A New Humanism: Part 20

The human scale is key to how we connect to space and place

In an encounter with a built environment we naturally perceive and judge the sizes of things, the scale in relation to ourselves, and our capabilities.  When we want to understand how we’ll use a place, fitting it into a “personal project” of the moment, scale relationships are inherent in visualizing how we’re connected. Then what we perceive naturally underlies the experience of hierarchies, boundaries, the sense of refuge or transcendence and all the ways we transcribe ourselves into, and measure the places we build.

The design professions make useful conventional distinctions between a “human scale” of places sized for comfortable, functional, personal or family use, a “civic scale” of public places that accommodate gathering in small and large communities, and the “super-human scale” of palaces, towers, and the presence of divinity, where the mobilization and expression of concentrated power induces awe, wonder, envy or deliberate intimidation. Each is measured by the muscles of eyes and body – as we refocus – and by the volume of sound needed to communicate. Within these generalized categories, a culture’s technologies of construction, movement and communication have tended to define the specific dimensions, but the important point here is this: the purposeful interweaving of these scales – in Christopher Alexander’s concept “bridging” between levels of scale – relating the larger or smaller ones step-by-step down to, or up from human hands, movements, and uses – seems inherent in essentially all admired and preserved old and new styles and their repeated revivals. 

In practice, measurement of scale happens first in the lower 30% of a visual field, including the ground plane – where we are. It starts with signs of human presence – in doors, window sizes, stairways, and story heights – or walkways, seats and alcoves, or ornament and signs of hand-crafting – all as they’re modified by lighting, acoustics and their ergonomic qualities. Human proportions and form relationships come into play, too, permeating the styles that follow classical design principles – in the traditional “whole-body,” three-part, base-shaft-top compositions that kept a human scale in massive pre- and post-Miesian towers or the familiar “head-and-shoulders” compositions, where churches and capitol buildings and the ubiquitous Palladian windows are designed with a tall, arched central form and flanking arms. Scale is also traced out through resolutions of gravitational forces. Again, classical design has shown how it’s done with articulated structure, and the systems of details and proportions in the orders – based as they are on the dominant resisting element, the column diameters, and the ways they distribute their loads. And human-mimicking sculpture and caryatides even more literally open-up a sense of connection, almost regardless of absolute size. 

More from Metropolis

These kinds of techniques have humanized the superhuman scale of the vast engineering works of Rome, Hausmann’s Parisian boulevards, and the first structures scaled to our industrial society that we dressed in classical clothes – the county courthouses, early factories and now a new generation of large but neighborhood-friendly baseball parks.  At an even larger scale, the designers of Versailles or Germany’s Karlsruhe showed how even a superhuman “divine-right” vision can be integrated into, and unite its surrounding town and natural setting. When the continuity of scales is broken, though, when there are no natural or human reference points – facing the blank walls of a shopping mall, or a black glass tower, or being greeted by the tall, unornamented, echoing lobby of a “mine’s bigger” super-bank­ – we’re likely to respond with awe but an uncomfortable sense of alienation, of disconnection

Metrics of scale

We perceive size essentially through a sequence of glances and related body movements.  Through the eyes, sweeping and darting like a continually searching spotlight, we feel relative sizes viscerally. From glance to glance, as the heights or widths or depths are brought into view, muscles are activated – mostly unconsciously – a rotation of eyes, the focal length of their lenses, a lift of the head, or turn of the body – in order to grasp significant messages. The motion of hands play a role, too, as eyes follow their gestures and touch. And beyond those fine-motor sensations, we measure size with our whole body’s space-sensing, balance-sensing system of muscles and joints, experiencing or imagining our response as we relate to a step, knee, waist, shoulder or over-the-head heights, or the length of a stride and reach. And all are adjusted by each of us to our own individual body size, strength, range of mobility and pace of thought or movement. Plus with other senses we “measure” the scale of a concert hall by the relative intimacy of sound, or an arena by sight lines and focal distances, or an opera house by both.

This subjective experience of scale, of relative size, like any other perception naturally depends on contexts as well – first our “personal project” and most pressing purposes of the moment.  Scale takes on one meaning when we anticipate pleasure in visions of safe, comfortable walking distances and destinations in relevant, “interesting” surroundings, and another in the face of challenging time deadlines, or competition, perils, or frustrating crowds and confusion.

Second, perceptions clearly differ in indoor and outdoor contexts, when height may be judged in relation to trees or clouds, and distances are not measured room-to-room, but store-to-store or fields to forests to horizons. Likewise, time illusions parallel visual illusions and become a major factor in perceiving scale – both absolute time spent in actual or imagined movement and time spent in mental processing both indoors and out, attention-diverting vistas and pathways, surprises and discontinuities, forced perspective, changing directions, something left behind unexplored, constantly changing relationships – all the increased complexities – enlarge the dimensions of an experience and, as a result, apparent relative size.

And third, experience and responses to scale are always primed over the longer term by the imprint of the places we have lived – like seeing compact Japan through an American cultural lens – and more immediately by the places we have been or imagined most recently – like moving through crowded medieval streets and “discovering” the seemingly vast open, civilized sweep of Siena’s Campo.

Siena’s Campo in Tuscany – interwoven scales and civic space that transforms urban functions into living sculpture.

Social scale

We respond to the scale of places in social contexts, as well.  In a suburban neighborhood we tend to feel a comfortable human scale in a cluster of 10 or 12 households like an extended family.  And in America we tend to organize clubs, conferences or a “small-schools” program in a 150 person range, where each person can “know” the others, to the 300 person range, where with weaker ties it’s still possible to become acquainted with, and recognize each individual. And we tend to favor dimensions of large gathering spaces – like meeting rooms or courtyards – based on the limits of easy distance vision, which usually allows recognition of familiar people within a +/- 70 foot range.

Finally, we also respond to the scale of a place by the numbers or people present or expected to be there, and thrilled or threatened by the “superhuman” scale, real or imagined, of the intimidating Red Army marching across Moscow’s Red Square. 

Moscow’s thrilling and threatening Red Square – a sense of brute power governing a vast steppe and forests in the scale of urban open space.


And while we may well respond with anxiety to very large places lacking human connections, like a busy highway or empty parking lot, an even larger “open road” one through a natural landscape with little or no signs of human presence may stir the pleasures of exploration and independence inherent in the natural world. The point is that perception of scale is always one factor when we sort out priorities among our contending motivations.

Rhythms and time

A body is replete with rhythms – breathing and heart beats and the more voluntary cadences of speech and movement, especially walking – and we take pleasure in sensing the rhythmic patterns that animate a built environment.  They seem to make a place feel, like us, “alive.” 

Just as we do with other people and crowds, we tend to mirror, to synchronize, our feelings and movements – imaginatively or actively – with the rhythms we sense around us.  It seems to build connections and trust.  And because variations in heart and breathing rates are integral parts of body-state, of moods and mental set, they naturally interact with the rhythms that we sense – the excitement and anticipation when the pace quickens in the lights and energy of an entertainment district, or the multiple rhythms of a rich Baroque interior, or the relaxation when the pace declines and steadies in the contained arcades of a cloistered retreat.

At large scales, rhythmic lines of trees, colonnades or lines of sculptured figures organize landscapes and buildings, and they even unify city districts as they line bridges across Rome’s Tiber and Prague’s Moldau. They seem to blend us into their rhythms and, like verse and song, invite us to join in, following their paths in a purposeful exploration. Even a simple row of columns or pilasters on a blank wall tends to add a sense of movement in inert masonry. 

We find pleasure in rhythms that take the form of “rhymes,” too, the repetitions of similar-but-distinctive plantings, dormers, streets of houses in a village, shells at the Sydney Opera House.  The rhyming makes new surprises seem “inevitable”. And we say we are “charmed” by the complex, six-part harmonies in San Francisco’s rows of Victorian town houses.  Likewise, the calculated rhythmic patterns of ornament, details and shadows in classical design can evoke – even in the simplest geometry – a range of contrasting lively or solemn moods.

Six part harmony on a San Francisco hillside

Rhythms carry a narrative, too, of life lived in a place – like a market place where we recognize a pattern of unique personalities in the rows of individual enterprises, storefronts, or craftsmanship.  And we are alerted by interruptions – like domes, steeples, and towers on a low urban skyline, or the residential parks that disrupt London or Manhattan’s grid. Then we try to diagnose their significance and fit them into a larger pattern, or, as an alternative, make sense of the interruption as a “landmark” – an aid to navigation as we move through a physical, social, or sacred environment.


Naturally the physiology and subjective sensations of heartbeats, breathing, and resonating body movements set narrow parameters for what feel like optimum, effective rhythms.  And the pace of rapid, darting eye movements – actually the working of the whole visual system and sensory memory – set their own limits on the bits of information we can actually receive and organize per second – or per hour. At one extreme, then, and depending on an individual’s background or current motivation, simultaneous barrages of forms, symbols, and lights can stir anticipation and tell the complex story of a Times Square and, to a devoted or dazzled observer, a cathedral.  But in the same time and place, the combined rhythms of changing sensations can bewilder or intimidate, often by design, other audiences, and an almost-living performance becomes confusion.

Naturally, our current purposes determine how we respond to rhythms. In any situation each of us has our own level of tolerance for continued repetitions like the insistent, mechanical march of modules and grids. Unless overlaid by some more dominant, informative pattern of human use – like a coherent neighborhood or a change of scale or outlook, they’re perceived quickly and filed away.  And when even appealing rhythmic patterns become too similar or too-long, or repeated too-often-too-fast, they exhaust the affected networks in a brain; attention fades, and we look for relief in another place.

The passage of time

Intervals of time have always been materials of design, woven through a built environment as designers “orchestrate” complex movements of the eyes and body.  In a parallel with musical material, we design “themes” and variations that are stated and then rhythmically threaded through spaces, openings, details, materials or colors, and brought to a climax at a desired destination.  And it is the artfully measured passage of time – stately, meandering or gaining speed in pulsating rhythmic drive – that is used to unify the great estate gardens or a city district into the cohesive, but multivalent order that draws millions to walk for pleasure.

From another perspective on time, designers routinely take into account the ways walking, biking, or driving change the orientation of our sensed physical coordinates, introduce new rhythms, and, as a result, profoundly change an experience.  In this connection, transportation engineers practice a narrow but sophisticated form of applied humanism.  They have measured the interrelationships that connect movement through space with the biology of human perception and recall – the limits on vision, reaction times or route planning – with signs, symbols, and built forms.  Because of their massive, often out-of-control influence on settlements and experience, though, all of us could benefit from expanding their art and science in ways that broaden the criteria they use for designing transportation systems.  This is one of the missions of a new humanism and is explored further in later pages.

Finally, at a still larger scale, the passages of time and slower rhythms of the natural world that are reflected in human biology are routine but often careless inputs to design. Aging, of course, and the twenty-four hour day-night cycles – like a heartbeat of the earth reflected in body chemistry – have a decisive influence on experience of any kind.  And the cycles of solar radiation, with our responses in terms of comfort, moods and performance, are integral to the forms and technologies of all of the places we build.  They, too, are further explored in later pages.

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The next post explores transcendence of frustrating human limits through our boundless imagination and spiritual experiences; and then the body chemistry that mobilizes all of our mind-body resources to deal with threats or opportunities – and our responses.

This is the twentieth in a series of posts that spell out a set of ideas called A New Humanism: in architecture, landscapes, and urban design. They’re about enlarging the way we think about design by applying, in day to day practice, a broader range of insights into the cutting edge sciences of nature and human nature — using them to understand how our evolved mind-and-body actually experience the places we design, and why people respond the ways they do.

Robert Lamb Hart is a practicing architect and planner educated at Harvard GSD and the University of Pennsylvania. He is a founder and a principal in Hart Howerton, a planning, architecture, and landscape design firm with an international practice out of offices in New York, San Francisco, London, Shanghai, Park City, and Boston. He believes that the design professions have been falling behind in their understanding of one of the defining enterprises of the Modern revolution, the application of the maturing, fast-moving sciences of ecology and human behavior — and the compromised results are showing. 

Albrecht Pichler, who drew the sketches, is a practicing architect and a principal in Hart Howerton’s New York office.

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