We hear the terms “well proportioned” and “ill proportioned” all the time, but we seldom really think about what they mean. What exactly gives an object good proportions, or bad ones?
For instance, why do many people find a brick wall attractive but a concrete block wall ugly? Color, texture and historical associations all play a role, but the main reason is more subtle: While the exposed face of a brick has proportions of about three to one, that of your typical 8x8x16 concrete block has proportions of two to one. It’s a coarse, clumsy ratio that’s simply less pleasing to the eye.
Why should an object’s relative shape have such profound qualities? People have pondered this question for millennia. In ancient Greece, Plato, Pythagoras and Euclid all delved into the mystery of geometric proportions. Among other things, the Greeks were fascinated by the Golden Rectangle — a shape so proportioned that when a perfect square is removed from it, the result is another Golden Rectangle (this proportion turns out to be about 1.618 to one). It’s often said that the Parthenon, Greece’s architectural masterpiece, owes its celebrated beauty to the use of this geometry.
Much closer to our own time, the architect Le Corbusier was equally smitten by the Golden Rectangle — one of the few concessions he made to ancient ideas. And who knows how many contemporary architects quietly apply tried-and-true proportional rules to their work without letting on, lest they diminish their own stature as compositional wizards?
There’s no doubt that the human eye, or, more properly, the human brain, finds some proportions more pleasing than others — but why? One reason could be that the brain likes to place every piece of information it receives into some kind of rational framework. A rectangle with certain geometric properties may be more satisfying on a subliminal level, even though these qualities may not be obvious to the conscious mind.
It’s not hard to believe that the mind’s preference for some proportions over others comes about through some kind of instant internal calculus. Over the years I’ve experienced hints of such a thing in my own line of work. Often, at the very outset of designing a project — long before I’m forced to deal with nitty-gritty details — I’ll toss off a little thumbnail sketch that pleases me, put it aside and forget about it. Then I’ll go on to the practical realities of making the thing work: planning, revising, and wrestling with details and dimensions, until I think I’ve finally gotten it just right. Yet when I happen to come across that little thumbnail sketch and compare it to my final design — the product of months of cogitation — I often find that they’re virtually identical, right down to the roof slopes and window proportions. In other words, my instincts have beaten my intellect to the punch.
To me, this suggests that, as useful as design rules can be, we don’t really need geometric formulas to come up with beauty. On the contrary: Sometimes, we just need to let our rational minds step back, and let our instincts tell us what looks right.
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