Dissecting long-held standards of proportion and their relevance today - BluPrint

If one is observant, there are moments when our experience of a building or a space feels like stepping into a house of mirrors. You can blame the carnivalesque walk-through on a failure in proportion.

In the course of history, proportion, the balance of two ratios with ratio being the comparison of two units, has made structures gratifying to behold. Canons of proportion, rooted in mathematics, have aided architects in designing harmonious spaces. We are driven by the conviction that a building feels right if the sizes of its parts are appropriately related to its entire dimension.

BluPrint Design Theory Proportion
It would be best to interpret the Golden Ratio where it all started: The Parthenon. When the golden rectangle is superimposed on the structure, one can see how the elements correspond with the dimensions as well as internal lines. (Source: Wikimedia.org)

The human body is the primary reference for concluding whether a space is scaled appropriately or out of scale, as well as the diagram for proportional composition. The effect of a space—grandeur, humility, comfort, and the like—depends on the correlation between the structure and our body. As users appreciate human-scaled spaces, designers are tasked to sustain sensory consistency by being responsive to the human figure.

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The Golden Ratio

Ideal proportion is guided by mathematics. Perhaps the most influential among these theories is the Golden Ratio. Dubbed as the law of beautiful proportions, this system governs the relationship of smaller parts to the whole. This is defined as the ratio between two divisions of a line (or two dimensions of a plane figure): the ratio of the lesser of the two to the greater is balanced with the ratio of the greater to the sum of both. In numbers, the golden ratio is referred to as Phi (Φ) or 1.618.

BluPrint Design Theory Proportion
The rise of modern architecture did not entirely leave the concepts from the classical style. The Magallanes Church by Dominic Galicia exhibits the Golden ratio with the relationship of the elevations of its elements. Particularly evident on the monumental frontage of the structure, the height of the entire structure from the crown of its roof vaults is related from the dimension of window openings in its mezzanine down to the height of the remaining buttresses on the entrance.

The ancient civilizations quantified beauty in terms of proportion, making this number evident in the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, where the ratio of its base and height is roughly close to Phi, and the Parthenon in Greece, where Phi is applied on its façade and sculptures. In modern design, the Panton chair, the Chanel purse, and Rem Koolhaas’ CCTV Building in China fall within this system of proportion. The Meralco building in Ortigas also falls approximately within the diagram.

The Golden Ratio is now more ubiquitous than we realize. The rule of thirds, a simplification of the Golden Ratio, is used by almost everyone on social media through the 3×3 grid on Instagram’s interface. And with our photo-driven digital lifestyles, it will be maximized more than ever.

BluPrint Design Theory Proportion
Back dropping the famous UP Oblation is another piece guided by the Golden Ratio. Based on the superimposition on an image that closely displays its actual front dimensions, Architect Juan Nakpil designed the Quezon Hall of University of the Philippines Diliman in monumentality braced by the concept of appropriate relationship of its elements. The height of the entire facade is closely related to the height of its parts, from its base to the visible beams and from its base to top of its pillars. (Source: Wikimedia.org)
BluPrint Design Theory Proportion
The Golden Ratio relevantly aided the icon of Philippine Art Deco. Architect Juan Arellano’s Manila Metropolitan Theater may display deteriorations but it continues to sustain its marvel in its elaborate expressionist imagery. As it resembles a grand stage, its massive decorated walls framing both sides are closely linked with the dimensions of the peak of its proscenium-like entrance, from its stained glass down to its base. (Source: Philihappy.com)

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The Vitruvian Man

According to 1st-century author, architect, and engineer Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, an architect must prioritize firmitas (strength), utilitas (functionality), and venustas (beauty) when designing a building. Venustas indicates that beauty could be learned from the truth of nature, and that nature’s designs were based on universal laws of proportion and symmetry. Therefore, proportions of the human body can be used as a model of proportional perfection. This led Leonardo da Vinci to sketch the Vitruvian Man, a graphical representation of proportions of the human face and body. Since beauty was measured to a tee, ugliness was easy to identify. Basically, deviations from the ideal were deemed ugly. It was easy to tell when something was off and total distortions evoked laughter, hinting at why we are so humored by our Snapchat filters.

BluPrint Design Theory Proportion
When da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man diagram is overlaid on the Manila Cathedral, one can see that key points on the façade terminate on specific points of the human body: the soles of the feet (standing and extended), the knees, the waist, the hips, and the top of the head. In addition, the apex meets circumference of the circle. This notion is somehow parallel to the sketch of Italian Quattrocento architect Francesco di Giorgio. (Elevation from Tropiks Design)

Vitruvius’ ideal human body fits precisely into a circle and a square. He believed this link existed between perfect geometric forms and the perfect body. In order to create eurythmia, a graceful and agreeable atmosphere, the building must reflect these natural laws of harmony and beauty.

Vitruvius discussed his principles in relation to building temples. Since the proportions and measurements of the human body are believed to be divinely created, the temple should reflect and relate to the parts of the human body. Plans of early church design greatly exemplified this. It is also present in Renaissance paintings such as Boticelli’s The Annunciation and Michaelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, and da Vinci’s The Last Supper.

The Vitruvian man is utilized as a reference for proper anthropometrics. In an informal discussion of ratios with professor and architect Norma Alarcon, she mentions that superimposing the Vitruvian Man on facades may not provide the correct application of the concept. The diagram is linked with the architectural elements presented on the floor plans during the renaissance period. For example, the Latin Cross plan, often used on cathedrals, closely corresponds with the dimensions of the human body: from the length of the church’s transept to the axis of the nave. On another note, mathematicians were also able to yield special proportions from the numbers derived from the figure of a man. This became another reference for room proportions, from its width, to its length, and to its height. Sketches of Francesco di Giorgio referencing human anatomy in floor plan layout and in facade composition. (Images from arttrav.com)

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The Modulor System

Modern visionaries also studied the principles of proportion. Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier introduced the Modulor system, an anthropometric scale of proportions based on the height of an English man (183 cm) with his arm raised. This is basically a fusion of module and the golden ratio, founded on mathematics and proportions of the human body. The basic grid consists of three measures: 113, 70, and 43 centimeters. He viewed this as a system of measurements that could govern lengths, surfaces, and volumes in order to “maintain the human scale everywhere.”

Architectural elements within the Unite d’ Habitation housing project all pertained to Le Corbusier’s anthropometric Modulor. This modern interpretation of the proportions of the human body produced high-rise living apartments with a humane scale.

Built in 1952, the Unite d’Habitation by Le Corbusier in France was the first project where Modular system is implemented. Designed as a prototype for other urban housing projects, this residential building has a standard module height of 2.26 meters and was intentionally “made for the human scale.” The system is evident on the proportioned plan, section, and elevations of the building particularly openings, corridor width, story height, and bay distances. The sun-shading device brise-soleil and furniture units were also designed according to human movement.

Although it does not explicitly mention the influence of the Modular, the National Building Code of the Philippines accommodates the human scale Le Corbusier proposed. The minimum ceiling height for a habitable room is 2.4 meters. In an artificially ventilated building, the typical headroom clearance from the 3rd story upwards is 2.1 meters.

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Tools more than rules

These systems bore creations that we still look up to today. The masters numerically defined and crafted beautiful structures. Considering present trends, do classical standards of proportion remain as pertinent as before? As modern architects continue to refine and redefine standards, the need for harmony is unraveled by functionality often dictated by the changing needs community. Beauty, thus, is not defined exclusively by numbers and formulas.

BluPrint Design Theory Proportion
Modernist architecture is stripped of visual elements that break up scale, yet within the monumentality of some modernist structures, such as the CCP Theater by Leandro Locsin, proportions are implicitly designed to convey an overall balance. (Photographed by Patrick Kasingsing)

In contemporary architecture, harmony is interpreted in a diversity of styles and techniques. The contemporary experience of beauty, aided by proportion principles or not, depends on the perception of the viewer. After all, architecture cannot be reduced to maintaining the consistent relationship of two lines or spatial relations. Deconstructivism and expressionism value architecture’s capacity to push limits and artistic expression. Emphasis is elevated. Monumentality becomes primary. Consistent patterns take the sidelines. Structural purity and clarity of form dominate.

Nevertheless, we can discipline our present craft by using the golden ratio and other canons as tools to aid the appearance of the façade, the flow of the plans, the comfort of furniture, and the general structure of other design outputs. It is not an automatic utilization of numbers for dimensions but a conscious consideration of proportion in volumes, heights, and compositions–discerning the best instances to apply the rules and opportunities to break them.

The scale we seek today may be different from our ancient counterparts but the challenge is to surpass momentary trends in order to maintain proportion that will remain pleasing tomorrow. Whether or not we let these systems reign over our practices, they lay down one bottom line: proportion will always impact the way users feel within a space and about a structure. And we want to make our homes feel like homes and cities feel like cities, don’t we? Let’s leave the visual tricks and anomalies in the circuses and social media apps where they belong.B ender

BluPrint Design Theory Proportion
CCP Theater. Photographed by Patrick Kasingsing
This first appeared in BluPrint Volume 4 2017. Edits were made for BluPrint online.

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