khayyam, Abul Wafa al-Buzjani, Abu Mansur al-Khwarazmi, ibn alHaytham and others. However, our knowledge of geometry as an independent
discipline is more substantial than its application in architecture.
Although the available knowledge of the developments in the field of geometry
in the pre-modern Islamic world is considerable, we dont know enough about the
process through which theoretical knowledge of geometry was transformed to
architecture. The use of geometrical knowledge in practical sense had been confined
to the medieval working methods of apprenticeship as found in the original
documents including technical workshop literature, manuals of applied geometry and
workshop drawings.
The available original documents include either written or drawn material. The
written material is mainly the work of mathematicians who focused on the direct
application of geometric shapes in decorative patterns. Muslim mathematicians such
as al-Buzjani (d.998) wrote manuals explaining basic principles of geometric patterns
and their applications in architecture. These manuals, which were intended for
architects, craftsmen and building supervisors, discussed issues including the
composition of two-dimensional decorative pattern. The drawn material consists of
the surviving original drawings on scrolls, which illustrate plan drawings and
decorative designs unaccompanied by any explanatory text (Fig: 4).
It is noted that the medieval Muslim master builder who was skilled in
engineering/geometry (muhandasi), building (mimari) and also in drawing (tarahi),
1

did not write as Vitruvius in the antiquity or Alberti and Palladio in the Renaissance
did. As a result there is no available text that discusses the process through which
geometric knowledge were transferred to architecture design, and little is known
regarding the role assigned to geometry in the evolution of Muslim architecture.
As a result contemporary sources too are relatively silent about the use of
geometric pattern as a governing tool of proportion in architectural design, and our
knowledge about the degree as to which Muslim architects were informed of the
theoretical developments in mathematics and geometry remain incomplete. This
situation has recently encouraged analysis of the geometrical principles used in the
surviving Muslim drawings and the original work of architecture. This paper presents
a fresh interpretation of such analysis and tries to identify the principles of
proportioning used in Muslim architecture.

2.

Methods of proportioning in pre-modern Muslim architecture

Analysis of surviving pre-modern Muslim drawings and original work of architecture


indicated that proportioning was used since the 9th century to relate all the different
parts in buildings and to integrate the parts into the whole. Several methods of
proportioning were based on mathematical relationship such as the golden ratio in the
Great Mosque of Kairouan (Boussora and Mazouz: 2006); the relationship between
the side of a square and its diagonal as in the case of the Great Mosque at Cordoba
(Fernandez- Puertas: 1994); and the use of modular grid system in 15th century
Timurid drafting as in Tashkent scrolls (Necipoglu: 1992). With view of their
significance in identifying the systems of proportion in medieval Muslim architecture,
this paper considers the last two of these examples.
2.1.

Method I: The mathematical relationship


of the square and its diagonal
The first method of proportion is based on the mathematical relationship between the
side of a square and its diagonal. If the side of a square is given the conventional
value = 1, its diagonal will have the value of 2. An arc is then drawn from the 2
diagonal of the square. From the point where the arc intersects the extension of one
side of the square, a rectangle is then formed with sides in the proportion of 1: 2 and
this rectangle will have a diagonal of 3. By repeating the same operation using the
3 diagonal a further rectangle is drawn with proportions of 1: 3 and so on.
This system was used as a governing method of proportions throughout mosque
buildings since Umayyad architecture in the 8th century. One example of its
application is found in the Great Mosque in Cordoba cited in Fernandez- Puertas
(1994). Its traditional square plan was enlarged twice, in the 9th and the 10th centuries.
Using the arc drawn from the diagonal of the square, the Great Mosque at Cordoba
was enlarged from the square first to a 1: 2 rectangle and further a 1: 3 rectangle
(Fig: 1, 2).

Fig. (1) Plan of the Great Mosque, Cordoba


Fernandez- Puertas (1994)

Fig. (2) Diagram of the original mosque extension


Fernandez- Puertas (1994)

Another example of using the mathematical relationship of the diagonal of the


square in setting proportions is found in the minaret of the Khanqa of Farag ibn
Barquq in Cairo (Fig: 3).

Fig. (3) The minaret of Farag ibn Barquq Khanqa, Cairo.

The empirical analysis by Ibrahim & Mostafa (1992) shows that the height of
the minaret (H) equals 8 times the measurement of the side of its square base (F), thus
H=8F. The illustration shows the minaret is divide into 8 equal square divisions each
measures (F), and arcs drawn from the 2 and 3 diagonals.
The diagonal method was used in setting-up mathematical proportions in the
design of the minaret. As the illustration in (Fig: 3) shows, the intersecting points of
the arcs drawn from the square diagonals mark the positions of the various
architectural elements of the minaret such as the base line and the top of shafts and
locations of muqarnas and so on.
2.2
Method II: The modular geometric pattern and gridlines network
The other method of proportion uses a primary grid system which is based on modular
geometric units. It is recognized that the use of gridline system was found to be a
common feature of architects' drawings in the 15th and16th century. All drawings are
executed across a grid of squares (42- 62 mm), which represent the structural modules
of the plan. Not only that but surviving buildings in Central Asia since the 9th century
onwards were found to conform to such system that there seems no doubt that this
was the method by which buildings were designed, drawn and set out (Rai: 1993;
Tabaa: 1987).
The use of gridlines as a basic design tool in Muslim architecture is found in a
group of 16th century architectural drawings from Bukhara. The drawings include
plans drafted on square grid formulating modular units, which seem to be based on
smaller basic units of geometric patterns. Islamic geometric pattern was broadly used
since the 14th century in the planning, construction and decoration of
Timurid/Turkmen architecture, not for decorative purpose alone as contemporary
sources assume. In her discussion of the functions of decoration in Muslim
architecture, Golombek (1988) refers to the existence of a primary grid that underlies
all decoration and remains almost visible in the final product. This grid is related to
the orthogonal grids used by Muslim architects to design plans and elevations of
buildings. She deducted from these observations that primary grids which assisted in
the design and construction of the building became the starting point of all
decorations.
The thesis of this study suggests, by contrast with Golombecks interpretation,
that the setting out of primary grids which assisted in the design and construction of
buildings was based on modular units derived from geometric patterns rather than the
other way round as Golombeck suggested. In other words geometric pattern was used
as modular units for setting out the regulating gridlines.
This assumption is supported by the example from the 15th century
Timurid/Turkmen scroll (Victoria and Albert museum no. 24, London- Photo: Hugh
Sainsbury) presented by Necipoglu (1992) (Fig: 4). The Timurid/Turkmen scroll
shows ground plans, inscriptions and decorative brick patterns on squared paper. The
three illustrations are drawn on one grid system following a simple ratio of
2:1:2:1:2:1. The fact that the hidden vertical grid system is shared by the ground
plans, as well as the inscriptions and decorative brickwork, indicates the dependence
of such system on the geometric pattern acting as basic modular units. The grid
system functioned as a drawing tool for setting measurements, and providing
integrated proportions and unity of design.

Fig. (4) Ground plans, inscriptions and decorative brick patterns on squared paper.
Victoria and Albert museum, no. 24, London ( Photo : Hugh Sainsbury )

3.

Conclusions

The development of geometry, and other scientific fields of inquiry, in the Islamic
world was initiated during the eights and ninth centuries by translations from ancient
texts especially Greek. By the tenth century original Muslim contribution became
significant. Hellenic and Muslim scientific discoveries were transmitted into the West
in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries when Europe came into full contact with the
Islamic centers of learning in Spain.
We know that the writings of Vitruvius in the first century AD were
rediscovered in the renaissance. His well known treatise De architectura constituted
the basic design principles up to present time. This paper helped demonstrating that
Muslim architects had known the classical basic design principles centuries before the
6

renaissance and used them in advancing their own methods of proportion in


architectural design. However, we do not know of any Muslim text that makes
reference to Vitruvius theories and we are not certain whether his treatises were
translated into Arabic.
Significant influence of Muslim architecture on Europe is found in Gothic
architecture. In Gothic architecture as well as in Muslim architecture, obvious unity
and regularity were achieved by a due observance of the Classical principles of
proportions, regulating grid lines were used as a modular tool. This similarity
suggests that the classical design principles and Muslim contributions were
transformed into Europe at least three centuries before they were discovered in the
renaissance. It also support the assumption that Vitruvius treatises were translated into
Arabic and then into Latin before they were finally transmitted to Europe. This
important part of Muslim history, which is crucial for understanding the development
not only of Muslim architecture but the architecture of the world remains to be
verified by future research.
References
Fernandez- Puertas, Antonio (2002). Spain and North Africa. In The Mosque, History,
Architectural Development & Regional Diversity (ed.), Thames & Hudson Ltd
and the American University in Cairo Press, Cairo, Egypt.
Golombek, L. (1988). The Function of Decoration in Islamic Architecture. In
Theories and Principles of Design in the Architecture of Islamic Societies (ed.), a
Symposium held by the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard
University and the MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.
Ibrahim, Abdelbaki M. & Mostafa, Saleh L. (1992). Principles of Architectural
Design and Urban Planning During Different Islamic Eras. Organization of
Islamic Capitals and Cities, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Necipoglu, G. (1992). Timurid Art and Culture: Iran and central Asia in the fifteenth
century. E.J.Brill.
Rai, J. (1993). Mathematics and aesthetics in Islamic architecture: Reference to
Fatehpur Sikri.King Saud Univ. Vol. 5, Architecture and Planning, pp 19- 48,
Riyadah.
Tabbaa, Y. (1987). Geometry and Memory in the Design of the Madrasat al-Firdows
in Aleppo. In Theories and Principles of Design in the Architecture of Islamic
Societies (ed.), a Symposium held by the Aga Khan Program for Islamic
Architecture at Harvard University and the MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

Dr. Fathi Bashier


Assoc. Professor of Architecture
School of Architecture and Environmental Planning
Sharq Al-Neel College
Khartoum North.
e-mail: <bashierfathi@hotmail.co.uk>