The Evolution of Maths: A Very Brief History of Architecture

The Evolution of Maths: A Very Brief History of Architecture

When you look at a building, you can be forgiven for judging its appearance instead of considering the maths it took to build it. Yep, that’s right: buildings may be made of bricks and mortar, but they’re built on a foundation of complex calculations.

This reliance on maths goes all the way back to the Great Pyramid of Giza in Ancient Egypt – and probably even further back than that! How did the Pyramids use maths we hear you cry? Well, we’re glad you asked.

It’s difficult to name the calculations the designers must have done with exact certainty, since the dimensions of the structures have changed a little in the 4,500ish years since they were built. When constructing a perfect pyramid of any size, though, it can be safely assumed that a form of Pi and Pythagoras’ theorem must have been used in some way. Of course, Pythagoras himself did not record his famous theorem until 2000 years after the pyramids were built, which leaves us wondering just how much “Greek” maths the Ancient Egyptians were working with.

You’d be quite right to point out here that very few mediaeval or modern buildings look like pyramids, but that doesn’t mean their designers could abandon the maths. Trigonometry and geometry are used in designing both the structure of Renaissance houses, and the decorations which adorn them and, in many cases, are key to their beauty. Around this time, theories of the “perfect” distance between houses became popular too. Proportion is a vital consideration in architecture, from room size to doorframes. Alongside a marked increase in concerns about the living conditions of the poor in the UK, terraced housing offering every family a home with its own yard, were the result of many mathematical calculations.

The modernist architecture of the 20th century makes its reliance on mathematics clear. Many structures from this period are angular, with sharp edges and interesting angles. Others play with round windows and octagonal rooms. When you consider the care needed to draw a perfect cube or circle, it’s not difficult to believe that maths is key when building them on such a grand scale.

In the most recent architecture, with the impressive development of computer simulations,  
the maths has got ever so slightly more technical. While trigonometry is still important when it comes to the patterns on buildings like London’s “Gherkin,” there are a lot more mathematical considerations to take into account. With the Gherkin, for example, the architects simulated the wind-speed created by a structure of its intended size, and found that whirlwinds would be created in the plaza at its base – not ideal. Their calculations found that a cylinder-shape would reduce this when compared to a cuboid, as would adding a bulge in the middle. So, that’s exactly what they did.

Maths has always been, and will continue to be, a crucial part of architecture. The more you understand the calculations, the better your structures will be!

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