People love things that come in threes, whether wise men or musketeers or stooges. But you’ll also find groups of three showing up in more hifalutin’ places: Hence, a symphony has three movements, a play has three acts, and a novel has its proverbial beginning, middle and end.

The peculiar power of three-part compositions crops up in architecture as well. Take, for instance, the division of the classical column into base, shaft and capital — a sort of beginning, middle and end in three dimensions. In one form or another, this same vertical composition appears in everything from classical temples to skyscrapers. It also appears in the individual parts of buildings, such as the way interior walls are divided into base, wall and crown, and even in the design of moldings, whose profiles are often built up with three elements of different hierarchies, more or less like miniature buildings.

What makes three-part compositions so effective? One answer may lie in the way we think. Our brains strive to find rational patterns in everything we experience, yet paradoxically, they also seem to get bored when things fall into place too easily. What the human mind really seems to crave — and what may even constitute the very essence of beauty — is a comprehensible pattern that contains unexpected variations. Three-part arrangements seem to furnish the ideal venue for this delicate balance.

Visually, groups of three also provide just the right degree of complexity without losing clarity of composition. Consider an arrangement of windows: A group of two can’t quite get a rhythm going, while four or more can start to look redundant. Not so a group of three, however: Like Goldilocks’s porridge, they’re not too little, not too much, but always just right.

Three-part arrangements can also be easily tweaked to create visual movement without destroying their symmetry. For instance, the Palladian window, named for the 16th-century architect Andrea Palladio, is a classic three-part design featuring two side elements flanking a larger central portion with an arched top. The simple addition of this dominant central arch creates movement while still retaining the inherent calm of bilateral symmetry.

Three hundred years after Palladio came the Chicago window, first used in early skyscrapers, but better known for brightening the living rooms of countless bungalows of the Twenties. It featured a pair of double-hung sash flanking a large central picture window — another unbeatable dot-dash-dot arrangement that creates more visual tension than would three equal-sized openings.

Beyond such aesthetic subtleties, though, there’s a practical reason why tripled windows, doors, or archways work better than ones with two or four elements: They have an opening in the center instead of a mullion. This seemingly obvious advantage is routinely overlooked by architects, which is why so many people at kitchen sinks end up staring at a mullion instead of a beautiful view.

There you have it, both the mystical and the mundane. If you’re looking for a timeless basis for design, maybe all you need to do is count to three.


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