Human affinity for order

Post written by Paul de Vries and Simon Droog.

Human scale and proportion

In our series Architectural means we’re trying to find answers to the questions: Which architectural means do we have to create specific atmospheres that can elicit specific emotions? In this post we’ll talk about the aspect Scale and proportion as one of the architectural mean we have to create specific architectural atmospheres.

In history there have been many theories about order, scale and proportion in architecture. And as a result of this, there have been many attempts to incorporate mathematical and musical principles into the proportions of architecture. This is all the due to the fact that people have an affinity for order. Steven Holl wrote in an essay on proportion, scale and perception: “One of the intuitive powers of humans is the perception of subtle mathematical proportions in the physical world. Just as we can tune musical instruments with a minuteness of proportional adjustment to produce harmonies, so we have an analogous ability to appreciate visual and spatial proportional relations. In music, as in architecture and any of the visual arts, these sensibilities must be cultivated.” (1)

One theory that attracted a lot of attention is the theory of the golden section. There have been people interested in this one proportion ever since the days of antiquity. Pythagoras and his disciples, theorists of the Renaissance and in more modern times Le Corbusier. He based his ideas of proportion, “Le Modulor”, on principles of the golden section.

For Le Corbusier “Le Modulor” was an instrument that enabled him to relate everything he designed to the scale and proportions of a human being and by doing so create beauty and rationality in architecture. But we do not experience the exact measurements of these proportions. We do feel that the spaces are related in size and are part of a greater whole, though. This means that people have an affinity for order, as mentioned before, but what kind of order does not really matter. The golden section, for example, is just one of the orders that can be used in architecture.

Other examples of order

Another example of order in architecture is Frederik’s Hospital in Copenhagen by Kaare Klint. In this building the dimensions were not determined by columns, or golden sections, or any other “beautiful” proportions, but by the beds which the hospital was built to hold.

Or the order of the Japanese Tatami mat building tradition, were all proportions are based on the dimensions of the Tatami mat. Steven Holl explains: “Historically a culture’s particular building tradition often came with inherent balance. For example the Japanese Tatami mat building tradition sets the plan of rooms in a house two, three, four, eight, twelve, fourteen, etc. mat rooms, making up all proportional relations of room sizes according to the 3’x6’ human-scaled Tatami. Building was automatically scaled to the human in a proportional series.” (2)

People have an affinity for a certain level of order. This can change over time, from place to place and from person to person.

Scale and proportion

People have an affinity for (a certain level of) order, but what kind of order does not really matter.
The golden section, for example, is just one of the orders that can be used in architecture.

If you have any comments or questions about Scale and proportion – please let us know.

References

  1. HOLL, S. Proportion, scale and perception. In HOLL, S., PALLASMAA, J. and PEREZ-GOMEZ, A. (1994) Questions of Perception: Phenomenology of Architecture (p. 116). Tokyo, A and U.
  2. HOLL, S. Idem

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