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Notes on Scale

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In class last Tuesday I showed some images I thought would help students understand the concept of scale. I explained that the buildings in the image on the left below are of different size but the same scale and the one on the corner in the right image on the right is of the same size but has a different scale.

The new buildings in these next two images are the same size and the same scale as the old ones.

I thought I’d explained it clearly enough but, after class, one student asked me “Sir, what do you mean by scale?” Hm. Scale was going to be another of those words with no direct equivalent in Chinese. I later found out 比例 could mean scale – such as in 1:200 – or it could mean proportion or proportional. It was going to be as good as it gets, but what did I mean by scale?

As a provisional explanation, I said Size is how big something is, and Scale is how big something seems – which is not wrong but it wasn’t making things much clearer either. In Chinese, scale and proportion are difficult to separate yet, in English, we like to conflate the words scale and human scale and “human scale” usually contains a value judgment of being a good thing. But if we combine the two understandings and say scale is how big a building seems, proportional to a person we get the best of both and without the value judgment. All we need to understand the scale of a building then is to know how big a person is (check) and and to see a building with respect to a person or some other human-sized reference such as a door, window or floor slab.

What happens if there isn’t any person or reference?

We either get 1) a monument or 2) a building we say looks monumental. The first of these next three pictures is a monument. The other two buildings are monumental because we can’t see or make out any of those indicators that tell us how big they are proportional to a person. The lesson here is “If you want your building to appear inhuman, then don’t have any indicators of human scale”. Some buildings do this either by design accident or by design.

These next buildings aren’t so big but, still, we can’t see any of those indicators, or at least not at first glance. They’re doing the same thing but not as strongly and, because they’re also not as huge or close as the ones above, they’re not as intimidating.

But Sir, what if those people references don’t tell us the truth?

It’s a problem. You get a building where your eyes are telling you how big a building is but a person or some human-sized reference is telling your brain something different. These next two buildings don’t have any of the usual indicators of human scale and they both appear to be bigger than they are until you notice how big the cars look compared to how large you thought the building was. If you walk closer these buildings will disappoint you.

This next building seems like a big building until you see the size of the cars. It is a student dormitory and each single room has nine of those small windows.

If we are at a distance from this next building and count the number of horizontal stripes, it will look like a twenty-storey building but, if you go closer, you’ll see that each stripe represents two storeys and the building is actually a forty-storey building. This building looks smaller than it is from a distance but as you get closer it seems bigger and more impressive. Every luxury hotel doesn’t have to do this, but if you want your luxury hotel to look more and not less impressive the closer you get to it, then do this or something similar.

This next building – the black one in the middle – isn’t giving us false information, but it’s not giving us much to go on either as its pattern of windows doesn’t indicate floor levels we can understand. It’s slightly monumental – “proud” shall we say? – and we understand how big it is more from the buildings nearby rather than from any information it’s giving us.

So what happens if different parts of a building tell you different things about how big a person is?

It happens a lot. Usually, some part of the building is made larger to tell us it is more important. You often see double or triple height columns at the entrances of palaces, court buildings, government and official architecture and banks and insurance companies. These big entrances are telling us that these people are bigger than the rest of us. It’s about power. London’s Picadilly Circus has buildings with vertically paired windows confusing our impression of how big they are. They appear larger and grander than the real size of their windows would otherwise indicate. Some might say pretentious.

Palaces, court buildings and other civil and governmental architecture often have columns on the facade to double or triple its scale and impress us. Many people in many countries think this standard architectural denotation of wealth and/or power is beautiful. The device of vertically pairing windows to confound scale and make a building appear grander than it is has a long history, most likely emanating from France. With this example, it’s the columns and not the window frames that pair the windows vertically. This is done so often at entrances and on facades that we take it for granted.

Even simply stacking the windows is sufficient to evoke the same effect, as with the various levels of English Georgian that arrange individual windows in larger patterns within an encompassing geometry. Like the Emiratis, we’re conditioned to seeing this architectural device not as pretentious but pleasing, beautiful even. It consistently functions to make something appear as part of a larger design and thus something larger than its individual parts.

Here’s how it’s done in the UAE with their detached houses they call villas. Window openings are combined to form larger apparent windows of two or three times the size. This device makes the house appear grander, and is so common it can be called the norm. It’s what a villa is.

Similar things happen on medium sized apartment buildings and small hotels, so much so that it is strange when a building doesn’t have some degree of scale confusion. Each time, it’s acting to make the building appear grander and give it a presence over and above its actual size. It’s a degree of preferred monumentality complicated by the need for hotels to have windows and maybe balconies. These first three simple examples variously articulate one, two, three or four floors at a time. The first few floors are car parking podiums.

These next examples have features of multiple scales placed to further confound floor levels as an indicator of human scale. There’s a certain Arabian Nights whimsy about them that’s not totally horrible. The one on the left below is especially fantastical at night – a guilty pleasure.

I’m not usually one to say “in fairness…” but in fairness there’s not that much else to bounce off in this corner of town. This clutch of buildings has little choice but to make its own context and this just happens to be what it came up with. If it continues to fill up in this manner then it’s going to be quite an extraordinary place one day in a Learning from Las Vegas kind of way where every building insists “I AM A PALACE!”

With all this confounding of scale happening, it’s refreshing to come across a UAE building not trying to look more grander or more impressive. I thought this one sufficiently unusual I had to photograph it. You’ll see all its neighbors have some degree of scale inflation.

As do these more central buildings with their quasi-monumental features and motifs of various sizes.

Is not having a human scale always a bad thing?

No. Many factories and power stations are big and scaled for machinery, not people. No problem.

Mostly however, if somebody wants to make their building look as if it is occupied by superhumans, it’s because they want to make other people feel small. Albert Speer’s 1938 Reich Chancellery for Adolf Hitler was a masterclass in how to do this. That door at the end leading to Hitler’s office is larger and has its own staircase. It’s a supersized and intimidating space intended to dehumanize and project power.

The staircase into Milano Centrale Station also does a good job at making people feel insignificant, although those side windows aren’t doing anything different than those buildings in Picadilly Circus or Dubai.

And though for purposes less defined, Baku’s Heydar Aliyev Centre is on the same page.

Zaha-Hadid-Architects-Heydar-Aliyev-Center-1-Photo-by-Iwan-Baan

What does “playing with scale” mean?

Nothing good. If an instructor says it they usually just mean experiment with a few different scales until you find one they like.

There was once this architect called Philip Johnson was said many things and one of the less-remembered things he said is about office building facades. He said “no matter what you do, you get a plaid.”He meant that some combination of vertical elements such as columns or mullions and horizontal elements such as floor slabs or spandrels (that tell us human scale) will always make a criss-cross pattern. I don’t know when he said this but it was sometime after the first of these photographs and sometime before the second. It was probably true, or at least as true as anything else he said.

It’s not too hard to find examples of office buildings for which this isn’t the case and just as easy to find examples for which it is. He’s dead now, so he can’t add to this conversation.


The office-y parts of Arata Isozaki’s 1991 Team Disney Building in Orlando, Florida are more gingham than plaid, and are an example of “playing” with scale, in this case to add a veneer of whimsy to the hard-nosed commerce happening within. “Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to work we go” people sing, as they enter the building.

The office wings have three horizontal bands at intervals corresponding to office floor levels. This gives us a sense of how big it is even though the vertical bands have the same spacing and importance to create a pattern that downplays the floor levels. The facade is “at rest”, much like a tablecloth and this would still be the case if somehow the building were upended. It’s most definitely a plaid but the flatness of its detailing makes it an ironic one as these horizontals and verticals have no Johnsonian identity as construction elements.,

The squat central tower and the intersecting blue volume are bigger and also have no such indicators of scale and thus appear “monumental”. (The purpose of monuments, remember, is to look monumental and monuments don’t have any indicators that allow us to tell how large they are.)

The intersecting pink volume (on the left) has large window openings and, compared with the entrance door, looks as if it’s a two-story volume behind.

The cube of the entrance lobby has at least four things happening.

  1. Counting the number of openings vertically, it appears to have five levels yet is the same height as the plaid office wing that seems to have four.
  2. Again, going by the openings, the first/ground floor appears taller than the others, yet not quite as tall as the pink volume crashing into it on the left. That pink volume could be two storeys yet appears to be one.
  3. The entrance doors are what we like to call human scale.
  4. The mouse ear device is large but has no scale. (How large are cartoon mouse ears supposed to be anyway?) However, it is one of those supersized features – like a row of huge columns – that often mark the entrances of buildings.

Once inside, you discover you’re in a supersized entrance lobby and made to feel small.

Thank you Sir! What are the most important things?

If you want to make your building look mysterious and possibly a bit scary, don’t let it show any indicators of human scale.

If you don’t want people to be disappointed when they arrive at your building, don’t make it look bigger than it is.

Don’t be surprised that many people like buildings that make them look more important than they really are.

Try to remember that a building has a scale suitable for the type of building it is.

Try to remember that a building has a scale suitable for the type of building it is.

Try to remember that a building has a scale suitable for the type of building it is.

What that scale is may depend on your client.

It’s fine for your building to look as big as it is.

Playing with scale is serious business.

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