There is nothing like a tape measure to raise eyebrows. Depending on the company you keep, it is a reasonably safe bet that any conversation involving one will sooner or later dive below the belt. In choosing the title for this article I am afraid to say I have already succumbed. There is something about dimensions and inches that brings forth the smirking inner schoolboy.
And I don’t think it is just me. Type into Google ‘how to measure the length of your ...’ and Auto-complete (that oracle of collective geist) pops up two misspellings of penis. The male member seems to have monopolised our idea of measurement. When even your search bar seems to think that all you would ever want to or need to measure is between your legs it is time to take action. Let me try and convince you that there is more, much more, to measuring.
As a recently liberated architecture student, I was introduced to the non-anatomical potential of measurements several years ago. An architecture degree, I learned, is spent either clutching tape measures in windy fields, or scale rules in the studio. There were precious few occasions in three years when I was not measuring the world, or something I wanted to put into it. The assumed single usage of the tape measure I had inherited from my schooldays was swept away in a flood of measured floors, ceilings and everything in between.
Measurement is critical to architecture—indeed, the act of it distinguishes it from other artistic disciplines. An extra few centimeters here or there on a Picasso and we would probably not notice, but without the precision of measurements, not only would buildings be difficult to design well, they might even completely fall down.
Tape measure in hand, you are invested with new numerical power over what lies before you. How tall is that comfortably leaning-height window lintel? And the width of that dramatic flight of steps? The world becomes your measured oyster, its qualities knowable and repeatable. The next time you find yourself in a room that you think is well-proportioned, a quick jaunt around it with your measure and you can put some numbers to the impression. You will start to know at what dimension a ceiling feels too low, or a door too narrow. You will know (down to the millimetre) what height a step can get to before you trip on it, or what diameter a door handle can reach before it hurts your hand. Adjectives like grand, cosy, intimate or imposing can be given an exact quantity. Numbers start to suggest experiences and even emotions. It is a long way from playground innuendo.
Historically, a mastery of measurement was the mark of the architect and his precursors. The Medieval Stonemasons handed down secret knowledge of the sacred geometries used in Cathedral construction from generation to generation. Lacking pocketable tape measures or even a
standard system of measures from town to town, a Master Mason would painstakingly scale up dimensions from a parchment drawing onto the ground using a cumbersome pair of Dividers (a kind of giant compass.) The elaborate system of interrelated measurements they laid out was the means by which they expressed God’s heavenly order. Whilst we might no longer subscribe to the theology, the sense of awe one has on entering a Cathedral is all thanks to measurements.
During the Renaissance, as earlier Roman works such as Vitruvius’ Ten Books on Architecture began to be rediscovered (and useful tools like pens and compasses were invented,) the role of measure in the architect’s metier only increased. In fact, the publication of a treatise containing geometric rules and systems of proportion to organise plans and elevations was the original way to make one’s name as an architect. Famous examples include Alberti’s 1452 On the Art of Building and Palladio’s 1570 Four Books which outlined their respective architects numerical strategies for creating beautiful architecture.
In more recent history, the explicit use of proportion and geometric calculation by architects has become much rarer. This has been partly an intellectual trend. Aesthetics, has, since Kant and Hume, moved away from notions of absolute mathematical beauty and towards a treatment of perception as subjective and individual. Architects have put down their tape measures. Dimensions and sizes for building elements tend nowadays to be a last minute decision, picked out of a manufacturer’s catalogue or from legally proscribed minimums. Measurement is viewed as the mundane, unsexy part of the job—best left to builders or contractors, rather than the very part which gives architecture it’s vitality.
I have written in a previous article about architectural culture’s current predicament in the age of the ‘Icon.’ Architectural historians such as Kenneth Frampton have lamented the deluge, approximately since Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao, of visually eye-catching buildings that disappoint in the flesh. Ideal for dissemination in photographs in magazines or on the internet, these structures are often awkward and uncomfortable up close, or even simply fall apart.
Measurement to the rescue. A rediscovery of the tape measure might, I believe, be the way beyond the flat and disembodied architecture we have seen in the last two decades. For the genius of measurement is it’s ability to connect the body to architecture. A connection that has in recent times been all too absent. Medieval and Renaissance masters knew that the basis of good, comfortable and harmonious architecture was in it’s relationship to the human form which inhabited it. In our seduction by striking images we have forgotten this. By paying close attention to the sizes of what feels good in a building, those doors, handrails and flights of steps, we can get this back.
So in a sense we are back where we began. Measuring our bodies. Perhaps I was too quick to dismiss the schoolboy impulse to auto-dimension. Indeed maybe that very impulse is what architecture has been lacking. If we could rediscover the joys and creative potential of measuring ourselves and the world around us, there might be many more comfortable and sophisticated spaces in which to live. So tape measures out and get measuring, just not that particular part ok?