Monday, July 10, 2017


The Parthenon's design is based on the Golden Rectangle,
with a ratio of approximately 1:1.618. By removing
a square from this shape, another golden rectangle
is created...and so on.
Proportion is one of those fuzzy architectural issues. Webster defines it as “the relation of one part to another or to the whole with respect to magnitude, quantity, or degree”. Yet no one can say exactly what constitutes good proportion.  

The math-crazed Greeks thought they had proportion all figured out.  They devised a series of geometric ratios—1:2, 2:3, 3:5 and so on—that formed the proportional basis for architectural masterpieces such as the Parthenon. Later on, much of the architecture of the Renaissance was based on such ratios as well.  

The strangely gawky vestibule of Michelangelo's
Laurentian Library, with its unsettlingly busy
ornament, leads the viewer into...
But as always, other folks came along to prove that such rules were made to be broken. The sixteenth-century architects known as Mannerists delighted in tweaking Renaissance rules of good proportion by deliberately distorting the forms of their buildings. In Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library, for example, a strangely gawky foyer leads up into a surreally long and low reading room. By juxtaposing unconventional proportions, Michelangelo introduced a sense of visual tension that broke new ground for future architects.       

...the remarkably calm proportions of
the library's reading room—
an unforgettable juxtaposition.
In his seminal 1856 book The Grammar of Ornament, the architect Owen Jones returned to the Greek notion of mathematical ratios, stating that  “. . .in every perfect work of Architecture a true proportion will be found to reign between all the members which compose it. . .the whole and each particular member should be a multiple of some simple unit.” 

Intriguingly, however, Jones added:  “Those proportions will be the most beautiful which it will be most difficult for the eye to detect. Thus the proportion of a double square, or 4 to 8, will be less beautiful than the more subtle ratio of 5 to 8." Here, he almost seems to imply that the least identifiable proportional scheme is best of all—in other words, whatever looks right, looks right.  

Frank Lloyd Wright's long, low Robie House of 1909.
Imagine how this design looked to people who were
used to seeing...
Although the ideals of good proportion are subjective, most people nevertheless judge a design based on its resemblance to architecture they’re already familiar with. Hence the big uproar over Frank Lloyd Wright’s long, low Prairie Houses of the early twentieth century: at the time, Wright’s impossibly low-slung architecture just didn’t “look right” to people accustomed to the spiky verticality of Victorian homes.   

To find out what looks right to you, try sketching your designs without allowing yourself the use of grids, scales or other constraints. Just draw freehand on a plain sheet of paper. You’ll find that when the mind is unfettered by a lot of rules and constraints, it falls back on its own innate sense of proportion.  

...houses with proportions like this one.
I always retain my very first rough sketches of a project for this reason.  Almost inevitably, after doing umpteen variations on the original theme, I end up going back to the proportions of the first sketch because they’re the most pleasing.

Moreover, in some cases, your proportion homework is already done for you: If you’re designing an addition, for example, just take your proportional cues from the original building.  If the windows are tall and narrow in the existing part, for example, use ones with similar proportions in the new work. It’s an excellent way to help unify the design.

Lastly, it’s good to be conscious of the classical rules of proportion, but don’t let them straitjacket you. If ratios or modules are helpful, by all means use them—but remember that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

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