By Lance McCarthy
There are powerful unspoken rules that influence how spaces feel and function. Break these rules and things will happen. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, but things will happen. We are exploring some of these Hidden Design Rules and figure out how they can impact the home.
This week’s Rule-du-jour is Proportion, which I call the Alice in Wonderland Rule, (‘member when she ate that piece of cake and shrunk way down in that one hall?)
I sat down with Joel, my favorite Architect, to find out more about this mysterious rule.
Me: Last week’s conversation about Circulation was really fun. We laughed, we cried, you got frustrated with my lame metaphors…
Joel: And this week you have better ones?
Me: Let’s talk about Proportion. This makes me think about math, which makes me think about fractions, which makes me think about Mrs. Eggrich from 6th grade.
Joel: I don’t know her, but it is related to math. A simple definition of Proportion is: “a part, as it relates to the whole”.
Me: As in “the proportion of architects that are nice to contractors is comparatively small”?
Joel: Something like that. Proportion has been a crucial part of architecture since the beginning of recorded history. It was foundational in the design of Pyramids, ziggurats, and temples all over the world.. The Greeks and the Romans first began to formalize the concepts. They observed that there was a recurring proportion that showed up everywhere in the world around them.They called it the “Golden Ratio” or “Golden Mean” or “Divine Proportion”
Me: I have been told that I have divine proportions.
Joel: (Joel says “that’s debatable” with his face) The Golden Ratio has been showing up in the work of artists, mathematicians and architects ever since. You would probably recognize Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vetruvian Man? He is the a guy with outstretched arms and legs inscribed in a circle. It illustrates the golden ratio in the human form and in space.
Me: Yeah, the naked guy. Frankly, it seems like something from 50 Shades of Gray.
Joel: The Golden Ratio is a 1:1.618 relationship that is found throughout the human body–for example, the length of hand to length of arm; the distance from feet to navel and navel to the head or the distance from the navel to the shoulders and shoulders to top of head all share this same ratio. And that’s just the beginning. Not only is the golden ratio found in the human form it is everywhere in nature, from the shape of leaves and flowers, to the ways crystals form.
Me: So how did it find its way into their building design?
Joel: It makes sense when you consider that humans relate to the world around them through their bodies. It is the lens through which we measure and experience our world. So it follows that spaces which mirror our proportions and those of nature cause us to feel more comfortable, and connected. Much of architecture in modernity has wandered away from these rules of natural order and proportion. The result of which can sometimes feel sterile, inhuman, and unnatural. The Jewish History Museum in Berlin by Daniel Leibskin is a great example of an architect deliberately using this departure in order to make visitors feel disoriented, uncomfortable, even lost.
Me: How does it matter in a house?
Joel: It makes all the difference in how your house “feels”. Have you ever been in a space that just felt right, almost like it was giving you a hug, but couldn’t quite understand what made it so different? I would wager that it had good proportion. Proportion is not just about the volume of space–though it shows up in plan and elevation too. It is in every window, door, and fireplace mantle.
You may not notice so much if the proportions are right but you certainly will it they are wrong. If your front porch is too tall for its width you could end up making your guests feel small and unwelcome or if your small powder room has a 10 foot ceiling they might feel like they are “powdering” in a cereal box.
Me: Does it help if those artificial vines are used over the crown molding?
Joel: No. It doesn’t… ever. . It is important to remember that proportion isn’t necessarily good or bad, but it does influence how we experience a space.
Me: Greeks, Romans, Naked Men, Leaves and Porches. That is a lot to take in. What do we get to talk about next week?
Joel: I’m thinking we tackle Axis and Terminus.
Me: Excellent. I love German heavy metal bands!