Page H1 . 07 May 2003                     
ArchitectureWeek - Patterns of Home
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    Patterns of Home
    Pattern Five Parts in Proportion : Nature and Buildings

    ArchWeek Photo

    The house by Harwell Hamilton Harris grows from massive to delicate elements in the vertical direction, with the tall central volume balanced on all sides with successively lower elements.
    Photo: Courtesy Alexander Architectural Archive, University of Texas at Austin


    Architects and builders throughout history have tried to create buildings that embody good proportion. Some architectural theorists such as Vitruvius (first century B.C.) and Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) tried to define good proportion by means of numerical rules: "The length of a room should equal 11/2 times its width" or "the height of a room should be equal to its width."

    But while these numerical rules can be very helpful as guidelines, they are only a part of the story, since buildings with no strict rectangular geometry composed of either varied angles or soft curves often have very pleasing proportions as well.

    A good way to relate proportion in nature to proportion in buildings is to compare the organization of a single example of flora (the common bush known as arbor vitae) with the organization of the particularly well-formed house that architect Harwell Hamilton Harris designed for his family in 1951.

    Axes of Growth

    An arbor vitae cutting has an obvious direction of growth, from the stem upward through the individual leaflets. Even though this growth responds to the local influences of neighboring branches and the availability of light and air, the resulting plant is clearly oriented along this main direction of growth. It has a starting point and orients toward a goal.

    ArchWeek Photo

    Balance around an axis is also embodied in the Harris House floor plan.
    Image: Taunton Press

    ArchWeek Photo

    Circulation space in the Harris House is differentiated from the main room by means of two steps, a gently curved beam, and a half-height bookshelf.
    Photo: David Duncan Livingston

    ArchWeek Photo

    The architect clarified the specialized parts of the plan to make the organization and structure of the house more visible.
    Image: Taunton Press

    ArchWeek Photo

    Sketch of the Harwell Hamilton Harris House.
    Image: Courtesy Taunton Press

    Click on thumbnail images to view full-size pictures.

    Similarly, the Harris house grows along a line in plan that begins at the garage and entry, moves toward the front door, past the junction of the central hallway, and on into the living room, eventually leading to a dramatic central window and planter that opens out to the view beyond. As with the arbor vitae, this axis is not necessarily a straight line, but it shifts subtly, responding to other influences.

    The house also has a vertical axis of growth, starting with a base of low walls and planters, followed by walls and windows, capped with sunshades and trellises. Our eye takes great pleasure in seeing the growth of an organism expressed in its final form and we similarly appreciate the clarity of a house whose parts are arranged along a logical line, from entry to goal and from foundation up to roof.


    The plant sprig is not rigidly symmetrical, but it is roughly balanced around its axis in both area and mass. Harris's house shows the same balance around its axes, not strictly, but comfortably distributed around a center.

    In plan, balance around an axis can lead to an orderly and logical separation between different functions, such as between public and private spaces in a house. In elevation, balance around a vertical axis, with the highest portion in the center surrounded by lower supporting elements, leads to a feeling of graceful, natural stability.

    Patterns of Home



    Part of the ArchitectureWeek Patterns series. Text and images excerpted with permission from Patterns of Home: The Ten Essentials of Enduring Design by Max Jacobson, Murray Silverstein, and Barbara Winslow, copyright © 2002 The Taunton Press, Inc. The book is available from The Taunton Press and at

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