Dr Vaidehi Nathan
Mathematical Excursions to the World’s Great Buildings, Alexander J Hahn, Princeton University Press,Pp 317(HB), $49.50
LONG before the world discovered the virtues of the science of building techniques, India had created not just treatises on building (vastushastra) but executed magnificent structures, mostly temples, that even today are looked upon as engineering marvels. And hence when a book takes a tour of some of the world’s greatest buildings in which India finds no place, it is disappointing. Alexander J. Hahn’s Mathematical Excursions to the World’s Great Buildings discusses the mathematics, science and technique behind some of the beautiful buildings in the West.
The ‘excursion’ is done at two levels. First it looks at the “architectural form (the role of geometry, symmetry, and proportion) and structure (matters of thrusts, loads, tensions, compressions) of some of the great buildings of western architecture…” The second level is to view “current elementary mathematics from a historical perspective.” “It is the raison d’etre of this book to intertwine these two stories and to demonstrate how they inform each other” says Hahn.
Beginning with prehistoric times, Hahn explores the buildings of Greek, Roman, Islamic, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and modern styles. “Basic geometric forms are evident everywhere in Greek architecture. In the construction of their buildings the Greeks tied ropes to pegs and stretched and rotated them to lay out the straight lines and circular arcs of their design” he says, adding “Greek contributions to mathematics are nothing short of astonishing. The Greek’s designs with Roman engineering rendered some of the earliest stable, well-structured buildings.
Hahn goes on to discuss some of the most fantastic churches and mosques throughout the West. Romanesque architecture is the style that incorporated the styles of the ‘East’ and West Christianity. “While Eastern Christianity preferred a centralised concept for its churches, Western Christianity turned to the basilica…” There were common elements but the differences were distinct and unique. The Gothic style is one of the most known with several Churches in India following it.
The story of the building of the cathedral Santa Maria del Flore in Florence is fascinating. It was started in 1296 with an avowed intension to surpass in grandeur those of its Tuscan rivals, Pisa and Siena. In 1418 the central dome had to be constructed and it was a 145-foot space. The authorities overseeing the project announced a competition. Filippo Brunelleschi, a goldsmith by training, and who had studied the brickwork and construction techniques of Rome submitted a project that did not warrant the building of a central 180-feet support beam. Work started in 1420 and was completed in 1436. “The church, 500 feet long, 125 feet wide, with a dome that rises to a height of 294 feet—376 feet if the lantern is included—was the largest church in the world.” Today, there are two larger, similar churches—St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London.
Some of the modern buildings discussed are the US Capitol and the Opera House Sydney. Before starting on the book, brush up the basic mathematics for Hahn has gone into the formulas and calculations rather intricately. Alexander J. Hahn is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Notre Dame and has authored books. Rich, insightful and detailed, the book is a pleasurable excursion if you want to go beyond a peek at the buildings. Drawings and colour images add understanding to the narration.
(Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton, New Jersey 08540)