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What Is The Secret Weapon Of Charming Neighborhoods?

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

How the golden rectangle appeals to the human eye and creates public space we love


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In small developer circles, there’s a joke that’s told. It goes something like, “I’m going to let you in a little secret. I know the best, most efficient way to build a building.”


— Pause for dramatic effect —


Then you show a rectangle on the screen. If you think it’s not a good joke, trust your instincts.


The point is that everyone’s forgotten about the rectangle. From bricks to iPhones, the shape is everywhere. It’s easy to build with. It’s easy to attach to and they’re easy to stack.


It’s so simple. And we’ve forgotten about it.


Get Him To The Greek

Not all rectangles are created equal. The Ancient Greek’s discovered that when a square is removed from a rectangle a smaller but proportional rectangle will remain.

Image Credit: math.harvard.edu


The Ancient Greeks believe that this proportion was one of the most pleasing and used the proportions to create some of their most famous structures.


The Parthenon. Image Credit: goldennumber.net


In the image above, the golden spiral is applied inside the series of rectangles. The golden spiral is something that appears in nature whether in spiral galaxies or on nautilus shells.


That relationship to nature is what makes the ratioed shapes so pleasing to look at. Adrian Bejan, professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University, says


“The human eye is capable of interpreting an image featuring the golden ratio faster than any other. Shapes that resemble the golden ratio facilitate the scanning of images and their transmission through vision organs to the brain.”


As time has passed architects have played with the ratio. Famously, Le Corbusier used the ratio in his 1927 project, Villa Stein.


A slightly different vibe than the Parthenon. Image credit: Museum of Modern Art


Admittedly, these are foreground buildings. How about our background buildings that make up our favorite neighborhoods?


The Golden Background



Location: Boston, MA. Image Credit: Moving.com


There’s a lot of reason why this picture makes for a charming neighborhood. But the most important part is the shape of the buildings. They’re taller than they are wide. They are — you guessed it — a rectangle.


Location: Bruges, Belgium. Image Credit: Tripadvisor.com


Bruges has buildings with rectangle facades and of course, their iconic rooflines add local character.

My hometown has a few of these rectangles as well.


Location: Kalamazoo, MI. Image Credit: Kalamazoo Downtown Partnership


Golden Application

The golden rectangle appeals to the human senses because it’s a natural pattern that occurs in nature. The rectangle also supports other principles of good urbanism: reusable spaces for tenants, diverse pedestrian environments, design granularity, and building up rather than out.

Oh. I went outside to measure the building I live in. I wanted to see how close I was to the golden rectangle. Using this tool, I calculated that I was only 3 feet off. Dang.


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