The Golden Ratio in Ancient Architecture 

Ancient architects designed buildings to connect people with divinity 
August 5, 2020 Updated: August 5, 2020

The good, of course, is always beautiful, and the beautiful never lacks proportion.” —Plato

Plato’s words continue to echo truth to this day. Architects, for example, must carefully map out their creations in an orderly fashion. While there are endless ways to do that, ancient architects knew of a hidden code: the Golden Ratio, also called the Golden Mean or the Divine Proportion, and related to the Golden Rectangle, the Golden Triangle, and other, similar terms.

Architects applied this proportion throughout history, creating the world’s greatest architectural feats, such as the pyramids in Egypt and the Parthenon in Athens. 

“The Golden Ratio runs deeply through the fabric of creation as it manifests here in this physical realm,” architect and architectural photographer James H. Smith told me in a phone interview. 

The Golden Ratio can be understood visually if you study a special rectangle, a Golden Rectangle. The Golden Ratio is the proportion of the short to the long side, or 1: 1.618.

golden rectangle
“The Golden Rectangle,” from Doug Patt’s online course “The Architect’s Academy.” (Courtesy of Doug Patt)

When you place a square inside the Golden Rectangle, it forms a new smaller Golden Rectangle (rotated vertically). Add a square within that new Golden Rectangle, and it forms a new even smaller Golden Rectangle. That pattern repeats endlessly.

“A fascinating aspect of the Golden Rectangle is the fact that a spiral can be drawn on the interior by connecting strategic points of each progressively larger square. The spiraling shape is identical to that found in nature,” Doug Patt says in “The Golden Rectangle,” part of his online course “The Architect’s Academy.” 

You can see that same proportional spiral in the Milky Way, a hurricane, nautilus shell, sunflower head, and even our DNA. 

“The proportion continues infinitely smaller (to the microcosm) and larger (to the macrocosm), as shown in the rectangle as it rotates and spirals smaller,” Smith says. Plato would have described it, as Smith interprets him, as a “shadow of a higher truth.”

“In higher realms,” Smith continues, “everything is very finely ordered in proportion. This proportion, or Golden Ratio, underpins what we perceive to be beautiful … That’s why classical architects employed it into their buildings (creations), for us to be in harmony with nature and the divine.”

But it’s not just a grid to slap over any random design. It’s a sacred ratio. 

“The ancients knew that it’s reserved for special creations,” Smith says. “As a designer and creator, I have yet to employ it because I don’t feel like I’m quite there yet. I don’t feel like I’ve earned that realm.”

James H Smith
Architect and architectural photographer James H. Smith. (Courtesy of James H. Smith)

Smith speculates that the classicists also may not have broadcast their usage of the Golden Mean.  

“It’s a secret, a heavenly secret, possibly only known and employed by those who had the wisdom to know where and how to use it,” he says.

But with clues to its existence imprinted into the fabric of all of life, the Golden Ratio couldn’t remain a secret forever. 

Ancient Egypt

Built in Egypt around 2560 B.C., the Great Pyramid of Giza is one of the earliest examples of the Golden Ratio in architecture. In fact, the Golden Number appears throughout the structure’s geometry. For example, the surface area of the four faces divided by the surface area of its base is 1.618. 

Another example can be seen if you take a cross section of the pyramid, which reveals two right triangles. One triangle’s hypotenuse, or the pitch that runs up the pyramid’s face to its apex, is 186 m (610 feet); the distance from the ground center (half of the base) is 115 m (377 feet). And if you divide 186 m by 115 m, the result, again, is 1.618.

Cross section of a pyramid, as seen in “The Golden Rectangle,” from Doug Patt’s online course “The Architect’s Academy.” (Courtesy of Doug Patt)

“We meet [the Golden Number] so often that the probability of it being due to chance is nil. It is infinitesimal to me; frankly, it’s like zero,” says mathematician and architect Claude Genzling in the documentary “The Revelation of the Pyramids.” “It stands to reason, even for a mathematician, meaning someone who can assess probability, that the volume of that pyramid with its numerous possibilities was picked to reveal through it the Golden Number.”

Ancient Greece

This sacred ratio became known as Phi (or Φ), named after the fifth-century B.C. sculptor, painter, and architect Phidias. Phidias employed its use in the creation of the Parthenon and also in the statue of the goddess Athena, whom the temple honored. 

parthenon and golden ratio
The Parthenon’s design also relies on the Golden Rectangle. (Courtesy of Doug Patt)

In “The Elements of Dynamic Symmetry,” Jay Hambridge supports the premise that Phidias incorporated the Golden Ratio in his designs. For example, Hambridge explains that the Parthenon’s building elevation is based on the Golden Rectangle proportions.

“Architecture is a great place to explore the use of the Golden Rectangle because buildings are made of rectangular shapes like windows, doors, rooms, and facades,” says Patt in his online course “The Golden Rectangle.  

To further tie devotees to divinity, Phidias also sculpted the statue “Athena Parthenos” inside the temple to these divine proportions. For example, from the head to the waist is 1, and from the waist to the feet is 1.618. 

Centuries later, Leonardo da Vinci also illustrated the human anatomy’s relationship to the Golden Ratio in his sketchings, such as the “Vitruvian Man.” The Golden Spiral can be seen in a person’s ear, for example; or the hand to the forearm matches the ratio of 1: 1.618. Even your fingers are separated in a decreasing series of sections, each proportion matching Phi.

Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man.” (Public Domain)

“Having observed the Golden Ratio in our own makeup and in nature, the architects of the day understood it as the nature of creation,” Smith says.

“They had much reverence and awareness of the divine in those times. They would employ that ratio within the building systems and proportions so that they too were designing in harmony with the nature of creation, reserving divine proportion to the design of significant buildings, such as temples. These places became sacred, places to connect with higher realms, divine realms.”

“This proportional fabric isn’t as prevalent in architecture today; these eternal truths are missing from the built environment,” Smith says, and then asks a question before making a profound statement:

“Could it be that the return of beautiful classical architecture may just be one of the answers to realign with higher realms, a higher order? With this, beauty will flourish again and reconnect us with a higher truth.”

J.H. White is an arts, culture, and men’s fashion journalist living in New York.