good proportions and a sense of scale

the dome of the Marble Church in Copenhagen

Understanding how architects use proportions and scale … or rather looking at how good proportions, used properly in a design, and the construction of buildings with an appropriate scale … is essential in trying to appreciate architecture. 

Appropriate proportion and scale are not just just significant in the design of an individual building - having a strong impact on how good or how bad, how attractive or potentially how ugly, the facades are in isolation but proportion and scale are important in the relationship of the building to its setting … and not just for building in an urban streetscape but also for the way a building relates to its setting in a garden or in a natural landscape.

 In part, this is because we seem to respond instinctively to the scale of a building and can decide quickly if it looks wrong or looks right. Often this comes down to judging a building against our own human scale and normally that means deciding if it is right or wrong depending on if we feel comfortable or uncomfortable with the size of the building. 

It’s a difficult balance to get right. We can easily feel overwhelmed by a large building but we can also feel that a building is mean and too small if it’s not an appropriate scale for its function, particularly if its a civic building or a building of wider national significance. 

And what is right or wrong, in terms of the scale of a building, depends on its actual location - so a multi-storey car park, however useful, is wrong when it looms over a shopping street of historic buildings but usually quite acceptable in among office blocks.

We also have expectations for the size of buildings so many like the idea of a small cosy holiday home but we expect rich or important people to live in big houses and we are surprised or curious if they don’t. Consciously or subconsciously we make a calculation that balances scale against status. 

If scale is something we judge intuitively then an appreciation of proportion might seem rather more esoteric or at least rather more intangible. 

At its simplest, proportion is about both height and width and their relationship and also of course depth and therefore the proportions of volume or space, feeling right and appropriate whatever the size of the building and again our judgment of a building or of urban spaces is often judged against human proportions. 

But scale and proportions also have to be appropriate to the function of the building … so, for instance, in a busy airport a corridor might well be wide enough to take all the people passing through but if the ceiling is too low, little more than the height of a normal room, then it can feel crowded and noisy and unpleasant - simply because the proportions are wrong. The opposite can be true where, for instance, a high atrium at the entrance to a building can make visitors feel lost and insignificant and, of course, banks or government departments can use that effect quite deliberately in their buildings to keep people in their place. Buildings that are overbearing are often like that for very clear and specific reasons.

But proportions have a more important role when it comes to aesthetics … when trying to decide why a building is beautiful or ugly. Again it is something that we seem to respond to instinctively, even if we can’t explain exactly why it is that something doesn’t look quite right if the proportions are wrong, meaning something is too narrow for its height or the parts of a facade or the features in an interior appear to be badly related to each other in terms of their shape and their size. 

Look carefully to see why a beautiful 18th-century facade looks beautiful and it is often possible to discover an underlying geometry that determines the shape of windows and doors - the height related to the width in each - but also often a carefully set out relationship between the openings and the amount of solid wall along with the grading of features … so less important floors are lower in height but the windows, although smaller, can still relate to a grid of invisible construction lines across the whole facade.

Where it becomes more complicated is where scale and proportions that work for a building seen straight on and approached on the main axis will almost certainly not work for a similar building set in a street, only seen at a sharp angle from the side, and as well as the angle of the view, proportions have to take into account the overall height of a building … so features that appear to be quite reasonable in their proportions at ground level, if repeated higher up a facade can look squat because of the sharp angle of view.

A really good example of how these problems have to be resolved by an architect is when a building has a dome. The profile of a dome that works well inside - often something approaching a half sphere - would look too low on the outside - as if it is sinking into the roof - while a dome that looks elegant and well-related to its drum and the building below, when seen from the outside, will appear to be too narrow and much too high - almost pointed - from the inside. Normally, the solution is to build two domes - one inside, to be seen from below, and an outer dome, related in scale and proportions to the facade, with often a considerable gap between the two. It’s always interesting to find out if people looking up and admiring a dome above them realise that actually it is not strictly the dome they looked up at as they approached the building.

Of course deciding on an appropriate scale and designing something with good, basically pleasing, proportions is equally important in the deign of furniture, interiors, ceramics and glassware.

And for the clever designer, subverting what is generally seen as right for scale and shape can be made part of an intellectual game by designing buildings that challenge convention or shock the user into seeing the work in a different way. 

There are no hard-and-fast or easy rules about scale or proportion. The examples here - buildings and spaces in Copenhagen - were in part chosen because they seem to defy or at least play with ideas of scale and proportion and they also show just how easily the eye is deceived when we try to judge scale. That’s maybe the irony. Scale appears to be simple … just how big or how small something is … but curiously our eyes are often deceived whereas proportion seems all a bit theoretical and and a matter of taste but actually our eyes quickly work out if a shape is oddly squashed or elongated or just not quite square when it is meant to be and people respond instinctively to a beautifully-proportioned classical portico or the soaring spaces of a medieval cathedral where the masons used geometry to set out their work and to ensure the stability of its structure even if that geometry is not obvious when you are standing in the building. 


the Armoury ... the naval store built for Christian IV in the early 17th century close to the castle in Copenhagen. This is one of the most amazing spaces in the city. From outside the brick building looks large but not exceptional among other large buildings along the harbour but inside this space on the first floor is amazing ... simple in architectural terms but well built, in part because of the loads the floors had to carry with supplies for the navy, but an absolutely incredible size ... the black speck against the wall at the far end of this aisle is actually an adult and this photograph was taken from about a third of the way from the north end. Scale can be difficult to judge.



Grundtvigs Church in Copenhagen by Peder Vilhelm Jensen-Klint completed in 1940. Again an absolutely amazing space where again the scale is so impressive but here, unlike the Armoury, the proportions are vertical ... virtually all horizontal lines that might divert the eye are removed so there are no bases or capitals to the piers ... nothing to distract from the height, the light and the important diagonal views through the space as you walk down the nave or, here, down the aisle of the church. It is only the people that give a real sense of the height of the building



another image chosen to show how the eye can be deceived when judging scale ... this is a building on the new university campus in Copenhagen south of Christianshavn on Amager. It is difficult to judge the size of the stone blocks ... they could be bricks ... until you realise that the figure at the bottom is a student ... a student of average height ... sitting in the sun with his back to the wall to read  



Israels Plads in Copenhagen ... stone steps at the south-west corner of the recently remodelled square. The blocks read initially as a staircase until you see the figures in the distance. The risers of a staircase are normally around 15 centimetres high whereas these blocks are 36 centimetres high