While aesthetics and materials differ across cultures, early civilizations all over the planet consistently applied two methods in their buildings. The first is the use of “common geometry,” which some may be familiar with today through the well-known “golden ratio” or “divine proportion” — about 1.618:1 — which dictates the ratio between two adjacent lengths. The second is “common astronomy,” or building in accordance with the sun’s position throughout each day and year. These practices kept homes and places of worship alike warm, bright, and generally pleasing to the eye for centuries. In contrast with our many modern and prefabricated homes, these structures were built to last and remain beautiful.
Randall Carlson, architect and builder, works with these ancient techniques even today. Through his work, he not only preserves the wisdom of early peoples but promotes creativity and sustainability throughout his field. The work of Carlson’s team is aesthetically pleasing, expertly crafted, and practical. The spread of these ancient practices further would make a more attractive and comfortable infrastructure for everyone.
Whether in Northwestern Europe or Central America, attention to the sun’s movement and universally pleasing shapes are a part of manmade structures throughout history. Carlson explains that all of these people could mark the motion of the sun by use of a simple stake in the ground and a chain attached—at specific times through a day or year, markers would be placed to indicate the direction of the sun’s beams and how it was casting shadows. These people were “acutely aware of what was going on in the heavens.”
People would utilize this information when building in order to light up the interiors, stay cool in the hot months, warm in the cooler months, and even for purposes of spiritual worship. In short, building with the sun in mind meant orienting the front of building towards the South to capture the sun’s rays in the winter months when it was lower in the sky and shield the interior from the heat of summer with an awning. Those caught in the rental cycle today know the value of south facing windows.
The factor of a specific geometry is also omnipresent in ancient structures. The “golden ratio” is a framework seen throughout nature—in the branches of trees, the spiral patterns of seashells, and most importantly in our own anatomy—which is likely the reason it is so widely accepted as a standard of objective beauty. Carlson states that this ratio “automatically creates a framework of harmony” when used in a building. People within beautiful spaces tend to feel more joyful and at peace— a handful of studies can confirm this.
“It’s easy to demonstrate how, worldwide, all of these cultures were using the same architectural template,” says Carlson, who showed me slides of a number of famous and gorgeous buildings all over the world. One example that many are familiar with is Stonehenge, which was set up carefully to align with the sun’s rise on each solstice. Every summer, tourists and locals clamber to the rocks to see the sun rise perfectly over the Heel Stone, with the first rays of the season shooting directly into the “heart” of the structure.
Nashvillians will be familiar with the Parthenon of which we have a to-scale replica using the exact dimensions and orientation as the original. Built in Athens, Greece in the 5th century BC to worship the goddess of wisdom, Athena, both the entirety of the structure and the proportions of each column are in accordance with the golden ratio, and the entrance faces East to the rising sun. A large skylight shone rays down onto a statue of the goddess Athena, and the structure of columns allowed both light and wind to pass through. These elements not only made the building a widely accepted masterpiece of Greek architecture, but kept the temple well lit and cool during the hot summer months.
On the other side of the globe, in Cusco, Peru, the Temple of the Sun was built in the 15th century. Considered one of the most important temples in the Incan Empire, the temple also featured an East facing entrance that allowed sunlight to fill the space. On the winter solstice, the early morning sun would shine directly through this entrance. The trapezoidal temple was also built in line with the golden ratio, with its rectangular courtyard also in this proportion and aligned due East and West.
These intuitive methods slowly fade with time and the more advanced technologies, a booming population, and blooming financial incentives. Carlson theorizes that as spaces grew tighter and the presence of the automobile rose, architects chose to more regularly align the entrance of a building with whatever road it was placed on. Porches would be built facing the road to allow neighbors to form a community as they walked about their closely-placed homes. As more and more homes needed to be built, ornamentation began to be done away with over time—moving from the Victorian tradition of fine details into what he calls a “prairie-style” home, where rooms were “kind of boxed up” and superfluous details were eradicated.
It was in the wake of World War II that prefabricated homes began their reign. Soldiers returned home and started their families, but commerce has been turned to the war effort for a long time. America needed lots of houses, and fast. People purchased these homes thinking to build a skillset and upgrade, or sell it after a few years once they got on their feet. However, Carlson says, there’s a point of diminishing returns: “Houses wear out just like people.”
Though the late 60s and early 70s saw an influx of counterculture builders looking for authenticity (“A lot of us looked at our prospects and were not too keen on going into the corporate world,” explains Carlson), yet another population boom in the 80s kept prefab alive. There was a feeling that if you can build something that costs less, uses less material, and requires less craftsmanship, you should. Nice houses take time and energy. An added benefit of prefab homes for contractors was that they could build something entirely in a warehouse and drive it over to where it was going, never concerning themselves with the weather slowing their process. Buildings were made and continue to be made, with only the market in mind—catering to the lowest common denominator of reasoning and eschewing the wisdom of architects' accumulated knowledge.
IN MODERN PRACTICE
The lessons of solar architecture and divine proportion have been proven to not only promote energy conservation and lasting structures, but universally accepted beauty. When designing a new building, Carlson will ask himself, “What is the mood and psychology of a person who lives in a place like this?” —an important question for a building where someone spends over a third of their time. In addition, he keeps in mind the building’s location in relation to the sun. Morning sun should freely enter through the East, and windows should be placed in the South and West to allow light and warmth to fill the space. “Whether the demand is there or it isn’t, we’re always cognizant,” he states.
His business as a whole puts a large emphasis on craftsmanship. He has the controversial belief that when people buy a place to live, it should stay standing over time. Carlson explains that his carpenter father and grandfather taught him “Don’t do it unless you’re gonna do it right,” and he carries that with him in his work. From a market standpoint, having a good name and reputation is paramount anyway. “It’s one thing to master the craft of building,” he explains, saying that it took him ten full years to do so. “It took another ten years to master the art of business.” It’s important to Carlson that the zeitgeist of appreciating craftsmanship continues to thrive.
A recent project of his exemplifies these three tenants. Carlson’s team built an addition to a home that, while beautiful and in accordance with the demands of his client, included small details of solar architecture that will improve their quality of life for years to come. Wide yves were set up all along the perimeter of the newly created second floor. These yves will create shade for the home throughout the summer, while the sun is high, and allow rays to warm the home when the sun is lower throughout the winter months. The team also added small ornamental details (in accordance with the golden ratio) in windows and pillars around the building.
We do not need to build massive—and expensive—temples to appreciate what civilizations from long ago have taught us about building. Utilizing the gold ratio only requires a split second of planning, craftsmanship only requires care. The two combined will make harmonious spaces that last through time and can be passed down to children and children’s children. With nothing but a stake and a chain, early architects were able to plan their structures around the light and warmth of the sun. Today, the notion of energy efficiency is more important than ever, and we have tools far faster and more efficient to work with. It’s not magic, and it’s not too complicated. This wisdom can and should live on, so we can make a beautiful and sustainable place for ourselves going forward.