Matt Cohen, right, with conference collaborators
Eelco Nagelsmit, left, and Caroline van Eck. (Photo
courtesy of Matt Cohen)
SPOKANE, Wash. – A WSU architecture professor is on the brink of defining a new field of study within architectural history. With the revival of a 60-year-old debate, he has scholars in the field buzzing about the future.
 
In September 1951, artists, architects and historians gathered in Milan, Italy for a conference called “De Divina Proportione,” which in Latin means “On Divine Proportion.” The conference was part of the Ninth Triennale, one of a series of meetings held every three years to discuss important issues in the arts related to industry.
 
At this particular meeting, organizers Le Corbusier and Rudolf Wittkower – the most famous architect and architectural historian of the time – asked delegates to tackle the weighty issue of proportionality.
 
“Historical documents tell us that builders in the Renaissance and earlier periods used certain proportional systems to make their buildings more orderly and structurally stable,” said Matt Cohen, associate professor of architecture at WSU Spokane. “To understand their intentions, you have to enter into a very old way of thinking, from the days before engineering and modern aesthetics.”
 
The focus of the 1951 conference was the participants’ belief that proportional systems create beauty in both historical and modern architecture.
 
“The myth that proportional systems can affect the aesthetic appearance of architecture is a huge distraction in our field,” said Cohen.
 
Most scholars still think this way, he said: “They want to talk about the supposedly magical properties of proportional systems, but when we remove this beauty myth, a completely new field of study emerges.”
 
Cohen said the 1951 conference was so important that its participants made plans for future conferences. But those never happened … until March 2011, when Cohen and two colleagues at Leiden University in the Netherlands revived the debate.
 
Besides his work at WSU Spokane, Cohen is a Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Cultural Disciplines at Leiden.
 
“The conference exceeded our expectations,” he said. “There was a buzz in the air. People sensed that something new was happening.”
 
Cohen has a personal interest in the debate. In 2005, with a New Faculty Seed Grant from WSU, he went to the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence with a tape measure. (Read about this in the fall 2010 issue of Washington State Magazine.)
 
He thought there was much more to the proportional systems of the building than previous scholars suggested, and he wanted to check the measurements for himself.
 
“Measuring a building is a very subjective process,” he said. “Where you start and where you end isn’t always clear and it can become very complicated. There are no set guidelines.”
 
Cohen’s new insights from this research, his innovative methodology, and the high level of interest in the topic led his dissertation advisor to suggest he organize the Leiden conference.
 
“We know very little about this topic, though it is widely considered to be important,” said Cohen. “We wanted to open up a new scholarly discussion.
 
“We hope scholars will now be able to separate aesthetic judgments from their understanding of proportional systems, and use accurate measurements to figure out what architects in history really did, not what we might imagine they did,” he said.
 
The Leiden conference featured many of the world’s most distinguished architectural scholars, including 91-year-old James S. Ackerman, a Harvard University professor emeritus who attended the 1951 conference. Cohen interviewed him on video to discuss the first conference and what has been learned since.
 
“We’re trying to define a new field of study within architectural history,” said Cohen. “The biggest challenge is going to be confronting preconceptions. People are not going to start thinking in a new way overnight.”