The morphometric study of violin geometries over four centuries.
Courtesy Dan Chitwood The morphometric study of violin geometries over four centuries.

In a talk last week at the Vision 2020 Sustainability Summit at the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo in New Orleans, I discussed the concept of visible green, which refers to the connection between form and material performance in sustainable design. I invoked Lance Hosey, FAIA's book The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Design (Island Press, 2012), in which he argues that the visible elements of sustainable design such as form, materiality, and image are even more important than invisible characteristics like life-cycle evaluations and embodied energy.

Hosey employs a number of statistics to defend his point—and I attempted to provide a number of case studies in my talk—yet the argument for visible green remains subjective. However, a recent article by Dan Chitwood, a researcher at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, in St. Louis, provides a more scientific perspective.

In his article, "Imitation, Genetic Lineages, and Time Influenced the Morphological Evolution of the Violin,” published in the journal Plos One earlier this month, Chitwood reveals the similarities between the evolution of the violin's shape and that of biological entities such as leaves. "Shape is information that can tell us a story,” Chitwood said in a press release. "Just as evolutionary changes in leaf shape inform us about mechanisms that ultimately determine plant morphology, the analysis of cultural innovations, such as violins, gives us a glimpse into the historical forces shaping our lives and creativity.”

Employing methods outlined in the field of morphometrics, which involves the quantitative study of form, Chitwood evaluated the geometric shapes of more than 9,000 violins spanning four centuries. His unprecedented survey found a number of modifications made to improve both acoustics and usability. It also revealed geometric qualities derived from violin-makers' lineages. Chitwood then makes the case that human-designed objects, such as violins, may be studied genetically like organisms since their forms are shaped by their differing contexts and the goal of improved functionality.

Chitwood’s research provides a compelling window into the long history of design and concludes that there is a science to the study of form. But it leaves many questions unanswered, such as how this study can help guide future designs just as it has elucidated past ones.

"This is a fantastic example of how advances in one field can help advance a seemingly unrelated field,” Chitwood said. "I’ll be a happy scientist and musician if, by understanding violin evolution, this helps lead to improved crop plants that are more productive and sustainable.” This is a great objective, to be sure, but much more work must be done to connect morphometrics and sustainable design.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.