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Prof earns award for architecture research

Matt Cohen, WSU associate professor of architecture, looking at the architecture from the roof of the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence.

Scaffolding in Santo Spirito basilica

By Alyssa Patrick, CEA intern

PULLMAN, Wash. – Matthew Cohen, associate professor of architecture in Washington State University’s School of Design and Construction, has received the prestigious James Ackerman Award for his research that challenges long-standing architectural history theory.

Cohen received the international award for his book manuscript titled, Beyond Beauty, Reexamining Architectural Proportion in the Basilicas of San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito in Florence.

The award was established by James S. Ackerman, the Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Fine Arts Emeritus at Harvard University, who created an endowment to promote original works in the field of architectural history. As part of the award, the International Center for the Study of the Architecture of Andrea Palladio, based in Vicenza, Italy, will publish the manuscript. Cohen was selected as the winner by an international panel of judges.

20 years of research

Cohen’s book is the culmination of research on proportional systems that he started as a graduate student and has continued throughout his career. In 1991-1992, with permission from Italian authorities, Cohen erected mobile scaffoldings in the basilicas of San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito in Florence, in order to record comprehensive measurements. These buildings are two of the most famous in the history architecture because they initiated the Renaissance style. His research led him to discover what some have called a “nonfiction Da Vinci Code” embedded in the architecture.

“I discovered that the architect inscribed certain patterns of geometry and numbers into the measurements of the buildings, probably in part in the belief that they made the building stronger, and in part to communicate deeper ideas about architecture as a representation of the macrocosm,” Cohen said.

Renaissance architecture

Filippo Brunelleschi, the originator of Renaissance architecture, designed the basilica of San Lorenzo, the focus of Cohen’s research, in about 1421. Scholars typically interpret this building as a prime example of the Renaissance conception of perfection, and they typically attribute its orderly beauty to the mathematical principles of its proportional systems — even though prior to Cohen’s research, no one knew what the proportions of the building were.


  • Youtube – Above, video interview with Matt Cohen regarding “Proportional Systems in the History of Architecture”
  • 05-09-11- WSU News – Thinking in a new way: Architecture: Prof might define new field of study
Contradicting proportional beauty

“The belief that proportional systems are responsible for beauty in architecture constitutes a paradigm in the fields of architecture and architectural history,” Cohen said.

However, Cohen’s findings contradict this paradigm. Instead of guessing what proportions were used in the designs of Brunelleschi’s buildings, Cohen analyzed his measurements together with historical documents from the period. What he found proves that proportional systems cannot be a cause of beauty in architecture, because most of them consist of groups of symbolic numbers and other patterns that are not visible to the eye. Perhaps even more controversial, Cohen contends that Brunelleschi probably did not design the proportional system of San Lorenzo, but reused one designed by his predecessor as the church architect, prior Matteo Dolfini. Cohen’s findings have shaken up the field of architecture history.

Inspiring other research

Cohen plans to continue looking into the proportional systems he has discovered and what they mean in architectural history, and hopes that the ripples his work has generated will inspire others to conduct research in this area as well.

“The next step is to use the latest measurement technology that can generate detailed 3D images of the buildings,” Cohen said. “This research is truly a blending of science and the humanities.”

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