The Evolution in Understanding of Human Scales in Architecture

The Evolution in Understanding of Human Scales in Architecture

“The whole hand will be the tenth part of the man; From the bottom of the chin to the top of the head is an eighth of its height; From the nipples to the top of the head it will be the fourth part of the height.” If you're still here without going to get a measuring tape, these phrases were written by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, a Roman architect who lived in the 1st century BC, who delineated them in his influential treatise “De Architectura Libri Decem” – Ten Books on Architecture. The data presented by Vitruvius was compiled and depicted visually around fifteen hundred years later by Leonardo Da Vinci in his famous work “Vitruvian Man,” which is reproduced in all different contexts today, from book covers to kitchen aprons.

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Leonardo da Vinci / Public domain

Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man represents a naked man in two different overlapping positions, with all the proportions of his body perfect according to Vitruvian precepts. Finding a rationality for the proportions of nature and man is an aim that has fascinated scholars for centuries. And seek the relationship of the body to spaces as well. Furthermore, Vitruvius argued that buildings should be based on the symmetry and proportion of the human form. For him the composition of the "enclosures of the immortal gods," that is, temples, depended foremost on proportion. [1]

In Germany in 1936, between the two world wars, Ernst Neufert launched his seminal Bauentwurfslehre, or Architects' Data. The book features scaled illustrations of basic architectural typologies that were designed to allow for the rapid and systematic production of buildings. Since its first edition in 1936, 39 more German editions have been released, and it has been published in 18 languages and sold more than one million copies in total. Embedded in the pages were prescriptions of appropriate behavior, reinforced gender roles, and standardized human bodies. For example, while a male figure is presented at the beginning as “The scale of all things,” in the examples of dimensions for kitchens, there are only female figures.

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© Neufert

In 1948, the architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris – better known as Le Corbusier – launched one of his most famous publications, entitled The Modulor, followed by The Modulor 2 in 1953. In these texts, Le Corbusier made known his approach to the investigation that both Vitruvius and Da Vinci had embarked on before him – the effort to find a mathematical relationship between man's measurements and nature. In his calculations, this relationship, which itself was called the Modulor, was a system of measurements on the human scale based on the golden ratio. His finalized Modulor was composed of three main measures: the height of the standardized man, which was 1.83 m or 6 feet (previously, the modulor was 1.75 m tall, which was equivalent to the average Frenchman); the height of the standard man with an arm raised, which was 2.26 m; and the height of the navel, considered the halfway mark to the tip of raised arm, which was 1.13 m. These are also the three intervals that constitute Fibonacci's golden ratio.

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Flickr user eager licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

The purpose of the Modulor was to create a universal scale for buildings, avoiding the confusion of converting between the metric and imperial systems. The Modulor applies to the dimensions of the home, but also to furniture, aiming to provide the user with an intrinsic sense of well-being and comfort. The Marseille Housing Unit was the first project in which all dimensions were multiples of the Modulor.

However, each representation so far has always used as its reference a young, healthy man. As architect Lance Hosey points out, “The different methods used to represent the body reveal that the 'human figure ’is gender and race specific: male and white. [...] The illustrations dimension the body in several positions, but only one type of body is shown. Historically, when a single body is proposed to represent all people, the body is male. Such standards remain firmly embedded in modern architecture, in the dimensions, connections, and ideas of minimal and efficient space and in the regulations that control them. [2]

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Human-Reification. Image © Paul Gisbrecht

In fact, it goes far beyond architecture. In her book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado Perez exposes how the world is, in general, designed according to male dimensions, from seat belts to voice recognition software that works best for the tones of men.

Quoting José Almeida Lopes Filho and Sílvio Santos da Silva [1], it was from the 1960s that some conceptions began to change, at least in the manuals. “The realization that there was a large number of people with disabilities, that there were additional needs of the elderly following advances in medicine, led to an understanding that men are not all the same. [...] It was the Nordic countries and England that suggested that the Vitruvian understanding of the 'well-constituted human figure' could be replaced by that of the man conceived, respected, and analyzed within the diversity of his capacities and, also, disabilities.”

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A chair that fits all shapes of people. Investigations by Bill Stumpf. Image Cortesia de Herman Miller

In addition to sex, body dimension and shape vary according to physical and cultural differences, including race, age, nationality, occupation, and socioeconomic conditions. Selwyn Goldsmith, with her Designing for the Disabled: A Manual of Technical Information, brought to light the particular dimensions of people in wheelchairs, and included variations based on sex, age, and ability.

Between 1974 and 1981, design firm Henry Dreyfuss Associates developed the Humanscale guide (which started to be reprinted in 2017). Its graphs show the measurements of the human body and how it relates to the surrounding space. They are intended to serve as a guide for designing everything from seats and wheelchairs to vehicles and helmets, and represent men, women, and children, including the disabled and the elderly. Using a selector layer that revolves around each model, users can collect data, depending on the age, size or mobility of the person in question.

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A chair that allows to maintain a neutral, balanced posture and stay aligned with the visual display. Image Cortesia de Herman Miller

In any case, it is always prudent to analyze the manuals with a critical eye. According to Lance Hosey [2], "Anthropometrists have long agreed that an average is a misleading abbreviation that causes dangerous errors" [2]. According to the author, describing something as “normal” is questionable. The word can be quantitative, referring to a statistical distribution. But, perhaps more frequently, it can be qualitative, implying a politically charged standard of evaluation. That is, if there is the normal, anything slightly different will be considered abnormal. “Norms and ideals are routinely confused, and identifying a type as 'normal' builds a distinction between Self and Other, between the privileged subject and the marginalized object. By positioning a body type to represent everyone, these standardizing metrics support this dichotomy. ”

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© Neufert

Although most guides, norms and theories start to include peculiarities, seeking to cover as many people and realities as possible, it is not difficult to observe how many of our architectures and cities remain resistant to the different possibilities. Would it be a modernist, shaping and even oppressive heritage hanging in the air? Is this an architecture shaped by the proportions of man or an attempt to shape its inhabitants? Most immediately, readers should remember – don't worry if your proportions didn't resemble those of the Vitruvian Man.

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© Neufert


[1] José Almeida Lopes Filho e Sílvio Santos da Silva. Antropometria. Sobre o homem como parte integrante dos fatores ambientais. Sua funcionalidade, alcance e uso (1). Arquitextos Vitruvius. Available in this link (portuguese).
[2] Lance Hosey. Hidden Lines: Gender, Race, and the Body in Graphic Standards. Journal of Architectural Education. November 2001.

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.

About this author
Cite: Souza, Eduardo. "The Evolution in Understanding of Human Scales in Architecture" [A evolução no entendimento das escalas humanas na arquitetura] 15 Oct 2020. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884


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