Shedding New Light on Old Islamic Patterns

Old Islamic tile patterns that embody new math are brought to life
by CITRIS artists, architects, and engineers. The Noor Project bridges
cultures and centuries, shedding light on the geometric principles
underlying these ancient patterns and giving them new expression in
animated modern art and architecture.

by Gordy Slack


(Steve Beck will present his NOOR Project at the May 2 Research Exchange at noon in 540 Cory Hall)

While the Golden Age of Islam’s mosaic tile patterns may be centuries
past, a CITRIS project is revealing them to be very relevant today. A
year ago, electronic artist, entrepreneur, and technologist Steve Beck
and his chief collaborator, UC Berkeley computer science professor
Carlo Séquin, launched NOOR, a project exploring the mathematics and
geometry underlying these intricate, mesmerizing patterns. NOOR is part
of the larger art and technology research program FIAT LUX, which aims
to study the integration of art, science and culture.

In both Farsi and Arabic, the word NOOR means light, and
though the project has many aims, chief among them, says Beck, is to
illuminate and pay homage to the great Islamic scientists, artists, and
mathematicians whose work spanned from the 7th to the 12th century.

NOOR draws explicit connections between the power of Islamic artwork
and the math that underlies it. The researchers hope it will shed light
on the depth and sophistication of an ancient culture, says
collaborator Nezar AlSayyad, Chair of the Center for Middle Eastern
Studies at UC Berkeley, and is part of the world cultural inclusion
that is a major character of the University.

Beck is best known for his seminal video art, music, and light
sculptures, some of which transform traditional themes—such as Native
American weaving patterns—into animated light displays. His video art
is in the collections of such institutes as the Museum of Modern Art,
the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Smithsonian Hirshhorn
Museum. Beck, who received his Berkeley EECS degree in 1971, is
currently a visiting fellow in the College of Engineering at UC
Berkeley and also an Executive in Residence at UC Berkeley’s Center for
Entrepreneurship and Technology.

Séquin, a world-renowned expert in computer graphics who has long been
using computers to design complex sculptural forms, says that the
project “employs sophisticated generative algorithms to demonstrate how
some of the intricate patterns may have evolved from simple
line-and-circle drawings.”

The project pays homage to the profound thinkers and mathematicians of
centuries ago, says Beck, but it is also an exploration of very modern

The February 23, 2007, issue of Science, for example, featured an article about recursive Islamic tile patterns known as girih,
which embody a mathematical principle known as the quasi-crystal.
Quasi-crystals generate patterns composed of a finite set of
interlocking units, but never repeat even if tiled infinitely in all
directions. Though only described by Western mathematicians in the
1960s, quasi-crystals were perfectly expressed in tiling patterns laid
down 500 years ago in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, for example, according to
the article in Science.

Beck, Séquin, and their collaborators are using the underlying
algorithmic principles embodied in these designs to create giant,
animated light emitting diode (LED) sculptures elaborating and
amplifying their mathematical themes. They will employ the displays as
architectural elements in new buildings or as sculptural accouterments
inside or outside of existing ones. “We are very close to securing our
first commission,” says Beck.

One of the giant animated LED displays, shown at the Berkeley EECS Annual Research Symposium (BEARS).

LED displays are energy efficient, long lasting, bright, and very
adaptable, says Beck. They can be easily attached to the outside of
buildings or other structures creating bright, lively, ever-changing

“The original tile patterns are pretty much set in time by the nature
of the medium,” says Beck. “We are introducing a temporal dimension to
the patterns by animating them.” Adding the dimension of time will
unlock and illuminate some of their mathematical and geometric themes,
he says.

The patterns, which emerged over centuries as highly stylized or
geometrized calligraphic expressions of Qur’anic passages, are still
considered sacred in the Islamic world. Beck is working closely with
Middle Eastern scholars, including AlSayyad, to ensure that none of the
images are inadvertently used in irreverent ways.

“These patterns are not just abstract mathematical expressions,”
says Séquin. “They mean many things to different people, which is one
reason they are so potent.”

The developers are hoping to install projects in UC Berkeley’s Soda
Hall, the new CITRIS Headquarters building, and in Berkeley’s Sproul
Plaza. A PBS-TV documentary exploring the historical, mathematical, and
cultural aspects of the Islamic patterns is also in the works, says

Like Beck, Séquin has a love for mathematical geometry and says he
believes that math and art have a close evolutionary relationship. “One
of the first applications of emerging mathematical or geometrical
concepts may have been to make repetitive frieze or patterns fit
seamlessly around a bone or a clay pot,” Séquin says. “Once some
mathematical principles were clarified and expressed they helped
artists make still more complex and beautiful patterns, which inspired
more mathematical speculation and articulation.”

Carlo Séquin, Robert Birgeneau, and Steve Beck.

Such a “feedback loop” between art and math may have played an
important role in the evolution of the human brain and culture,
speculates Beck.

To examine what makes these patterns resonate, NOOR will look at their
effect on the retina, optic nerve, and visual cortex. Beck is in
conversation with Stephen Palmer, director of UC Berkeley’s Visual
Perception Lab. In addition to the physiological effects, Beck also
wants to study the psychological impact of viewing the geometric

In the same way that Islamic leaders chose to decorate their mosques
and palaces with these patterns to inspire awe and reverence, Beck and
Séquin suspect that putting such geometrically evocative sculptures
around computer science, math, and engineering students will help them
to internalize the logos and beauty of the forms.

“By presenting images pertinent to mathematics, science, and
engineering we hope to trigger perceptions—maybe subconscious ones—that
would have a favorable effect,” says Beck.Not to mention the aesthetic enhancement of these areas. These things are really beautiful.”

A. Richard Newton, Executive Producer (In Memoriam), was instrumental
in getting the project off the ground by introducing Beck to Khalid
Alireza (M.S. in IEOR, UCB ’71) in October 2006. Part of Alireza’s
company, Xenel International USA—based in Westlake Village, CA—added a
$50,000 seed grant to an in-kind gift in support of the NOOR research
of $90,000 from Beck-Tech Corp. in Berkeley. (No University or public
funds have been used for this research.)

Though NOOR introduces a temporal element into otherwise static
patterns by animating them, the project still deals with the timeless
truths of both geometry and aesthetic beauty, says Séquin. Unlike much
contemporary conceptual art, art made from geometric principles will
always be recognized as beautiful and important, Séquin says, even if
re-discovered thousands of years from now.

If beauty is truth, and if truth is practical, then these patterns may
even eventually be useful in the development of CMOS semiconductor
devices, nanotechnology, and MEMS, a possibility NOOR will also
explore, says Beck.


For more information:

Contact Steve Beck:

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