Monday, July 16, 2012


People love things that come in threes, from musketeers to little pigs to stooges. Compelling arrangements of three also show up in more hifalutin’ places: A symphony has three movements, a play has three acts, and a novel has its proverbial beginning, middle, and end.  

The peculiar power of three-part compositions appears in architecture as well.  Take, for instance, the division of the classical column into base, shaft, and capital--a sort of beginning, middle, and end in three dimensions.  In one form or another, this same vertical composition appears in everything from classical temples to skyscrapers.  It also appears in the individual parts of buildings, such as the way interior walls are divided into base, wall, and crown, and even in the design of moldings, whose profiles are often built up with three elements of different hierarchies, more or less like miniature buildings.

What makes three-part compositions so effective?  One answer may lie in the way we think.  Our brains strive to find rational patterns in everything we experience, yet paradoxically, they also seem to get bored when things fall into place too easily.  What the human mind really seems to crave--and what may even constitute the very essence of beauty--is a comprehensible pattern that contains unexpected variations.  Three-part arrangements seem to furnish the ideal venue for this delicate balance.

Visually, groups of three also provide just the right degree of complexity without losing clarity of composition.  Consider an arrangement of windows:  A group of two can’t quite get a rhythm going, while four or more can start to look redundant.  Not so a group of three, however:  Like Goldilocks’s porridge, they’re not too little, not too much, but always just right.  

Three-part arrangements can also be easily tweaked to create visual movement without destroying their symmetry.  For instance, the Palladian window, named for the sixteenth-century architect Andrea Palladio, is a classic three-part design featuring two side elements flanking a larger central portion with an arched top.  The simple addition of this dominant central arch creates movement while still retaining the inherent calm of bilateral symmetry.  

Three hundred years after Palladio came the Chicago window, first used in early skyscrapers, but better known for brightening the living rooms of countless bungalows of the Twenties.  It featured a pair of double-hung sash flanking a large central picture window--another unbeatable dot-dash-dot arrangement that creates more visual tension than would three equal-sized openings. 

Beyond such aesthetic subtleties, though, there’s a practical reason why tripled windows, doors, or archways work better than ones with two or four elements:  They have an opening in the center instead of a mullion.  This seemingly obvious advantage is routinely overlooked by architects, which is why so many people at kitchen sinks end up staring at a mullion instead of a beautiful view.

There you have it, both the mystical and the mundane.  If you’re looking for a timeless basis for design, maybe all you need to do is count to three.

Monday, July 2, 2012


Suppose a developer wanted to advertise the name of his subdivision by building a sign five hundred feet long on a prominent hillside that was visible for miles.  Suppose each letter was going to be fifty feet high and built out of telephone poles, pipes, and sheet metal.  And suppose the whole thing was going to be lit up by ten thousand or so unshaded forty-watt bulbs, so it couldn’t be overlooked even at night.

A design review board’s nightmare?  Not really.  In 1923, a pair of developers named S.H. Woodruff and Tracy Shoults proposed--and built--just such a sign in a sleepy hamlet near Los Angeles.  It advertised their 500-acre housing development, which was called Hollywoodland.  In 1949, the sign’s last four letters were removed by the local chamber of commerce, leaving a landmark now famed the world over: the giant hillside sign reading HOLLYWOOD. 

The point is that our ideas of what’s aesthetically right or wrong can change drastically over time.  During the 1920s, no one gave a second thought to outlandish structures like the Hollywood sign--they were considered a natural expression of an exuberant era.  Today, however, conventional planning wisdom frowns mightily upon any structure that dares call attention to itself and thus potentially upsets the equilibrium of the mundane.  Today, a developer proposing a 500-foot long advertising sign would either be run out of town or politely referred to a psychiatrist.   

The Hollywood sign and other ebullient structures like it--including some of America’s most beloved landmarks and icons--could never come to pass under today’s withering regulatory scrutiny.  Imagine the hurdles faced by someone today proposing to build a 305-foot high statue on an island in the middle of New York Harbor.  It’s almost too easy to predict the ensuing litany of objections:  Construction on the island could adversely affect nesting seabirds; rain could cause the statue’s copper skin to shed toxic sulfates; the statue could obstruct Bayonne’s view of Manhattan; a statue promoting Liberty might offend those favoring alternate forms of government.  

In today’s ultra-deferential planning climate, simply mitigating or refuting such objections might take decades, if it ever happened at all.  A modern-day Statue of Liberty would no doubt look quite different--not because the risks have changed, but because we have.
Just about every state in the Union has manmade structures that are the product of eccentricity, obsession, megalomania, or just plain shameless commerce.  They range from Mount Rushmore to the Watts Towers, from Sam Hill’s Stonehenge replica in southern Washington right on down to the Big Duck of Flanders, New York.  Such icons are a part of any vibrant culture, yet practically none of them could have arisen under the crushing heel of today’s regulatory bureacracy.  

The Chinese have no such qualms about building with exuberance. Just across the river from Shanghai’s famous Bund, they’ve built a 1,536-foot-tall broadcast tower that looks like something straight out of Buck Rogers.  Called the Oriental Pearl Tower, it’s the tallest such structure in Asia.  Every evening, this amazing colossus is lit up by animated cascades of colored lamps, making it impossible to overlook by anyone within a ten mile radius.  In the span of a decade, the Oriental Pearl has become the instantly recognizable symbol of Shanghai, and in a sense, of China’s renaissance itself.

As for the United States, the nation that turned exuberance into an art form, we have for the most part turned off the lights.  What our aesthetic tiptoeing and whispering has gained us is a way to ensure the least offense to the most people.  What it has cost us is our magic portal to the offbeat, the extraordinary, the insanely great.