Origin of the Golden Ratio

A common narrative about the Golden Ratio (1:1.618) permeates western aesthetic ideas, especially concerning beauty. We are taught that the Golden Ratio was discovered by the Greeks, perhaps Pythagoras, and that there is an assumed linear progression from their time to ours.

In “The Golden Ratio, a Supposed Greek Invention, May have African Roots,” Audrey Bennett makes the case that the Golden Rectangle probably had its beginning in Africa. For example, the Parthenon is often considered one of the paradigmatic examples of a structure adhering to the Golden Ratio, even though empirical procedures (i.e., measuring it) disprove it. Bennett cites that it has another ratio of whole numbers (4:9).

Bennett is quick to acknowledge that the Greeks were aware of the Golden Ratio, most notably the mathematician Euclid. But they focused mostly on the ratio as it applies to lines. The Golden Rectangle was not discussed in the contexts of architecture, which emphasized whole number ratios in ancient Greek culture.

Golden Rectangle

After showing that ancient Greece is not a likely source of the Golden Rectangle, Bennett suggests that it may have African origins. As an example, she considers the palace of the chief in Logone-Birni, Cameroon. The rooms in this palace are structured in repeating diminishing rectangles, reminiscent of the Golden Rectangle. While the palace itself is not as ancient, the presence of the Golden Rectangle suggests it is part of the culture. As a further example, she describes a kente cloth from Ghana on which the pattern is arranged according to the Fibonacci sequence. Bennett offers more detail in her article (see link above).

Why does this matter? Does it matter who utilized, discovered, or invented the Golden Rectangle? In a lot ways, it may not make a difference. We can still use the Ratio or Rectangle, regardless of who invented it. One reason for its importance, according to Bennett, is equity. There are still few black architects and designers. Perhaps, it is partly due to the pervasive narrative that the great design principles came from European or Western culture. If we see that the history of design and architecture is more pluralistic, it may help inspire a more diverse future for these fields.

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