The Importance of Proportion From Building Height and Room Size, to Details and Comfort / by Michael Mazurkiewicz

Written by: Donald Peckover

 

Have you ever walked into a room or walked past a building and just something about it felt right or looked right? That’s probably because it is proportioned well; following rules set out by ancient Greek and Roman architects and based on the human body. But it seems that many architects, designers, and builders have forgotten these rules, with the teaching of proportion and Classicism relegated to the history courses at school (if taught at all), rather than in practical theory and design courses. This has led to many buildings which feel poorly-proportioned, uncomfortable, and – unfortunately – “wrong” in our built landscape.

The various Classical Orders had different rules for setting out the height of the columns, pedestal bases (seen below line 0), and entablatures (which is different for each order, seen above line 7 in the Tuscan Order for example). Each Order is governed by the diameter of the column at the base, rather than on the imperial Foot or metric Metre. Therefore, the Tuscan Order is more squat than the slender Composite Order, even though both have the same diameter. Each would be employed for different uses and projects.

The various Classical Orders had different rules for setting out the height of the columns, pedestal bases (seen below line 0), and entablatures (which is different for each order, seen above line 7 in the Tuscan Order for example). Each Order is governed by the diameter of the column at the base, rather than on the imperial Foot or metric Metre. Therefore, the Tuscan Order is more squat than the slender Composite Order, even though both have the same diameter. Each would be employed for different uses and projects.

In order to understand the codification of proportion we have to go all the way back to the first century BCE to a man named Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, or simply Vitruvius. While he did not invent the idea of columns and proportion – also known as the Classical Orders – he did codify their mathematical relationships and published these Orders within his work De architectura, known today as The Ten Books on Architecture. The Orders were invented by the ancient Greeks – the masculine Doric Order, the feminine Ionic Order, and the ornate Corinthian Order. These all then related back to the human body and the Vitruvian Man, later illustrated by Leonardo da Vinci.

The proportions of the Classical Orders also govern the distance between the columns (called intercolumnation), heights of ceilings and arches, and roof slopes. These mathematical relationships can be largely independent of the smaller details and mouldings, which means that one can achieve modern, open, and comfortable spaces even without ornate detailing, multiple columns, and mouldings which some may find unnecessarily decorative. Yet, it is still these mathematical relationships of spacing, heights, and slopes which create comfortable and appropriate modern spaces, all built upon rules set out thousands of years ago

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci.

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci.

Classicism has had its ups and downs in terms of architectural popularity throughout the generations, with many lasting examples in cities around the world. It has been adopted by governments as a symbol of power and is often applied to government buildings, monuments, and important infrastructure projects.

The White House (left) in Washington DC utilizes the Ionic Order, the tallest of the three set out by Viruvius. The Ionic Order was a staple of ancient Greece, the birthplace of Democracy. Because of this it has been commonly used on government buildings. Union Station (right) in Toronto utilizes a modified Doric Order, the shortest of the three set out by Vitruvius. The Doric Order is squat, powerful, masculine, and dependable, and thus has often been used on public infrastructure buildings to portray stability and reliability.

The White House (left) in Washington DC utilizes the Ionic Order, the tallest of the three set out by Viruvius. The Ionic Order was a staple of ancient Greece, the birthplace of Democracy. Because of this it has been commonly used on government buildings. Union Station (right) in Toronto utilizes a modified Doric Order, the shortest of the three set out by Vitruvius. The Doric Order is squat, powerful, masculine, and dependable, and thus has often been used on public infrastructure buildings to portray stability and reliability.

Public buildings such as libraries also require a degree of approachability and familiarity which is afforded through the correct and astute application of the Orders and proportion. Between the 1880’s and 1930’s the Carnegie Library program was founded by American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie and is responsible for 3,500 libraries being built across the United States, as well as 125 in Canada and many more around the globe. Through this program well-designed and well-planned structures were built in cities and areas which may not have been able to afford such architecture, or may not have been able to attract such highly-talented architects to their projects. The program is responsible for widespread construction, particularly across the United States, of a particularly high quality. The public uses meant that many people were able to use and enjoy the building, fostering not only knowledge through books and learning but also appreciation of well-designed buildings and spaces, acting as a catalyst for many town developments.

Clockwise from top left: Carnegie Libraries in Toronto (Yorkville Branch); Coshocton, Ohio; Thames, New Zealand; and Healsburg, California.

Clockwise from top left: Carnegie Libraries in Toronto (Yorkville Branch); Coshocton, Ohio; Thames, New Zealand; and Healsburg, California.

However, the Industrial Revolution and the advent of machine-age architecture started to spell the end for Classicism as the trends went towards the “pure expression” of architectural elements, stripped of extemporaneous decoration and texture. While this was popular for awhile and still generally respected the rules of proportion, as architecture and design became more mass-produced the rules seem to have been forgotten. As Modernism moved into the 1930s architectural expression was further stripped back while sumptuousness and richness were added in the form of expensive materials, daring structural engineering, and expansive use of glass. Then, as demand grew and competition rose, this richness was removed for cost savings, and proportion was forgotten by those who just wanted to finish a project cheaply and quickly. Thus, we have ended up with projects that are just wrong.

Doric Orders flank the monumental entrance to Bedford Park Public School (left), supporting a balanced and well-weighted entablature with balustrade above. There is no denying that this is where you enter the building; although the actual entrance door is recessed and up a few steps, it is comfortable, safe, and protected. At the entrance to this Toronto house (right), too-slender columns at the corners support a too-heavy roof which is too-high above the ground level. The entrance is awkward and uncomfortable. The columns are so slender and poorly-proportioned that the left hand side is almost entirely obscured by the skinny tree trunk.

Doric Orders flank the monumental entrance to Bedford Park Public School (left), supporting a balanced and well-weighted entablature with balustrade above. There is no denying that this is where you enter the building; although the actual entrance door is recessed and up a few steps, it is comfortable, safe, and protected. At the entrance to this Toronto house (right), too-slender columns at the corners support a too-heavy roof which is too-high above the ground level. The entrance is awkward and uncomfortable. The columns are so slender and poorly-proportioned that the left hand side is almost entirely obscured by the skinny tree trunk.

With a bit of extra thought and care we can make the architecture of the buildings around us comfortable and right again. Architecture is one of the most public of all art forms – it is out on the street – and one of the most permanent of all art forms – walk down a residential street in Toronto and the homes are all nearly 80 years old, or older. Walk downtown and there are buildings 100 years old, and the Distillery District is 160 years old! We owe it to our generation and to future generations to make a lasting and positive impact on our homes, our streets, and our cities. Here at SUSTAINABLE.TO we bring proportion and detailing into all of our projects: on a smaller scale at our Hill Crescent Home, new homes such as our Oriole Parkway Residence, or with a contemporary twist on Classical proportions such as at our Jones Avenue Laneway Home.

Hill Crescent Home (left), Oriole Parkway Residence (centre), Jones Avenue Laneway House (right).

Hill Crescent Home (left), Oriole Parkway Residence (centre), Jones Avenue Laneway House (right).

The Classical Orders of architecture and the rules of proportion are not simply building blocks which we can just put together to build a building, but are rather a complex set of grammatical rules and expressions which form the language of architecture. By following the rules we write different stories and sing different songs, and occasionally we twist and turn and play with these grammatical rules to break from the norm and create something truly poetic and natural that people stop and think to themselves “That building just looks right”.

With this, we call upon you to demand that “bit of extra thought and care” from the designers of your buildings which make up our streetscapes.