The Laws of Proportion
The attempt to formulate laws of proportion was first made by the Greeks, through whose unique genius the whole realm of human thought and emotion found expression. Observing that the human body-to them the most admirable and beautiful object in the world-is characterized by fairly definite proportions, or relationships among its parts, they set about it to reduce the design of buildings to a similar basis. Taking the size of a single architectural member usually the semi-diameter of a column at its base-as a module or unit of proportion, they established ideal ratios between this module and every other part of the building. Having decided, in the case of a particular building, upon a linear value for his module, the Greek architect could construct his whole building, whatever its size, according to the laws of proportion, as the anatomist can reconstruct an entire body from a single bone.
The progressive development of Greek architecture, typified most clearly in the three orders, offers an admirable field for the study of proportion as it conditions both the creation of beautiful forms and the expression of emotional ideas. Thus the Doric column-to speak, most incompletely, of the column only and not of its entablature-reveals the characteristics of the race that created it, a race vigorous, proud-spirited and grave, of rigid morals, an austere and solemn religion, a passionate love of warfare and of the mimic combats of the gymnasium. The Doric column seems to spring directly and powerfully from the rock of its foundation. Its height is less than six diameters. It tapers strikingly from base to top, has but slight entasis, and is channeled with flutings deeply cut and acute. Thus the order is characterized, particularly in its earlier monuments, by a massive solidity, a virile emphasis upon constructional forms, and a rude and solemn majesty. It was refined and softened as it developed, but it never lost its essential character, which is inherent in its proportions. In the Parthenon, at once the most perfect example of the style and the most beautiful building of the ancient world, there is little of softness or of elegance; but throughout and above all there is a sense of immense strength, of immemorial repose, and of calm and noble majesty.
The Ionic order, born of another racial stock and a later age and employed in the design of temples consecrated to divinities less austere and virile and more gracious, yielding and lovely, reveals the change toward these qualities chiefly through changes in proportion. The Ionic column has a height of from eight to nine diameters. It is slender, graceful, springs from a base composed of subtle curves, is channelled with flutings more slightly marked and separated, and completed by a volute capital which combines superlative grace and beauty of curved line with chaste and delicate ornament.
The Corinthian column is still more slender in proportion, having a height of ten diameters or more. Its flutings are separated by fillets terminating in curved forms, its capitals richly embellished with rows of carved leaves and elaborately constructed ornament. Thus for the severity of the Doric and the svelte delicacy of the Ionic the Corinthian order substitutes a quality of richness and magnificence.
The changes exemplified by the Greek orders are characteristic of the development of all the arts. Always they emerge vigorous, forceful and austere; always they become more delicate, more elegant more graceful; always in the end they achieve a style rich, pretentious and florid. The arts change with changes in society, and in the degree that they are real arts-that is, real expression, rather than a foolish striving to put new wine into old bottles-their works are adapted in proportion as in everything else to the needs and aspirations of the people who create them.
It is manifest, therefore, that excellence in proportion, like excellence everywhere else in interior decoration, is first of all a matter of fitness. We cannot use a Doric column in the architecture of a Louis XVI salon, nor can we use an over-stuffed sofa or a Renaissance table in its decoration. That is, we cannot use massive furniture, or large, heavy and strikingly ornamented accessories in a small room, or in any room which is designed to be dainty, gay or elegant. For just as the draft horse, beautiful as he strains at his load, would be absurd and ridiculous on the race course; and as the powerful shoulders and barrel-like chest of the wrestler would be unfitting and hence un- beautiful in the hurdler, so the proportions of a living room-using the term as defined to mean the adaptation of one part to the others and to the whole as respects magnitude, quality and quantity-could never be precisely the same as those of a drawing room, because these rooms do not have the same purpose or meet the same needs, and hence cannot have the same significance or express the same idea.
We have seen that the fundamental principle of decorative composition is to put together things which, either in appearance or in significance, are more or less alike. This principle conditions the choice not only of lines, colors, patterns and symbols, but also of shapes and sizes. All the parts of a furnished room must be congruous. That is, they must appear to the mind to have grown together in the process of expressing a common idea. Thus the idea of repose, for example, is as we have seen inevitably associated with horizontal as opposed to vertical extension. Accordingly the proportions of the room to be furnished, as well as of its principal decorative units, must reveal a marked emphasis upon length as opposed to height in the degree that an effect of repose is aimed at. Similarly, because the ideas of strength, heaviness, immobility, importance, permanence and dignity are inevitably associated with large size, the room itself and the important decorative elements used in it must be more or less large in the degree that these ideas are to be expressed, and more or less small in the degree that the ideas of delicacy, lightness, mobility, triviality, transience or grace are to be expressed.
FIGURE 25.- Note the change toward effects of lightness, delicacy elegance, animation and gaiety with smaller size and more slender structural parts.