Chapter V “Scale and proportion”


The awareness of being part of the continent, which originated so many ideas, throughout so many years makes me happy.

Especially in history of architecture. Golden ratiomusical harmony, “form follows function” and many more, are all small compounds of the noble contribution of geniuses, in our contemporary understanding of architecture.

Some of theme came from pure imagination, some of them, more prosaically, from deep observation of human nature. History dictated circumstances which led architects to certain reflections, and through the twenty-three pages of the fifth chapter, Professor Rasmussen will present us these ingenious ideas, and will provoke us to reflections on their legacy.

“When I see architecture which truly moves me, I hear music in my inner ear.”

The chapter begins with the alleged legend of Pythagoras’s experiment with tautly stretched strings. The famous Greek mathematician sow that when the lengths were related to each other in the ratios of small number the strings produced harmonious sounds. This discovery was fantastic for the ancient philosophers, because it proved, according to them, hidden order of the world. The idea that through mathematics people can produce utter beauty. It’s worth noticing that their idea of melding science with art will be continued by Renaissance architects.

The second concept undertook in the chapter is golden ratio and world-famous modernist’s, Le Corbusier’s faith in its natural, and also ideal, beauty. Steen Rasmussen indicates that although both ideas, musical harmony and golden section, regard similar, they do not show any other relation, that is the numbers and proportions of golden ratio don’t refer in any way to the numbers of musical harmony.

In terms of golden section professor also refers to buildings of Andrea Palladio, especially his Villa Foscari. The comparison of Palladian and Le Corbusier’s architecture is, in my opinion, a fantastic thought, due to the fact that both architects are regarded the most influential individuals in history of architecture. And now we see that they also have followed similar ideas.

Idea lying behind things

Another building, connected with the idea of building through geometrical rules, is the project for a philharmonic building in Copenhagen by Ivan Bentsen. In his building Ivan designed windows of the next stories so they gradually expand in one dimension towards the ground level. His modern building interprets the rule of golden section, what was vividly highlighted by Rasmussen, that is the expansion of only one dimension is rather rare in nature. Jorn Utzon claimed that designers must look into the true nature of things, and a good example of this are snail shells, which the next parts grow on the basis of golden section and although have the same shape, the size is different.

Nature of things

One might ask, whether there was any goal, hidden behind all this geometry and numbers, or was it just “art for art sake”. Yes – there was. Palladio’s quotation may lead us to the answer: “From architectural world of pure harmonies one should be able to experience Nature in all its phases.”

Andrea Palladio at the beginning of his career went on the tour to Rome, where he spent time on analyzing Roman ruins. What must have fascinated him at that time, were ideal proportions of architectural elements and although, even then, their bad condition, they must have still awoken imagination on their previous shape. Though being only ruins, they sustain their specific atmosphere, after all.

He inevitably was also familiarized with the common Renaissance premise, that harmony comes from nature, nature understood in the most general sense, with the special indication on mathematics. Therefore, he must have believed that if he will build referring to this ideas, his architecture will be as beautiful as nature itself.

The similar values are also evident in Mies van der Rohe buildings, especially Farnsworth House (after all, architecture of this successful modernist were often compared to the ancient buildings). His ingenious sense of proportions compiled with glass walls, which open the resident’s view on nature, create an atmosphere, which we might guess, Palladio was looking for.

Utility of things

However beautiful, Palladio’s villas were often uninhabitable. After all, the well-regarded architect strove for immortality and pure aesthetic experience, who dared to bother him with such prosaic concerns as functionality.

Only modernists started to pay attention to many absurdities of previous generations’ style of dwelling and invented ways of proportioning and scaling, according to a phrase “form follows function”.

Good example of this thinking is given at the end of the chapter. The project of Kaare Klint’s proportion study of the rooms in Frederik’s Hospital in Copenhagen shows how dimensions of the room are made in regard to the most important component, that is a bed. Width between the particular beds are counted, so people could easily go move among them, and also all beds are organized on the sides on the axis, which goes straight through all rooms and enables nurses easy access to their patients.

It must be mentioned that the difference between Rasmussen’s examples, comes inevitably from the clients of the architects. Palladio was designing his villas for the rich of that world, which could afford lack of conveniance (maybe even common sense, but history of architecture is full of examples of building vividly against society e.g., Versailles). What they wanted was nobility and in fact, when one visits villa Foscari, even not knowing about all its perfect calculations, one intuitively feels the lavishness of the place.

Moreover, the further architects’ emphasis on function, obviously comes from the societal changes, which degraded the enormously rich higher class for more just distribution of wealth. Thus, architects, following engineers of this time, started to produce buildings, which say, “First things first – we must serve people properly, not be slaves of unhealthy ambitions of few.”

Steen Eiler Rasmussen, “Experiencing architecture”, First MIT Press paperback edition, 1964
Le Corbusier, "Towards a New Architecture", 1985

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