Architecture Not to Scale: Viewing the Familiar With an Unfamiliar Eye

Scale is a term that has dominated the architectural profession for as long as built structures have existed. In the literal sense, scale defines the measurable standards that we have come to know and accept —the widths of door frames, a car turn radius, and of course, a means of producing measurable drawings. In a more abstract and figurative representation, scale describes a feeling of individual experiences when comparing themselves or a familiar object to something unfamiliar.

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Longaberger Basket, Newark, OH- NBBJ. Image © Barry Hanes (CC BY-SA 3.0) Image via 99 Percent Invisible

Some buildings and urban projects are often defined by their relationship to the human scale and their ability to share a relationship with commonly understood reference points. Other buildings are often described as being a sort of architectural “fun house”, and are so overwhelmingly out of scale that they intentionally diminish all sense of familiarity and force inhabitants to adapt to new methods of identifying their relationships to objects in space. But what is it about these buildings that seem to distort the things we know, and how can we begin to understand these scaleless and unfamiliar feelings in a familiar way?

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Robert Venturi's Duck and Decorated Shed Diagrams. Image © 99 Percent Invisible

Architecture with no scale utilizes two techniques when creating these feelings of distortion. The first involves exaggerating the familiar by taking everyday objects and transforming them in a way that produces a new effect. Venturi’s duck problem, for example, can be described as scaleless. The duck is an object we are familiar with, but it can be enlarged in size to produce an unfamiliar effect. We understand the general scale of a duck as something that is significantly smaller than a human body, but what happens when it becomes so large that we can step inside and occupy it?

Frank Gehry and Claes Oldenberg's unbuilt proposal for Camp Good Times, a camp for children with terminal cancer, is another example of occupying something of an unfamiliar scale. On the site, an enormous milk jug becomes the dining hall and other buildings take on semi-identifiable forms that resemble a canoe and distorted airplane wings.

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Frank Gehry's Unbuilt Camp for Good Times . Image © University of Pennsylvania Digital Library

Gehry, known for his interest in taking everyday objects, decontextualizing them, and transforming them into unconventional spaces, used these unique forms to create a careful balance between his formal views on composition and the basic needs of creating occupiable shelter. Ultimately though, the form-finding in this proposal was reduced to the reliance on recognizing the reference objects, and meaningful spaces weren’t developed to create a proposal that could be agreed upon.

A similar effect happens with NBBJ’s Longaberger Basket in Newark, Ohio. Another literal representation of a modern-day Venturi duck, the building itself is a large picnic basket that once housed the iconic basket company’s headquarters. Although the company has long since moved out, the action of walking inside a picnic basket, instead of holding it in your hand, creates an unfamiliar feeling. The spaces in between the woven exterior now serve as spaces for aperture. The effect isn't only experienced from the outside of the basket, as the large atrium space features a glass roof, reminding visitors that they are partaking in the act of being inside of the basket at all times.

The other method of distorting scale involves creating something completely familiar and creating a new experience through architecture. Take, for example, Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Blur Building from the 2002 Swiss Expo. The building itself is an entire experience that allowed visitors to walk through a cloud that hovered over Lake Neuchatel. Not only does the blur building become an optical whiteout, but visitors also hear the sounds of the illusion itself, with loud nozzles pumping out the fine mist that created the cloud. Taking it a step further, the firm’s idea was to not only occupy this space but to feel it- and even drink it. The scale is unknown because there is no scale at all.

The notion of scale is a reminder that as it pertains to architectural work, sometimes it's the lack of scale, the idea of being in-between scale, and the path to achieving an understanding of scale that makes projects so important. It creates a tension between what is familiar and what is unknown.

This article is part of the ArchDaily Topic: Human Scale. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our monthly topics here. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.

Editor's Note: This article was first published on

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Cite: Kaley Overstreet. "Architecture Not to Scale: Viewing the Familiar With an Unfamiliar Eye" 12 Jan 2023. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

Blur Building at the 2002 Swiss Expo. Image Courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro


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