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Spiral galaxy in outer space

Georgian style embodies the mathematical
proportions found in spiral galaxies and music.

Photo: Courtesy: NASA Hubble Telescope

SEEING MUSIC

GEORGIAN ARCHITECTURE

You are aware that some Ancient Greeks believed there is a "music of the spheres". Modern scientists scoffed at the idea, until astronomers discovered that stars like our Sun sing. This requires a bit of explanation. If the singing of the stars leaves you cold, you are welcome to fly down the file and find something more to your taste.

The heat of the Sun generates sound waves which resound through the interior, and are reflected on the surface in oscillations. Astronomers call these oscillations and the periods of silence between them the “ringing” of the Sun.

They say that the vibrations of stars are faint, and difficult to hear, but they have translated their ringing into sound waves audible to the human ear. Curiously, these waves sound like music.

In particular they sound like a melody that is sung by one voice and answered by a second voice in a different key with a third voice entering and singing the melody an octave higher or lower. The first voice returns with a different melody that begins another series of musical variations. . .as every musician knows, the Sun is singing a fugue.

How this music bears on Georgian architecture we will see, but first we have to look at three Italians of whom we are very fond.

The Italians

The great Italian Renaissance poet, architect, mathematician, and cryptographer Domenico Alberti (1404-1472) was sure that divine truths governed mathematics, music, and the universe, and he thought he could see their underlying unity. He had studied the work of architect and engineering genius Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) who researched the "secrets" of Classical architecture.

Brunelleschi invented a new Classical style based on the proportions he discovered, and though no one knows exactly what secrets Brunelleschi found or how he applied them, it is believed that Alberti's ten books on architecture describe at least one of his guiding principles:

The mathematical ratios that create musical harmony can be used to design a beautiful building.

Andrea Palladio (1518-80) based his designs on the ideas of Alberti and Brunelleschi. He also believed in the cosmic significance of numerical ratios, as did ancient Britons and Anglo Saxons. Palladio built villas in the Italian countryside based on "divine" proportions and his pragmatic understanding of how a farm works. Then he wrote up his ideas in detail.

The Earl of Burlington and William Kent

Years later, Richard Boyle, the Third Earl of Burlington and 4th Earl of Cork (1694-1753), was travelling in northern Italy. While there he saw Palladio's Villa Rotonda. We imagine his steps falling silent, his lips opening mutely. He was falling in love. He looked. He listened to the visual music of the house. He resolved to build a house like this for himself, and as money was no object, it appeared that he would.

Adults and children view Chiswick House from the sunny garden

With the help of William Kent, Palladio's architecture manuals,
and his large fortune, Burlington built Chiswick House in London in 1729, and created a lasting impression.

Image: English Heritage

Chiswick House sounds the opening notes of a new, serene and festive architecture – Classical architecture with a distinctly English accent that will come to be known all over the world as Georgian. (Burlington also leads the way in creating a new and liberated landscape park, but that is a different story, told in The English Garden).

Urban transformations

Architects such as John Wood the Elder, John Wood the Younger, and John Eveleigh transformed the city of Bath, while London saw the development of new and elegant squares of homes.

The Crescent, Bath

The Royal Crescent, Bath, designed by the architect John Wood the Younger. The formality of its front facade contrasts with the intimacy of the rear facade and private gardens.

Image: Adrian Pingstone

 

Small Georgian corner house

Georgian buildings were not built only for the well-to-do.

Photo: JoeGough@istockphoto.com

Georgian style looks at ease with itself and makes people feel at home. It is formal, but the beauty of its formality frames us and makes us look and feel good. Then again, Georgian sometimes dispenses with charm to look decisively commanding.

Georgian building and red-coated Foot Guards

Wellington Barracks, London, and
The Queen's Foot Guards

Image: David Abbott

The name Georgian, which comes from the three Georges who ruled Britain between 1714 and 1820, is used everywhere but in America. Avoiding references to their bête noir, George III, Americans call buildings in the Georgian style colonial. Some of America's loveliest homes and most loved public buildings are Georgian.

The north side of the White House, columns gleaming in early spring light

The White House
Note that the central entrance has the temple facade – columns, a great porch, and triangular pediment – characteristic of Georgian architecture. The windows on the ground floor exhibit the same 'eyebrows' as those in Jones's Banqueting Hall. They contrast with the windows above them, which, like a song sung in another key, are treated more simply. Georgian architecture may be faced with stone, brick, wood, or, as is the case here at the White House, with stucco.

Photo: qingwa@istockphoto.com

The Golden Ratio

The width and length of many Georgian room dimensions are based on the harmonic proportions of music. One harmonic proportion that can be identified is the Golden Ratio encapsulated in the infinite Fibonacci sequence.

In this sequence every number (after the first two) is the sum of the two preceding numbers: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377, 610. . . Each number is approximately 1.618 larger than the one that precedes it, creating a ratio called the Golden Ratio or ϕ (phi).

Fibonacci spiral

Image: Wiki

By drawing a series of golden rectangles nesting inside each other, and connecting the centres of the squares with a line (it will curve), we can see how the infinitely expansive spiral galaxy is based on the proportions of the Golden Ratio. This proportion makes a beautiful appearance in Western music, whose musical scale consists of 8 notes with the fundamental chord, the triad, consisting of three pitches that fuse their sound: Two pitches are a perfect fifth apart and a third pitch is a major or minor third lower.

Georgian brick house with roses and wisteria

This Georgian home in Britain shows barely a hint of Palladio's balanced three-part or five-part profile. The temple facade is faintly echoed by the slender and unobtrusive pilasters and the modest pediment above the door.
In a welcome advance from the house as fortress, Georgian style emphasizes large, paned windows. The arched lower windows are based on Palladio's original design. The bricked-in window above the door was the victim of a government's steep window tax. The dimensions of the windowpanes evoke the Golden Section.

Photo: jrling@istockphoto.com

The Golden Section also appears in the relationship between the width and length of Georgian house exteriors, rooms, and windowpane sizes and in the proportions of the delicately shaped iron staircases that spiral inside houses.

Staircase. Perfection. Just a line, and a curve, and another line, and another curve. In short, a Georgian staircase. When one has said this, one has said all that is necessary to say.
~Beverley Nichols

We know exactly what he means - we've seen it - but we can't find a photo to do that staircase justice.

Great hall with black & white paving, high white ceilings, and sculpture

Robert Adam (1728-1792) occasionally used white and black to dramatic effect, as here at the great hall at Syon House, but his preferred palette was pastels and rich reds, blues, and golds. The red drawing room at Syon House is flamboyant. Robert and his brothers James and John designed wall and ceiling treatments, tables, chairs, commodes, mirrors, sconces, and even beds.

Image: Syon Park

Colours - lots of them - and dancers

Adam design sketch, full of colour

An Adam design for the mirror room at Northumberland Place. The Georgians loved colour.

In the hands of the Adam brothers, the subtle and enthralling music of Georgian interiors can be seen in the counterpoint of floor patterns and ceiling designs, the rhythms of wall, door, window and hearth decorations, and the sinuous solos of tables, chairs and sofas. Georgian rooms naturally suggest music. They were designed to hold dancers.

Guests walked into a hall that spanned the length of the house, and gave easy access to every room, creating the circulation necessary for the dances and routs of which they were so fond. The furniture - beautiful but there was a minimum of it - was pushed back against the walls. It was moved into a room when it was needed and returned to the walls at night, a convenience when they holding exuberant balls.

We would say more about the furniture, but that deserves a file of its own.

Living in a Georgian house

Georgian rooms were painted in pale lime green, apricot, ruby red, brilliant blue and celadon. It is said that the trick is to stipple the colour on the walls with artist's oils, and wash it with a darker scumble glaze that intensifies the underlying colour. When light pours in through the tall, deep-set Georgian windows, the colours become translucent.

Georgian room with dog

This room is furnished quite differently from an original Georgian. For one thing, there are less dancing possibilities. The cornice molding of Ionic dentils and the height of the white ceiling create a sense of airiness. The dog makes us feel at home.

Image: Christopher Simon Sykes, English Country

Living in a Georgian house requires some funds, but that is always the case with civilisation - even at its simplest it requires money. (Living without civilisation requires lives.) In the case of the Georgians, living required bold men willing and able to take ships round the world.

Even middle-class Georgians depended on servants to wash and cook and haul coal to the fire. As the Ingenious Timeline shows, Georgian and Victorian inventors freed us from using servants for these tasks. Like Georgian designers, British inventors will look for beauty, function, and structure, and find their most significant insights in nature and numbers.

Georgian architecture balances competing interests to create stability and light, harmony and pleasure.

English bulldog puppy

 

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Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 David Abbott & Catherine Glass