Posted in History & Literature

Designing Under Constraint

You would think that the more freedom the designer has, the more their creativity can flourish and they can produce more original, greater ideas. But it is a well-known fact in the design world that the the best designs are produced when designing under constraint.

Consider the beauty of the canal houses of Amsterdam. In the 17th century, plots of land by the canal were allocated in narrow (but deep) portions to maximise the number of houses. Architects worked around this restriction, resulting in the narrow, tall houses of various shapes and colours that we see today. Another architectural example is Florence and Santorini, where building materials were limited to red bricks or stone painted in white and blue respectively, meaning the buildings shared a consistent colour scheme, while varying in shape – the ideal combination for building a beautiful city.

We see the same in other fields. Photography is limited in the realm of time, as you can only take a snapshot. But by using long-exposure or composite images, time can be represented in unique, beautiful ways. The artistic restriction of painting led to Pablo Picasso pioneering cubism, which attempts to represent the many faces of a three-dimensional object on a two-dimensional medium. Great literature can be produced from limitation also, such as haikus or flash fiction, such as the infamous six-word story by Ernest Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”.

There are many reasons why designing under constraint results in greater works.

Firstly, choice and freedom can be paralysing. When we have absolutely no restricitons, rules or guidance, we have difficulty processing the sheer number of possibilities, because there are too many things to consider. We find it much easier to make a decision and proceed when there are a limited number of choices.

Secondly, constraint often comes in the form of consistency. One of the basic rules of graphic design is to limit your colour palette and font types to avoid clutter and messy design. A consistent theme is much more aesthetically pleasing. This is a core principle of minimalism.

Lastly, limitations encourage creativity as the designer has to come up with a way to overcome the restriction only with the available resources.

A fine example is Gothic churches. It was very difficult putting in large windows in church walls as they would cause structural instability. So architects devised flying buttresses to help bear the load. But even then, the technology for building large, transparent glass windows had not been developed. So instead, they pieced together small, coloured glass pieces to make stained glass windows, introducing light in to the church while telling stories from the Bible.

Ironically, limits and restrictions can be the catalyst for something better. Instead of rebelling and fighting against constraint, try adapting and coming up with a creative way to overcome it.

Posted in Science & Nature

A Beautiful City

What makes a city or town aesthetically pleasing? Places such as Prague, Florence and Santorini are famous for their picturesque cityscape. Instead of specific famous buildings or tourist spots, postcards from these areas could just show any part of the city and they would still be beautiful. What sets these places apart? How is it that despite all our technological development, modern cities can’t compare to the beauty of cities that are hundreds or thousands of years old?

Korean architect Yoo Hyun-Joon proposes a theory regarding two factors: material and shape. Consider the following matrix using the two:

Out of these four, the combination that we find the most beautiful is when a city has simple materials but complex shape. For example, Santorini is made only of stone buildings painted white and blue. But because it is built on a volcano, the ground is uneven and the building shapes differ to accommodate for this. Florence is almost entirely made of bricks. Traditional Korean houses were made only of wood. This is because in the old days, due to labour costs and poor logistics, cities were usually built with materials abundant in the surrounding area. Instead of varying materials, architects would challenge the limit of materials with varied shapes.

Nowadays, thanks to trade and globalisation, it is much easier to obtain materials from all over the world such as glass, concrete and steel. Furthermore, we can use industrial vehicles to change the terrain to flatten the ground and we use tall rectangular buildings to maximise space. Thus, we end up with the ugly, chaotic combination of many materials and simple shape.

The solution to making a beautiful city is simple then – create a building restriction that unifies the building material to one. A good example is Newbury Street in Boston, USA. This shopping district is famous for its classy red brick appearance, thanks to a building restriction that ensures every new shop built on the street must have the side of the building facing the street built using red bricks.

Of course, just unifying the building material to any one thing does not solve the issue. For example, cities made of only concrete rarely are as appealing. What is important is to use local materials that best represent the context of the city and the land it was built on.

Posted in Science & Nature

Natural Design

We look around the world we live in and marvel in all its complexity and grandeur. But Mother Nature focusses on one thing when it comes to designefficiency. That is to say, that nature strives to design things that will do the job best. For example, stars and planets are always round because a sphere is the most effective way to get all the mass as close to the planet’s centre of gravity as possible (a process known as isostatic adjustment). The wings of a bird have evolved to maximise the thrust generated at the least energy cost, while the sleek, teardrop body shape of fish allow for them to slip through water with minimal resistance. One of the best examples of nature coming up with the best design solution is beehives.

If you look closely at a beehive, you will find that it is made up of tiny hexagons. Each hexagon is a room that a bee can fit in and the walls are made from wax. The interesting thing about hexagons is that it has many properties that make it the ideal shape in construction.

Firstly, hexagons can fit together perfectly to tile a plane, meaning that bees can tile thousands of columns without wasting any space. The little columns even end in a unique pyramidal shape that allows them to tile up nicely with each other at the centre.

Secondly, a hexagon has 6 rotational symmetries and 6 reflection symmetries, making it very easy to tile as every bee will know what orientation to build their cell in using the side of any cell as a reference.

Lastly, in a hexagonal grid each line is as short as it can possibly be when tiling an area with the smallest number of hexagons. Therefore, bees can use much less wax when constructing hives, while achieving remarkable strength as hexagons gain lots of strength under compression. This design also allows for the maximum amount of honey stored in each cell.

Bees have mastered this architectural feat not through physics and mathematics, but through evolution – the driving force of nature. Over millions and millions of years, various types of bees will have experimented with square-celled hives or triangular-celled hives, but they could not survive as long as the hexagonal-celled bees because their hives were less efficient. This is exactly why nature is so good at coming up with the best solution to a problem. Because in nature, the best solution to the problem an environment offers is rewarded with survival.

Posted in Science & Nature

Three Little Pigs

The story of the Three Little Pigs is a timeless tale of how important good planning and doing things right is. Also, it serves to remind us that good architecture and engineering is key to one’s survival. A key aspect of the story is how the wolf “huffs and puffs” to blow the straw house and the stick house away. However, he cannot blow the brick house away as it is too well-built. Out of scientific curiosity, how hard does the wolf have to blow to destroy the Little Pigs’ three houses?

An experiment was performed to scientifically test this tale. The researchers built a house out of straw, a house out of sticks and a house out of bricks, then set up a fan to test at what wind speed the house was destroyed. The straw house blew away when the wind speed was 11m/s. The stick house lasted a little longer, up to a wind speed of 21m/s. Then what about the brick house? The brick house withstood winds of 35m/s, whereupon the researchers had to stop as the strong wind nearly blew the people away.

Posted in Science & Nature

Golden Ratio

The golden ratio is a magical number that divides a line into the most beautiful ratio. It bestows a mystical power in an object and allows for the creation of excellent architecture and art.
This magical ratio is (1 + √5)/2, or 1.618033988. If there is a line divided by the golden ratio called a + b, then b:a and a:(a + b) are both the same ratio.

We can find the golden ratio in countless values seen in animals and plants. A snail shell’s golden spiral allows for the snail to grow without changing shape, while the distribution of branches on a tree also follows the ratio. The golden ratio controls everything from the spiral pattern of galaxies to the pattern of our brain waves. The golden ratio is the law of the universe.

Using this magical ratio, we can find the most beautiful composition of a human being. The Venus of Milo, considered as one of the most beautiful figures in history, has a ratio of 1:1.618 between her upper and lower body (divided at the belly button) – the golden ratio. The same can be said for the ratio between the head and neck compared to the rest of the upper body, and the length from the belly button to the knee compared to the length below the knee. The exact same composition was used to construct the statue of Doryphoros, one of the most famous examples of ancient Greek sculptures. The diagram that illustrates these ratios is the Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci (Vitruvius was a Roman architect who utilised the ancient Greek knowledge of applying the proportions of a human being, i.e. the golden ratio, in constructing temples). 

The Great Pyramids of Giza, Solomon’s Temple and the Parthenon are all partially constructed according to the golden ratio. It is said that buildings constructed outside of the golden ratio will collapse over time. The same is seen in Eastern constructions, such as buildings and inventions from the Goryeo Dynasty of Korea. 

Interestingly, the golden ratio applies to intangible objects as well. For example, Chopin’s Nocturne pieces tend to climax at the point of the golden ratio (roughly two-thirds in). The ratio is still used in modern day design, with the standard credit card size being the best example.

The golden ratio is an eternal beauty that does not go out of fashion with time.