With winter quickly approaching my wife and I will be frantically getting the yard and gardens buttoned up and leaves raked before the cold months ahead. I look forward to more time in the shop and more reading. I read a lot of historical design literature from the renaissance and period American and English works about design. Much of it is centered on architecture which historically was at the top of the design food chain. One thing that strikes me is the total emphasis and homage paid to proportions. We have a much more “functional” mindset today and the degree that our forebears depended on proportions we might question. In the past designers depended on proportions to bring a unity in a design and tied their designs together with proportions from the overall shapes that make up a form to the tiniest fillet on the smallest molding. Before we dismiss this fixation with proportions as something quaint or outdated, I’d like to share some observations about proportions and how we respond to them. Think about how you respond to a large open room like a cathedral or a great concert hall. Usually the ceiling is quite high and if the designer has done his or her job, you will respond by looking up. You take your mind off the daily labors and worries and for a few moments enjoy a performance or inspiring speaker. Here in America we put basements under churches. This is an example of the opposite effect. Here you have a room with a large footprint, often as big as the sanctuary above yet the ceiling is very low compared to the size of the room, very cave-like. We use these basement spaces for coffee klatches, scout meetings, and potluck dinners. If you are unfortunate enough to sit at a back table and a speaker is addressing a sea of tables from the other end of the room. It’s very distracting, sort of like looking through the wrong end of a telescope.
Now I’m using proportions in space to illustrate how we react, but there is a definite link with how we respond visually to proportions. Look at this doorway in the bottom center of this structure on a recently built condominium.
Compare that to this doorway on the Hamilton house in South Berwick Maine.
Which doorway says welcome? Are they both functional? Do they both have the same appeal to your eye or your sense of proportion? You often see very large entry ways as a focal point on important civic buildings. Do you think they designed the doors large, to accommodate the occasional giant or do you think designers were trying to unify the entry with the building and perhaps emphasize its purpose?