We notice it when it is missing.

We lament that a church “lacks scale.” But what does it mean?  What is the difference between a church that has scale and one that does not? In architecture, scale refers to the relative size of architectural parts as compared with the whole or as compared with the human figure.  The human aspect is key.  When you, the lowly “human figure,” enter a church (or any building) that lacks scale, you feel disconnected, disoriented, lost or anonymous. Dehumanized.

Human scale through design.

The great architects of the Renaissance believed that since man was made in the image and likeness of God, his proportions were divinely willed, and therefore expressed the divine.  The proportions of the human body express God Himself, or at the very least, the cosmic order. Do we still believe this?  It seems so lofty and idealistic in the modern world, where the human person considered, at best, a highly evolved mammal, or at worst, a danger to the planet.  But if God became man and dwelt among us, if we truly believe this, then there is something special about the human body.  There is something sacred in our proportions.

The Roman author, architect and civil engineer Marcus Vitruvius wrote about the importance of the proportions of the human person in relation to architecture. According to Vitruvius, the proportions of a Roman temple should mirror the proportions of the human body.

How can architecture reflect the proportions of human body?  In terms of design, architects of the Renaissance based their plans for cathedrals on the human form. Renaissance architectural theorist Francesco di Giorgio inscribed the circles and squares within human figure with circles and squares to show how to design a church based on human proportions. What is more, individual elements within and without the church, such as columns, doorways and artwork, were based on human proportions.

Concrete is the world’s most common building material and, when reinforced with steel, allows for the construction of tall and long-span structures that show no trace of human scale. We humans are able to construct buildings that alienate us from ourselves by neglecting or negating human scale. With access to modern materials, we need to understand the principles of human scale in architecture. We have to protect ourselves from our own temptation to remove human scale from our buildings, most especially our churches.

Human scale through materials.

In terms of materials, prior to the modern period, all materials used in church design expressed the human body because all were chiseled, cut or molded by human hands. They were the unavoidable expression of the hand that made them. Cut stone had a human scale simply because its size was limited by what could be handled by human beings. Fired clay building materials such as brick are made quite naturally in a human scale, their proportions originally determined as a result of being molded by human hands.

Both the greatest cathedrals and tiniest country chapels have human scale. The monumentality of the great cathedrals does not leave us feeling disconnected, lost or anonymous. The tiny chapel does not leave us feeling claustrophobic. How is this possible? Be sure to read our next blog post in January 2017 entitled “Intimate Immensity.”
Posted by Karen D’Anselmi, December 2016


Francesco di Giorgio, from The Evolution of Designs: Biological Analogy in Architecture and the Applied Arts by Philip Steadman

Francesco di Giorgio Martini. Trattato di architettura di Francesco di Giorgio Martini. Italy. 1979.

Philip Steadman. The Evolution of Designs: Biological analogy in architecture and the applied arts. Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1979.

Marcus Vitruvius. De Architectura. Translated by Morris Hicky Morgan. New York: Dover Publications, 1982.

“Just so the parts of Temples should correspond with each other, and with the whole. The naval is naturally placed in the centre of the human body, and, if in a man lying with his face upward, and his hands and feet extended, from his navel as the centre, a circle be described, it will touch his fingers and toes. It is not alone by a circle, that the human body is thus circumscribed, as may be seen by placing it within a square. For measuring from the feet to the crown of the head, and then across the arms fully extended, we find the latter measure equal to the former; so that lines at right angles to each other, enclosing the figure, will form a square. (De Architectura, Book III, Chapter 1, Paragraph 3).

Rudolf Wittkower. Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism. New York: St. Marin’s Press, 1988.

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