Scale – how to reconcile a big space with human dimensions?

When we recently walked through a stretch of forest close to the Dart River on New Zealand’s breathtakingly beautiful Southern Island, our tour guide suddenly stopped, and pointed to a huge chair that was sitting abandoned among the enormous trees. As it turned out, it was a replica of the hobbit chairs which were used as props in Sir Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy a few years ago. The guide encouraged us to take a seat to discover the effects of the oversized chair on our perceptions of scale. For best effect, he explained, one had to sit as far back as possible. My daughter Chiara volunteered and sat down. Now, I am the first to admit that she is not particularly tall to start with, but the monumental scale of the chair let her visually shrink down to hobbit scale. People started giggling as they simply could not believe their eyes.

Chiara on hobbit chair

What happened was that our assumptions about the size of a chair wreaked total havoc with our perceptions of scale. We automatically assigned the chair a human scale, which, of course, resulted in shrinking Chiara’s scale down to miniature (or hobbit) size. Interestingly,  it seems harder to perceive the picture the other way around – at least upon first impression. In other words, for some reason it takes a larger conscious effort to ascribe Chiara human scale which would then lead us to seeing the chair as being oversized.

This little episode reminded me vividly of a house visit that a realtor in New Zealand had arranged for us a few years ago. The dimensions of the house were truly impressive, not in terms of floor space, but rather in terms of how the architect had played with scale. We entered the building through an enormous front door, made from solid, artificially rusted iron. While using all his strength to pry open the door, the realtor could not resist telling us that that it alone had cost the current owner about USD$80,000. (Good grief!) Similar to Chiara’s hobbit chair above, the monumental scale of the door made us feel like Jack sneaking into the giant’s house after climbing his magic beanstalk. A strange sensation. Inside, the ceiling was equally tall, thus we did not get any reprieve from our newly adopted self perception as house-hunting dwarfs. When I entered the powder room, it got even worse. The walls were covered in dark tiles from floor to ceiling, while the ceiling was painted white. Visually, the dark colour narrowed the room (dark colours advance) while the white-painted high ceiling seemed to move up even further into the distance. All of this combined made me feel like Thumbelina standing at the bottom of a milk carton. It really didn’t help that the mirror above the sink was mounted so high up that I could barely see my head. I started asking myself, who in the world had lived here? Almost needless to say and very much to the disappointment of our realtor, we happily let that buying opportunity pass. Res ipsa loquitur.

“Insensitivity to scale is […] what is wrong with much contemporary architecture and design.” – John Saladino

Now, what went wrong there – at least in our humble opinion? Why did we feel so dwarfed? The short answer is: it was impossible for us to reconcile the house’s monumental scale with that of our own, much smaller, human one. (Btw, just to clarify: scale is defined as the size of one object in relation to the other objects in a design or artwork. This is different from proportion which refers to the size of the parts of an object in relationship to other parts of the same object.) 

Is there anything the owners of that house (or better, its famous Auckland architect) could have done about it? Yes. Indeed. 

John Saladino’s Design Guidelines

I recently read up on the work of star designer John Saladino who seems to have  a good solution to the problem. Over his long and successful career, Saladino has developed a unique design philosophy comprised of the following 5 design guidelines:

  1. Axial organisation = direct attention to a sequence of objects to help move the eye  through space: “Just as the rhythms of music move through time, design rhythms move through space along with path your have predetermined” (- John Saladino)
  2. Sensitivity to scale = apply different scales (monumental, residential and human) to a big room so that it no longer seems to be intimidatingly large
  3. Illusion = challenge the expected. A room that you can understand immediately represents a failed design. 
  4. Light is the prime mover = flood your space with natural light and apply static, artificial light in layers (ambient, work and art)
  5. Colour = use those colours that have metamorphic qualities (i.e. appear to be different during different times of day) and seek harmony in your colour scheme.

To answer the problem introduced above, let’s take a closer look at guiding principle no. 2.

How exactly does Saladino reconcile a room’s monumental scale with our own, the human one?

He does this by consciously distinguishing between 3 different scales:

  • the monumental,
  • the residential and
  • the human.
Scale - Saladino Villa

Example (Saladino Villa) of how to apply the three scales (Source: Style by Saladino (2000), pp.46/7)

In a large room, he seeks to acknowledge the huge size of it by adding design elements such as cornices that are close to the ceiling (emphasising the room’s tall walls), gigantic wall coverings (tapestries) or oversized pieces of furniture (such as concert pianos, huge chairs and tables.) In a second step, he supplements those design elements with others that are of a slightly smaller, residential, scale. Residential scale refers to a scale that is sort of half way between human and monumental. According to Saladino, elements corresponding to that scale make it easier for the occupant to assimilate a space. In other words, if human or residential scale elements are added, one ceases to feel dwarfed. Putting his money where his mouth was, Saladino would add a second, but lower cornice to a tall wall, about 1/3 of the way down. In the third and final step, he would then insert elements that corresponded to human scale, such as normal-sized doors, furniture, screens, etc.  The overall effect of this horizontal laddering of scale is that it enables the occupant to “move through the three layers without feeling overwhelmed.” The occupant is given the chance to align her own scale step by step with the monumental scale of the space she occupies. 

“The most successful buildings demonstrate harmonious relationships in scale, whether externally to their surroundings, or internally to their occupants.” — John Saladino

Why is it necessary to insert elements of each of the three scales into the design? Couldn’t we simply add human scale design elements to a large space and be done with it?  The answer is no. The reason being that if we furnish a large space, say, a former ballroom, with human scale furnishings only, we would not be able to establish a harmonious connection between the room and the furnishings inside it. Instead, our first impression would be that of  a group of miniature furniture unloaded into a large space. In other words, the furniture would appear hobbit like, just as my daughter looked like when she hopped onto that big wooden chair. 

Cheers, Sabine

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