Scruton on proportion

A system of proportion relating it to the human body. (mlahanas.de)

A system of proportion relating it to the human body. (mlahanas.de)

As an advocate of classicism I’ve always been sort of absent without official leave from discussions of proportion. Perhaps that is because it involves mathematics, which I have tried to keep at arm’s length throughout my life. Thank God for the science of arithmetical estimation! Anyhow, the key to beauty is said to be a system of proportion enunciated in the orders. Looking at architecture, however, I have never been able perceive proportion at work. I have always been willing to assume that proportion does its good work regardless of whether I can follow it in action. A set of columns, regularly spaced, is about my speed. It’s enough for me to judge whether a set of windows in a façade is well or poorly designed by the extent to which my nose wrinkles at their placement, and I am willing to assume that if I don’t like the placement, it must be either because of some awkwardness that I can detect, or because it violates the canons of proportion, which are Greek (or Roman) to me.

So, on my way through Roger Scruton’s The Classical Vernacular, I was more than pleased to read the following, in Chapter 3, “Classical Vernacular”:

The Orders were originally associated with complex systems of measurement, and a meticulous attention to proportion. Even when questions of geometry are downgraded or ignored, however, the details for the Orders may still be used to impose vertical posture. Indeed, it is by virtue of the mouldings, string-courses and cornices derived from the old pattern books, that the disproportionate buildings of the early twentieth century were able to stand side by side so agreeably: as we can easily witness in Lower Manhattan. …

There is much food for thought on proportion in the passages between the above quotation and the one below, including a declaration that the orders are an “emancipation from measurement,” and then a passage suggesting that the “lip-service” to measurement paid by Renaissance treatises led to the blunderings of Le Corbusier, enabling the modernists to argue that proportion does the important work actually accomplished by detailing, and thence to argue that the detailing can be omitted without undermining the work done by proportion – all hooey, writes Scuton, who continues:

The Orders identify particular junctures in the wall or colonnade as points of drama and transition. Here the movement is gathered up, arrested, and then passed on with a renewed impetus. Base, capital, architrave and cornice; string-courses; plinths and attic storeys – all are picked out with shadows and given their specific character. The geometry of the building is made perceivable, since the lines that are related to it are endowed with a beginning, middle and end, and the whole into which they are integrated has the character of a composition, in which competing forces are resolved and harmonised.

By this very process, the need for a precise geometry is overcome. The details themselves come to acquire the marks of order, and acquire a harmonising potential that allows them to be transferred from building to building, bringing even the wildest and most erratic movement under a kind of civilized control. Once the pattern has been established, the builder has at hand a method for generating harmony in the absence of measure, and for perpetuating the memory of proportion in a composition by which the strict Pythagoreans would probably be outraged.

The next passage is about “proportions in a beautifully formed body – as depicted by Ingres, for example.” I will put it in another post following this one, because I don’t want to assume a degree of elitism on the part of my readers that would require them to read unnecessarily lengthy posts. Dividing up this set of quotations taken from Scruton pays homage to proportionality in the distribution of blog posts. So, onward and upward.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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