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Mathematical Marvels

A colored circle that makes up part of the floor design

The remodel of Fenton Hall incorporates design elements that illustrate the beauty of math.

Hal Sadofsky is always up for a tour of the new Fenton Hall.
Why wouldn’t he be? A $5.5 million renovation to improve the math building’s energy footprint and structural integrity has also provided Sadofsky, other professors and students with a warmer, better-lit and altogether more inviting facility.
But there’s another reason that the halls of Fenton are a delight for Sadofsky, math department head: He helped make mathematics integral to the building – literally.
A newly-renovated hallway Sadofsky, Robertson/Sherwood Architects and Oslund Design worked together to illustrate key mathematical concepts in spots throughout Fenton. But unless you’re especially observant – or a math whiz – you might miss them.
At the main entry to the first floor lecture hall (pictured at right), for example, you will find the marmoleum surface under your shoes laid out in alternating swaths of rust and tan. Look closely: Each strip is wider than the one before, but in ratios that are consistent with those between each of the first seven prime numbers (2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13 and 17).
Has an enterprising young math student solved that pattern yet?
“No,” Sadofsky said, chuckling. “They say, ‘why are the strips different widths down here?’”
A staircase, floor design and new offices On the second level (left), there are large, looping figures depicting the four “conical sections” of math – circle, ellipse, parabola, hyperbola – cut into the floor and set off in earth tones such as “tobacco leaf” and “forest ground.”
“This one's obvious to mathematicians,” Sadofsky said. “But it's not so obvious to people who don't know about conic sections.”
The restrooms (below, right) are also a tribute to the relationship of numbers, shapes and patterns. Note the walls: The sequences of light and dark tiles represent the seven types of symmetries of frieze patterns, including rotational and reflectional symmetries.
The tiled wall of a restroom “There's lots of interesting mathematical things you can do with tiles,” Sadofsky said. “A lot of math is trying to understand the symmetry of geometric or physical objects.”
But the crowning achievements, perhaps, are the twin, 6- by 10-foot grilles that hang below the third floor skylight (below). Made of European steamed beech and aluminum, the fixtures represent a “Golden Section”: Nesting rectangles and a spiraling metal line are composed in a manner that adheres to the aesthetically pleasing mathematical ratio used by artists and architects since Plato’s time (a + b is to a as a is to b).
“I had a lot of fun trying to make that work,” said Robertson/Sherwood architect Dave Guadagni, who earned his bachelor of architecture from the UO in 1986. “I knew enough about math concepts that I thought the golden section would work there. It's been used in architecture since the time of the early renaissance.”
A new skylight Architects are often asked to accentuate a project with a creative flourish. But Guadagni was struck by Sadofsky's willingness to be a participant in the process.
“He challenged us to not let this become mundane in any sort of way,” Guadagni said. “He was a strong advocate for good design.”
Said Sadofksy: “It’s a math building – it’s nice to have the architectural elements reflect the use of the building.”

— Matt Cooper

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