One of the things architects should be great at is the perception of scale. Sooner or later, every architect will develop an inner sense of the right scale. There are myriads of materials to help young architects with this topic. One can read the ‘bible’ of every architect, the Neufert. Here one can find every possible kind of dimensions, from the height of dining table to diameter of halfpipe for a skatepark. Someone else maybe wants to ask old masters for an advice. Vitruvius or Le Corbusier and his modulor. There are many essays about golden section and classical Greece orders.
But you do not need to do this. The only thing you really need is ‘just’ spend some time tweaking your ideas until the scale clicks. And one of the things which are important, not only for architects but more for clients and people who do not read drawings. They are not trained as architects are. Hopefully, there is a tool which can quickly set the scale of the drawing even for an untrained eye. The scale figures.
The average height of a European people is 180 cm. Of course, the size of each individual varies, but we see some people every day and because of that, the size of a human being is firmly encoded in our brain.
Our perception of the scale can be set by many other things. If the object has some set of standard measurements and we see it daily, it can serve as a setter of scale. It can be…let’s say..door. However, since we have fixed dimensions of doors in our mind. We can also manipulate the scale of the space by changing the usual dimensions of the doors. The scale is not about the actual size. It is our perception of the size. Maybe we have a huge villa and we need to break the scale down, so it does not stand out in the suburbs. Or our living room is quite small and we want it to appear bigger. There are many tricks how to achieve that. It is all just architects-magicians tricks. And it is the same as with the magic tricks – we want to be fooled.
And when we get back to scale figures. Even though people come in different shapes and sizes, our brain knows how the average human body looks like. And when he recognises one, he sets the scale for the objects around it.
So how about to try it on yourself?
Here is the elevation. What is it?
To me, it looks like a garage. The roof is, however quite sloped, that tells me that there might be some space above the garage doors. Maybe it could be a small house with a garage on this side and few rooms from the other side and small attic. Maybe it could be smaller, maybe bigger. You probably think you know the size. But are you sure about it?
Let’s call Bjarke to help us with our problem. What does Bjarke say abut it? Oh, it appears that I was right. Bjarke, who might be 180 cm tall but who knows, is telling me that this garage door is indeed approximately 2 meters high, maybe 2,1 meter. So problem solved, I was right, and everything is how it should be. Or is it?
Oh no! Bjarke! What have you done? Did you build an oversized house? Or are you pretending to be 20 cm tall? Can you see how is Bjarke playing with us? Now you can perceive it both ways. The house is huge and Bjarke is normal. Or is it the opposite? Bjarke is tiny and the house is normal? I am getting a headache.
Come on! Bjarke! You do not have a pet Chihuahua, so you cannot make a doghouse out of this. Bad Bjarke! I have drawn such a
nice and proportioned – okay it is mediocre at best. I have drawn an elevation and you are mocking it.
Hopefully, mischievous Bjarke has left and Jacques finally revealed that I have not drawn a house, but rather a playhouse! Place for kids to play in a garden. Jacques does not seem to be amused. He never does. He does, however, design spectacular spaces. Go Jacques, you are free now, sorry to bother you.
And now imagine that these tricks can be brought to any scale. People expect certain things. We expect that the water flows down and that a gravity exist. But sometimes, architects try to fool us. With the help of engineers, they design big cantilevers or slender columns which look too thin to support what lies on them. Sometimes it is important to correct the scale of something that looks odd. Play with the scale is a double sided razor. We might create something unusual as well as unnatural. Architecture is the art to balance on boundaries and scale is one of many boundaries architects face.