The Plato Effect in Architecture: Designing for Human Diversity

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons Darwin's Finches

The idea that a diverse population needs a diverse environment to succeed seems easy enough to grasp. Certainly, it is easier to comprehend than a one-size-fits-all design philosophy. Why then, in the name of universal design and equality, do architects continue to design uniform one-size-fits-all environments? Answering that is not so simple. Some may suggest that construction methods, costs, and site restrictions make diverse environments economically and physically infeasible. Others may fault the lack of courses architects take in human biology and psychology. This might make it impossible for them to understand the diverse range of people their buildings affect. Even more may fault the ever increasingly abstract design process. This may hinder architects’ ability to identify with real future occupants. All of these conceivably play a role, but the most likely culprit is Plato’s philosophy of essentialism for the same reason biologist Ernst Mayr felt it caused evolution’s insufferably late discovery; essentialism has and continues to fundamentally shape how we see and deal with diversity.[1]

Throughout history variation posed a major philosophical problem for those in search of objective truths both in design and life in general. Plato’s philosophy of essentialism attempted to bring objective truths to what he saw as relative and subjective experiences. According to Plato, a singular essence/definition of any form or idea must exist aspatially and atemporally in order to attain universal applicability among its various representations. For example, no matter whether drawn in the sand or autocad we can easily recognize a triangle when we see one. We can do this because we interpret any smudge or squiggle as an aberration from the true essence of a triangle.  Plato called these singular essences Forms, and he applied this logic to everything from triangles to humans. [2]

For Plato, all human differences represent corrupted and messy shadows projected by the pure Human Form. By defining the singular human archetype/essence, architects could theoretically create environments that would be universally appealing and accessible to all the sullied shadows we represent. It was thought that beauty could be objectively achieved by discovering the proportions of this illusive man. Once discovered, our homes, churches and marketplaces would be equally appealing to all users at all times—in other words the holy grail of architecture. With such a promise, architects, like possessed crusaders, have been trying to capture the human essence ever since the possibility was suggested.[3]

Around the time of Christ, Roman architect Marcus Pollio () ushered in the most famous proportional essence of man. ’s proportional system revolved around the notion of a perfectly built man.  He described this well-built man, with his hands and feet extended, as fitting exactly into the most perfect geometrical figures of the circle and square.[4] Vitruvius sincerely believed that a building based on this man’s geometry would achieve universal appeal. For Vitruvius, this harmonious figure was the quintessential definition of the human archetype. It gave architects an objective scale in the face of endless subjective human experiences and preferences. Owing to the Renaissance and Leonardo da Vinci’s 15th century sketch, we have come to know this figure as The Vitruvian Man.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Few enslaved themselves more to Plato’s philosophy than the architects of the Renaissance. Armed with the Greek mathematical rendering of the world, and the Christian belief  “that Man as the image of God embodied the harmonies of the Universe,” Renaissance architects saw “the Vitruvian figure inscribed in a square and a circle [as] a symbol of the mathematical sympathy between the microcosm and macrocosm.” This elegantly simple picture of the world transfixed Renaissance architects, and as Rudolf Wittkower stated, “the image haunted their imagination.”[5]

Modulor Courtesy of Flickr CC License / lorkan

Nearly 500 years after the Renaissance, celebrated architects, namely , were still producing immutable human archetypes to derive architectural space. For him the Modulor was “a universal instrument, easy to employ, which can be used all over the world to obtain beauty and rationality in proportions of everything produced by man.”[6] He described its proportions as a “range of harmonious measurements to suit the human scale, universally applicable to architecture and to mechanical things.” This quote from Corbusier illustrates how pervasive and clear Plato’s philosophy has remained over the years. It is as if Corbusier has taken the words straight from the mouth of Renaissance architect Leone Battista Alberti. Regardless if present day architects ever read Plato, Vitruvius, or Corbusier, essentialism remains strong in architecture.

Great Dane Courtesy of Flickr CC License / serge melki

The entrenchment of some illusive human archetype in architecture makes it nearly impossible to make any headway against it. For the sake of argument imagine something different than a human. Imagine a dog. Now according to Plato everyone should imagine a wolf. Every domestic dog, from the Japanese Chin to the Great Dane, is a variation on the wolf. Therefore the wolf must be the pure dog Form.[7] The Japanese Chin and the Great Dane are simply corrupted shadows of the wolf projected onto Plato’s cave. According to essentialism we should design all doghouses according the proportions of the wolf. If essentialism is true, then the Japanese Chin and the Great Dane should not only enjoy their new homes equally, but also more than anything designed from the proportions of his or her particular breed. The unwillingness of architects’ to relinquish Plato’s philosophy, and the detriment it has had on universal design’s progress cannot be overstated.

Japanese Chin Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons / Trysha

Far from being universal, deriving proportions from a Platonic human archetype isn’t even applicable to a single human being who has or will ever exist. By Plato’s very definition, neither Vitruvius nor Le Corbusier could luckily bump into their proportional men walking down the street.  Their archetypes exist outside of this world and outside of time. Vitruvius and Le Corbusier aimed for a one-size-fits-all and ended up with a size that fits no one.

Today, universal design is interpreted slightly different than the days of Le Corbusier. Similar to before, universal design still aims to provide the maximum possible access and appeal for all users to all facilities.[8] Now, however, the focus is on individuals with disabilities. A truly universal design provides enough accommodations for success and removes all obstacles in the environment that make a disability debilitating. Unfortunately, this theoretically engaging idea of universal design gets bogged down in essentialism.

Architects no longer fashion the essence of man as the sum of man’s “best” qualities. It is now inappropriate to suggest that the further one strays from the Vitruvian Man’s flawless proportions the less human a person is. Instead, architects use more abstract, supposedly more “egalitarian,” and less geometric definitions of the human archetype. They do this in one of two ways. They either average our differences into a “typical” range, or derive the “lowest” common denominator between our disabilities.

Reflecting on these fuzzy calculations some distracting images come to mind. “If, for instance, you added up all the women and men on the planet, you would find that, on average, the typical adult human being has one breast and one testicle – and yet how many people fit that description?”[9] Likewise, an image of a Vitruvian Man defined by the lowest common denominator proves more illusive if not impossible to depict. He could not see, hear, move, think, or feel while simultaneously he would be over burdened with too much sight, sound, motion, thoughts, and feelings. Even if we apply this logic to a group of individuals, such as those with sight loss, and not humanity as a whole, we would still end up with ruinous results. Fiona Hind—the Rehabilitation Officer with the Society for the Blind—states, “there are so many different types of sight loss and you can’t create ‘access for all’; universal design is not possible—there are too many contrasts and types with visual impairment and also depth of vision varies so much—you can get two dimensional vision and distance just goes and you have to re-educate yourself about your environment.”[10]Obviously, there exists a disconnect between how some architects conceptualize universal design and the reality of the world.

In reality, the common ground of human equality more likely resembles an undulating landscape than a level playing field. Unfortunately, architects susceptible to essentialism misinterpret our innate equality and, in an effort to provide for every difference in every space at all times, literally design a level playing field. This leveling commonly reduces environmental diversity that in turn threatens accessibility and enriching experiences to both those with and without disabilities.[11] This one-size-fits-all mentality consolidates variation instead of celebrating it. Sandy Speicher—an expert in educational design at IDEO—says, “Too often, equality in education is treated as sameness. The truth is that everyone is starting from a different place and going to a different place.” Speicher advocates for mass customization, both in the system and the classroom.[12] Equality doesn’t mean we require the same environment, but an equal opportunity to address our individual needs.

Serge Melki 

[1] Mayr, Ernst. What Evolution Is. Basic Books, New York 2001 p. 74-75.

[2] Mayr, Ernst. What Evolution Is. Basic Books, New York 2001 p. 74-75.

[3] Wittkower, Rudolf. Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism. Norton, New York, 1962.

[4] Wittkower, Rudolf. Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism. Norton, New York, 1962, p. 14.

[5] Wittkower, Rudolf. Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism. Norton, New York, 1962, p. 14-16.

[6] Rasmussen, Steen, E. Experiencing Architecture, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1959 p. 118.

[7] What is the essential wolf? Wouldn’t we have regress to the progenitor of the wolf, Canis Lepophagus, and then the progenitor of that and so on and so forth stretching back through evolutionary time?

[8] Abend, Allen C. “Planning and Designing for Students with Disabilities.” National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities June 2001 p. 2.

[9] Levitt, Steven D., Dubner, Steven J. Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and why Suicide Bombers should buy Life Insurance, Hapers Collins, New York, NY 2009

[10] Imrie, Rob and Peter Hall. Inclusive Design: Designing and Developing Accessible Environments. Spon Press, New York, 2001 p. 17.

[11] Rydeen, James. “Universal Design.” American School & University. May 1, 1999.

[12] Speicher, Sandy. “IDEO’s Ten Tips for Creating a 21st-Century Classroom Experience,” Metropolis.


Cite: Henry, Christopher N.. "The Plato Effect in Architecture: Designing for Human Diversity" 12 Oct 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed 25 Oct 2014. <>
  • JeanSeul

    Well, I don’t really quite understand the point here. Yes, we have to design according to general proportions, yes, it’s not the ideal situation, but then again, an an architect you find yourself in two types of situations concerning ergonomic and design situations, you either design for a specific clientele (as when you are approached by a family to design their home), at which point you will, if you have any common sense, design with their specific needs in mind. Situation two entails designing for the general (and that means broad), public, at which point you have to take all possible situations into account: adult males, females, children, people with disabilities, young, old, short, tall, obese, thin, etc. and if you don’t rely in generalized porportions and standards, then I have no clue what you are to do. Concerning any alternatives, the author does seem quite lost too, for he just ends the essay with a rather obscure phrase: ‘Equality doesn’t mean we require the same environment, but an equal opportunity to address our individual needs.’ OK, please explain what you mean by that, for I am perplexed. Would you build a public building (one that is going to be used by the, once again, BROAD public) according to individual needs; whose needs would that be specifically; and how to choose; how to discriminate and on what bases?

    • Christopher Henry

      Thank you for the thoughtful response. There is a book by Mary Ann Steane and Koen Steemers titled Environmental Diversity in Architecture that you might like. It does not address all the concerns you raise, but there are some good ideas on how to approach diversity. I did not address many of the specific cases you point out, such as differing abilities, and that is a weakness. There is, however, only so much room in an article. I felt it was more important to focus on how we see/think about diversity before addressing how we design for it. If we base our design decision on false conceptions about the nature of diversity then we can never hope to design for it. I think dispelling essentialism is the first step in this process. Again, you brought out some engaging points and I thank you for that. I hope more join the conversation.

      • JeanSeul

        Thanks for your reply Mr. Henry.

      • Megan

        I think this essay raises a very frustratnig question for architects – How to design a standard that works for all? The isn’t a way. What I saw in the statement “Equality doesn’t mean we require the same environment, but an equal opportunity to address our individual needs,” was that we provide options for accessible use, not just one standard. This is a very simplistic example, but providing a range in heights of the toilets in public bathrooms would accomodate for the variations in human form, rather than just one standard height that is deemed to be the best height for most people. Is this what is meant by the article in general? Thank you for your insight and the book recommendation.

  • James

    This analysis is too myopic. As professionals we always seek to find the root of problems within our profession. I think part of it is ego. Surely if there’s a problem with the profession, it must be because of architects, right?

    Well, in fact no. The reason diversity isn’t embraced in building design isn’t because of architects. I think we’d find that if we polled the idea a vast vast majority of architects do in fact embrace diversity (being educated people who almost all accept contemporary ideas like global warming, eco-consciousness, racial and sexual diversity, etc).

    The problem is that clients do not. And our business climate does not.

    If there’s any fault to be found in architecture it’s that architects too often find they need to serve their clients in order to stay in business, because often client requests are in direct opposition to the well being of the general public. So architects, most of whom are desperate, choose to stay in business rather than do what’s right.

    It isn’t that architects don’t know what’s right or that they don’t care.

    It’s that the businesses and clients who hire architects often desire things that are unethical and they force their architects to execute them.

    In a country where half the available clients don’t believe in evolution, global warming, the importance of diversity in federally funded public schools, affirmative action, etc…

    it’s no surprise that our buildings reflect those values, or rather lack of them.

    Ultimately, again, this is a political problem. It’s a political problem because due to political reasons, half our population has been propagandized into believing things that can be proven to be incorrect. Racism, fear, religion and other bludgeons are used to get these people to believe these immoral things.

    Architects do all they can to program in humanist values, but oftentimes clients simply refuse to allow them, or threaten to look for a new architect if an ethical one protests.

    This is America, diversity has always had a very rough road here.

  • James

    The allegory of the Cave has always interested me quite a bit. The relationship of icons to their real world counterparts is fascinating. Derrida and the deconstructivists in architecture looked at it in quite some depth.

    However, as I mentioned above, I think the problem with a lack of diversity in building design is less a philosophical problem than it is a political problem.

    It’s not that we don’t have good philosophical examples of how to think about diversity in architecture, deconstructivists and their descendants have been looking at this for 40 years.

    I think it’s less a problem of not having an ontology available to approach the problems, or even a profession ignorant of that ontology (we all know much more about our fellow architects and their ideas than architects of the past did) – ultimately I think the real problem is larger than architecture, as I mentioned above.

    It’s a socio-political problem, not a problem with the profession. Architect know where the want to take building design, they just live in a country that given its demographics (lots of elderly people) is currently obsessed with reintroducing the traditional values of 100 years ago, values that explicitly rejected the very idea of diversity.

    Nearly 50% of our country (the conservative half) is dead set on undermining and attacking the entire concept of a diverse society.

    The solution to the problem is in affecting the political debate, and therefore affecting the larger social dialogue, not the debate within our profession.

  • Dan

    James is right about the nature of the problem. The ‘limit’ is an ideological edifice, socio economic conditions are the real problems.

    But political debate will solve nothing, an episteme can never look outside of itself, so using the perfect ideological defence of a political debate, controlled within set rules can achieve nothing.

  • Sean

    I like the article because it started this dialog. I like the dialog because this has been something I’ve been pondering about for a while now trying to think of my firm’s mission statement. But Dan’s last sentence really hits the nail on the head.

  • Chris

    I think that the reading of Plato’s ideal is misleading. Plato didn’t consider everything to be wrong because it wasn’t the ideal. In fact, the ideal would be unknowable without a diversity of subjects to compare. To Plato, finding the essential was important for how we relate objects to each other. How do we know something is human? Plato sought to distill human down to its essential elements; that on which the variations are based. This was largely related to parallel discoveries in geometry that were equally focused on describing things mathematically. Anyway, Plato wasn’t calling for us to constantly provide the ideal, but to try and reveal it through our work. What underlying truth can a design (or anything really) show us?

    Similarly, I think the work in proportions that was done by Vitruvius and the Renaissance architects can’t be blamed for universal design. These architects spent their lives testing different proportional systems to determine which was most harmonious; most beautiful. Because of this work, we understand why a door should be slightly, but not too much larger than a human’s height, for instance. The rules they created could easily be applied to people of different types through simple adjustments.Just because they worked with ideal human proportions, doesn’t mean that their work couldn’t be translated to fit an individual’s actual proportions.

    Faulting architects for trying to understand how their field works just doesn’t seem right. We should never fault designers for trying improve their knowledge, especially when done in a systematic, scientifically oriented manner. Instead, lets lay blame where it’s due, the industrial age’s focus on what was easiest to manufacture and cheapest to build. the machine age doesn’t like proportional systems, preferring instead absolute measurements. In a proportional system a door is, for example, 1.2 times the height of the occupant. In the absolute measurement system required for cheap manufacture, a door is 7′, based on an average human height, or worse, machine tolerances.

    • Christopher Henry

      I think you make some good points, but I would like to keep the discussion going by disagreeing with a few points. The article isn’t meant to blame architects it is meant to shift how we see diversity. Plato’s approach to diversity wasn’t only shared by architects, it was shared by everyone until population thinkers like Darwin reframed how we understand the origin of diversity and how it exists in reality. Diversity does not stem or spawn from some ideal. You are correct that the industrial revolution created a drive for more standardization, but I dont see how you would apply the 1.2 times the height of the occupant proportional system to a building like corbu did. Unless, it is a single occupant house with a person that never grows or shrinks with age. Plato’s Forms are static and unchanging, this is an idea that is no longer valid in an evolutionary world. My disagreements with the essentialist approach to diversity does not mean I do not enjoy the Renaissance architects. Palladio is among my favorite architects. A good deal of his proportional systems revolved around music, but Palladio was as practical as he was theoretical. Strict uniformity appeared literally unnatural to his practical side. Before Palladio immersed himself in the world of architecture, he spent the first sixteen years of his career as a stone carver. Perhaps this practical hands-on experience in the real world is what makes his work different from the mimeses that followed him. Even in his most uniform design at the Villa Rotonda he relaxed the rigid proportions. There “one axis dominates almost imperceptibly, being slightly wider.” (James Ackerman) Still, I prefer Michelangelo even more because to some degree he broke out of the mathematical proportional system in a time when it was almost heretical to do so.

      Again, I really appreciate the lively and respectable discussion on this article. I can see how many people will agree with points I failed to address in this article.