Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Learn to See Harmonious Proportion in Architecture: Victorian Suburbs in West London

From time to time, I am asked by architects how they can incorporate proportion into their work. I am not an architect, and I have to say that while I can recognize when architects have used traditional proportion in their design, I struggle to direct them on how to do it themselves. So, while I am aware of the mathematical descriptions of the proportions, I cannot tell architects how they can design everyday buildings – homes and offices, even gas stations – in harmonious proportion.

It is just like music. It is one thing to be able to listen to a piece of music and say that it uses harmony or dissonance, it is another to know how to compose polyphony. Composers need thousands of hours of training and an innate gift for composition and, usually, a willingness to follow inspiration.

Nevertheless, I am convinced that it is possible through the use of traditional proportion to make ordinary buildings created in otherwise modern styles that are beautiful. By making the ordinary shine with divine beauty, we can also draw people to God through beauty. (See the article Monotony and Cacophony are the Twin Principles of Modern Design.) I always hope to find architects who can grasp these ideas, and have the insight to introduce them into their own work, and then having done it, can tell other architects what they have done.

I thought I would show some examples of buildings that I have seen in my travels. I will try to point out what I am noticing. The hope is that as a result, some architects will start to see how they can build this into their work.

First, we will look at the suburban houses of Bedford Park and Turnham Green, in Chiswick in West London. Bedford Park was a purpose-built suburban community, with houses, gardens, shops, churches, and community buildings and halls, built in the latter part of the 19th century.

Photograph by Jaqueline Banerjee
In this scene above, the charm looks natural, but in fact, lots of thought has gone into the design. The three attributes of beauty are present: due proportion, integrity, and claritas. First of all, these are designed so that when you look at them, you know you are looking at homes. They could not be mistaken for town halls, shops, museums, storage facilities, gas stations, or churches. The very design of the buildings tells us what it is - this claritas. Second, the parts relate to the others in a way that is appropriate to what the building is - this is due proportion. Third, the design of the whole is in harmony with its purpose of being a place to live - this is integrity. When we decide we find the buildings charming, we are not consciously asking ourselves whether or not they have these attributes. Rather, we respond instinctively and positively to buildings which have these attributes. The good architect does think of these things when designing them, but we don’t need to think about them when we appreciate his work.

If we use harmonious proportion, it doesn’t mean that what you design has to look like the designs of the past - a Victorian, medieval or ancient Greek building, for example. Harmonious proportion can be built into modern designs that use modern materials as well, and this is what I would like to see. So in principle, even gas stations and shopping malls can be pleasant places to be. Automobiles, such as the iconic, British designed Mini, shown in this photo, can employ harmonious proportion too if we want them to.

I took the two pictures above because the proportions used in the windows and doors exemplify classic harmonious proportion. The essential elements are three different magnitudes that are clearly in relation to each other in such a way that there is a rhythmical progression. The first relates to the second as the second relates to the first.

In each of these examples, if you look at the window (or the door) on the ground floor, it is taller than the window on the second, which in turn is larger than that in the third. This tells us that the main activity of living is on the ground floor (sometimes you see the second-floor window with the greatest dimension for the same reason). It is curious to note that as a design feature in the first photograph, while the vertical window dimensions reduce as you go higher up the building and further away from the ground, the horizontal dimension increases in the opposite direction. While this is interesting, it creates, I would say a tension within the design and which tends to give me the sense that it is top-heavy, so this is a feature I would not have chosen.

Three is the ideal minimum number because, as with a musical chord, it is the common experience that people hear and see the fullness of beauty for relationships that come in threes. When there are two stories in the building, we can suggest a third in different ways, or introduce other features that create the sense of different-sized parts relating to each other harmoniously. This is where the skill of the architects comes in. They need to have an appreciation of what parts of their design naturally relate to each other when the building is viewed. Then they draw our attention to these relationships by creating eye-catching features that emphasize the connection. It can be contrasting colors, or sills, for example.

Now, look at the photograph below of the main shopping street in Turnham Green.

This is not the most attractive shopping street in the world, I admit, but it is not bad. The building with the upper stories, built in cream-color brick on the corner, is proportioned. The building to the left as we look at it is not.

The building on the corner is probably Victorian or Edwardian, and while the proportions seem good to me, there is a problem in that the ground floor is visually detached from the two above it because of modernizations to accommodate the shops. Therefore we don’t pick up the proportions easily. There is a balance to be struck here. The lower part of this building has a different purpose (retail) from the upper two stories (living accommodation). One is public the other private. So we do need some sense of detachment. However, if that differentiation is so great that we don’t make any connection, it won’t work either. There is a reason that the two parts are in the same building - the idea is that the shopkeeper would live above his shop, so there is still some connection. We don’t want to create the sense of a two-storey building floating above a single-storey building, we want some unifying principles to be present.

This example doesn’t quite get that balance right, in my opinion. I’m guessing that the reason for this is that the building did become separated in its purpose - the person living above the shop was not the person working in it. As a result, there is a lack of cohesion in the pattern of the renovation of the two parts. Nevertheless is for an ordinary shopping street, this isn’t the worst in the world!

The building to the left is more modern and almost certainly built since the Second World War; there is no discernible pattern of proportion in the same way. It jars visually.

For those who are interested, the theory of proportion which I am referring to here is derived from the observation of how we respond naturally to the cosmos and is described in theoretical terms in my book, The Way of Beauty, and in an online course, the Mathematics of Beauty offered by www.Pontifex.University. Creation speaks of the Creator; its beauty participates in divine beauty and we take delight in its appearance. It is by mimicking an idealized vision of the cosmos that the culture of man can surpass nature in its beauty. When designed and built well, even a minor suburb of London can, in principle, surpass Yosemite in its grandeur. It’s down to us to make it happen.

I explain how the sacred permeates the mundane in Christian culture also in an article titled Churches Should Look Like Airports, But Not Like This.

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