Book Edited by Matthew Cohen MArch ’94 Reconsiders the Often-Misunderstood Subject of Architectural Proportional Systems

Proportional Systems in the History of Architecture: A Critical Reconsideration, a new book edited by Matthew Cohen MArch ’94 and Maarten Delbeke, explores diverse aspects of the important and often-misunderstood subject of architectural proportional systems. The collection of twenty-five essays by leading scholars in the field of architectural history is a result of an international conference on this topic that Cohen organized in Leiden in 2011. It commemorated the sixtieth anniversary of the last international conference on this topic, held in Milan in 1951 and organized by Rudolf Wittkower and featuring Le Corbusier. Among the contributors to this volume is James S. Ackerman (via a transcribed interview), at the time of publication the only living participant of both the 1951 Milan conference and the 2011 Leiden conference.

This new exploration of proportional systems is novel and sometimes controversial because it reconceives proportional systems as parts of the rhetorical rather than visual structures of architecture. Thus the editorial premise of the volume casts the widespread belief that proportional systems create beauty in architecture as no more than a centuries-old myth, and instead introduces the notion that proportional systems primarily contribute meaning to architecture, as a quality no less important than visual character in distinguishing architecture from mere building.

Cohen’s investigation of the topic began as part of his master’s thesis at the GSD, under the supervision of Profs. Howard Burns and Jorge Silvetti. He later pursued a Ph.D. in architectural history at Leiden University, where this research continued as his dissertation, which led to the Leiden conference, and ultimately to this volume. Cohen has pursued this research alongside his career as an architect, and more recently Professor of Architecture at Washington State University. His previous book, Beyond Beauty: Reexamining Architectural Proportion through the Basilicas of San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito in Florence, won the James Ackerman Award in the History of Architecture in 2012.

Proportional Systems in the History of Architecture promises to open a new field of study within architectural history, separating the study of proportional systems from its often mystically-infused preconceptions, and setting it on a rigorous scholarly footing. It is published by Leiden University Press, with distribution by Chicago University Press. Browse the table of contents.