by Matthew Chu


Throughout history, different cultures from all around the world have made major contributions to the study of architecture. However, each structure not only integrates cultural motifs into its artistic expression, but it also utilizes scientific principles in order to achieve massive proportions. Interestingly, there is an observable correlation between scientific advancement and cultural enrichment in societies throughout history.

Understanding the relationship between the science of creating art and the art itself is a very fascinating way of establishing a connection between two fields of intellectualism many consider mutually exclusive. In many ways, both scientists and artists attempt to understand the world around them, albeit using different methods and expressions. Especially in the modern world, when conflicts between STEM and art as to which is deemed more "useful" for the advancement of society are climaxing, recognizing a very real bond between two science and art reminds us that neither field can exist without the other.

Take, for example, a technological innovation such as Facebook or an Apple device. These require a great deal of engineering genius, but a compilation of code or electrical circuitry is not a marketable product. For a feat of technology to truly be remarkable, it needs to evoke the users' aesthetic appeals. If an iPhone was an ugly black rectangle with no curvature or smooth design, it would not sell. Even if it's the fastest or most capable piece of technology available, if it doesn't make the user feel anything, it will not have much appeal. Even with pure science, art is still integral to the scientific process.

The Great Pyramids of Giza

Basic Information

The Great Pyramids of Giza are chronologically one of the first examples of monumental architecture. The first and largest pyramid was built over an approximately 20-year period during the reign of the Fourth Dynasty Pharaoh Khufu as his own burial chamber. The second two were constructed by and for his son, Khafre, and his grandson, Menkaure (and Menkaure’s wife). These structures served as a model, representing the sheer power of Khufu’s dynasty and establishing the square-based pyramid as one of the most recognizably Egyptian styles in human history.[1]

Up until relatively recent history, Khufu’s pyramid was the tallest manmade structure on Earth.[2] The amount of coordination and precision necessary for the construction of a six-million ton structure is almost unthinkable. The length of the sides are identical within an error of about 5.8 centimeters at the greatest,[3] and the sides are flat, give or take 1.5 centimeters.[4] Furthermore, the four sides point in the direction of the cardinal directions (not magnetic directions, like magnetic North or magnetic South, but true North at the Arctic and true South at Antarctica)

Construction Methods: How to Design a Building that Lasts Millennia

The pyramids were build nearly three-and-a-half thousand years ago, long before the invention of modern day construction equipment. Despite this, the workers on the pyramids were capable of designing a structure that could stand for thousands of years.

In essence, designing a tall structure requires that one accounts for the distribution of weight, as well as the structural soundness and resistance to weathering.[5]

Figure 1: Structural design of the pyramid, including angular measurements.[5]

The major issue regarding the structural strength of the structure is the angle in which the sides rise above the horizontal. If the angle is too shallow, the structure cannot be built high. If it is too wide, then the structure is unstable since the weight is not distributed across a large enough area.

It has been theorized by some, such as electrical engineer T.E. Collins, that the Egyptians were aware of π and that they utilized a "rolling drum" in order to design the proper width-to-height ratio. All of the pyramids except one have an angle inclination of 52°, which would give a side-to-height ratio of π to 4. This is significant because this would mean the Egyptians conceptualized π thousands of years before the Greeks did. This might be a coincidence, but the two pyramids without 52° angles have angles of 43.5°, which could only result from a ratio of side to height of π to 3.

If it is true that the Egyptians did first conceptualize π, then they would have found π to an accuracy within 10-3. Compared to the Greeks' calculation of π, which was accurate to 10-7, and it seems much more likely that the side-to-height ratios are just coincidence. Especially since the Egyptian civilization was not particularly advanced in mathematics, it might not be as plausible that the Egyptians (at least willingly) developed the concept of π thousands of years before the Greeks.[5]

Art from the Architecture

The specific science behind how the pyramids were structurally designed is not totally clear, but how the pyramids were designed artistically is definitive and deliberate. The shape of the pyramid with its triangular sides sloping upwards to a finite point is meant to invoke a sense of heavenliness and reverence to Amun-Re, the sun god and the most important god in ancient Egyptian belief. In addition, the sides of the pyramid were intended to be reflective and the top of the structure was meant to be topped with a capstone, further alluding physically to rays of sunlight.[4] The intentional allusion to the heavens is meant to enforce the belief that the Egyptian pharaoh is a divine being, and that his resting place should reflect his status as partially a god.

Figure 2: Pyramids when they were originally built, including the capstones and the white surface.[6]

The Roman Colosseum

Figure 3: The Colosseum.

Basic Information

The Roman Colosseum, or the Flavian Amphitheater, is an oval-shaped amphitheater situated in the center of Rome, Italy. The structure was built to glorify the Flavian dynasty, which was the reigning Roman family during the time of construction, at approximately 72-80 CE. The ruling emperor, Vessius, began construction around 70-72 CE and continued after his death in 79 CE, finished by his son Titus, in 80 AD.[7]

The building can hold approximately 50,000 to 80,000 spectators and served a variety of purposes. It could act as a setting for executions, gladiator battles, animal hunts, or mock sea battles. The design of the structure allowed for alterations to be made in order for different provisions. For example, the structure could be flooded for the mock naval battles, or the an awning could cover the top during sunny days.[8]

The name "colosseum" was actually termed because the amphitheater was built on top of the Colossus, a statue glorifying the Emperor Nero that was constructed near the site.[9]

The Romans as Masters of Architecture

There is evidence that the Colosseum was constructed in two phases - the first being a wooden and tufa support system then a concrete fill-in afterward. This process of construction allows for structures to built to tall heights without as much foundation.[10] Roman concrete, or opus caementicium, is a hydraulic-setting cement, which means that it is set as a liquid, then dries solid. Likely first invented in the first century BCE, chemically, Roman cement is very similar to modern cement. This new development allowed for structures that bear heavy loads, such as the Pantheon, to exist freestanding without the possibility of the building imploding.[10] In addition, the Roman Colosseum was not built into part of the earth, as many previous Roman arenas were. Instead, the structure was completely freestanding, restating the necessity for a strong structural integrity.

The most significant structural aspect of the Colosseum, however, are the arches. Arches, which have become known as a quintessential Roman motif, actually are actually incredibly structurally robust. The load-bearing intent of an arch is to distribute the weight, or gravitational force, sitting on the arch into the x-axis.
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Figure 4: Forces acting upon the base of the arch

Figure 4 details the basic few forces involved in a free-standing arch. Within the arch, there are normal forces that cancel out to keep the arch stationary, but they are pointed diagonally. The addition of all of the horizontal components of the normal forces results in two resultant horizontal normal forces that are equal but oppositely pointed parallel to the x-axis. The redistribution of weight utilizes the concept of compression and resolves it into an outward thrust force, called tensile stress. This configuration allows for much more structural stability by forcing the structure outward into a type of stable static equilibrium.

The combination of arches and a strong building substance permitted the Colosseum to grow massively in size while maintaining a sort of architectural flexibility. No longer were builders constrained to building in a such a way that required immense amounts of support, such as in the Great Pyramids of Giza. This allowed the Romans to focus much more on the more subtle artistic elements of their structures.

All Roads Lead to Rome (and Roman Architecture)

Many consider the Colosseum to be one of the most uniquely Roman pieces of architecture. It incorporated aspects of its own culture, while alluding to Hellenistic culture, much of which it borrowed from the ancient Greeks.

Figure 5: Three types of columns of the Colosseum.

Aside from the classical Roman arches, each story of the building was decorated with columns; the bottom was decorated with Doric, the middle Ionic, and the top Corinthian. This, of course, references the column design first popularized by the ancient Greeks, particularly the Athenians, and spread throughout the Mediterranean during the Hellenistic era. The second and third-floor arches were decorated with statues of ancient mythical deities, but the Romanized versions.[11]

Burj Khalifa

Figure 6: The Burj Khalifa.

Basic Information

Modern architecture has reached amazing new heights, both literally and figuratively. For thousands of years, the Great Pyramids of Giza were the tallest structures on Earth, but recent developments have pushed the possibilities of building to new limits. In 2004, construction on the Burj Khalifa, the current tallest building in the world, began and was completed in 2009. The building was designed by Adrian Smith, who at the time designed for Skidmore, Ownings, & Merrill (SOM), the same firm that designed the Willis Tower and One World Trade Center.[12]

The building stands at 829.8 meters, or 2,717 feet, and costed $1.5 billion in total to build. The building is used as a hotel, a residential space, a restaurant, and a tourist attraction. Due to labor laws in the United Arab Emirates, there were issues with underpaid workers and poor working conditions.[12]

How to Build the Tallest Building Ever

The Burj Khalifa was an incredible feat of engineering and required extensive planning and preparation. One of the most important developments that the Burj Khalifa incorporated was the complete usage of the bundled tube design. The tubular system allowed for as little as half of the steel a building of the same magnitude from the early 20th century, such as the Empire State Building. In essence, this design allows for an outer framework to handle the stress of horizontal forces and the inner column framework handles vertical forces.[13]
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Figure 6: Forces acting on a tubularly-designed building.

The "bundled design" adds an interesting layer of structural security; each column of exterior framework keeping it more laterally stable. The building is Y-shaped, which restricts the torsion of the force due to wind. Furthermore, the sloping design of the structure's "steps" are meant to "confuse the wind." In essence, this breaks up the gusts of wind and separates it in order to prevent strong single winds.[14]

Modernizing and Keeping Roots

Figure 7: The Great Mosque of Samarra, Iraq.

Despite being a major breakthrough in modern technology, the Burj Khalifa is not purely independent from classical designs and motifs. The Burj Khalifa is partially based on a design conceived by the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright, "The Illinois," which was designed to be a mile in height. Both designs share a stratified step design, both meant as wind deterrence.

However, the Burj Khalifa also references historical Islamic designs, which is significant to the culture of the UAE. The basic shape of the building mirrors that of the minaret at the Great Mosque of Samarra, which was the tallest mosque in the world for a period of time. The spiraling designed ascends to the heavens, a design replicated in the design of the Burj Khalifa. The Great Mosque of Samarra was a source of pride for Muslims, and the Burj Khalifa again fosters this cultural glory.[15]

The Interconnectedness of Art and Science

In such a world where the ideologies of STEM and art seems to always be clashing, it is helpful to be reminded that both fields are not mutually exclusive in any ways. The examples of monumental architecture presented illustrate the necessity of both a very advanced level of knowledge in science as well as an amount of artistic vision. Like most aspects of life, these two concepts are codependent on one another and the world cannot exist as we know it without either.


  1. Shaw, Ian (2003). The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford University Press.
  2. Collins, Dana M. (2001). The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Oxford University Press.
  3. Cole Survey (1925) based on side lengths 230.252m, 230.454m, 230.391m, 230.357m.
  4. Lehner, Mark (1997). The Complete Pyramids. London: Thames and Hudson.
  5. Salvadori, Mario (1980). Why Buildings Stand Up. NY: W.W. Norton and Company. 29-31.
  7. Roth, Leland M. (1993). Understanding Architecture: Its Elements, History and Meaning (First ed.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  8. Baldwin, Eleonora (2012). Rome day by day. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons Inc. p. 26.
  9. Claridge, Amanda (1998). Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide (First ed.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. pp. 276–282.
  10. Lancaster, L. (2005). "The process of building the Colosseum: The site, materials, and construction techniques." Journal of Roman Archaeology, 18, 57-82.
  11. Ian Archibald Richmond, Donald Emrys Strong, Janet DeLaine (1998). "Colosseum", The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization. Ed. Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth. Oxford University Press.
  12. "Burj Dubai reaches a record high". Emaar Properties. 21 July 2007. Retrieved 5 June 2017.
  13. Ali, Mir M.; Moon, Kyoung Sun (2007). "Structural Developments in Tall Buildings: Current Trends and Future Prospects". Architectural Science Review. 50 (3): 205–223. Retrieved 6 June 2017.
  14. "Burj Khalifa – Structural Engineering." SOM. SOM, n.d. Web. 06 June 2017.
  15. "Burj Khalifa: Towering challenge for builders". 4 January 2010. Retrieved 6 February 2017.