1: Whatever: The Collapse of Social Thinking

Mark Morris teaches architectural design and theory at Cornell University Department of Architecture. He is author of Models: Architecture and Miniature and Automatic Architecture Designs from the Fourth Dimension. Mark studied architecture at The Ohio State University and took his doctorate at the University of London’s Consortium program, supported by the Royal Institute of British Architects Trust. His research focuses on architectural models, scale, and questions of representation.
The Caterpillar: What size do you want to be?
Alice: Oh, I’m not particular as to size, only one doesn’t like changing so often, you know.

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

We have a scale problem in architecture. It is confusing our discourse, how we represent and talk about our work. Critics are presented with drawings at varying scales or no particular scale at reviews. The same could be said of digitally fabricated models. A good deal of time is wasted at design juries acclimating everyone to the new scale liberalism, where one project might include plans at 1/8" = 1'−0", sections at 3/16" = 1'−0", and models at anyone’s guess. One could ask, and students do, why drawings or models are obliged to be at conventional scales. Looking back over our own departmental archive, scale was typically a given in syllabi and review directions, consistently so across decades until now. A student was asked at a recent review what scale her drawings were and she responded, “3/16, I think. Is that a scale? Why does it matter?”

The fact that no one else on the planet besides us, the Burmese, and the Liberians uses imperial measurement anymore undermines the notion that conventional scales are universal. Students have to go metric the minute they find work in any office with international aspirations, so why bother with thinking in fractions of inches? But the problem is not about systems of measurement, but the fading of adherence to any conventional scale that impacts work done in either feet or meters. Conventions may differ from place to place, but they do establish norms or standard criteria for the sake of communication. Using conventional scales develops habits of seeing and imagining to the extent that without finding the scale noted, most architects guess the scale of a drawing or model and quickly move on to the content. It is only when the scale of the drawing is unconventional that the viewer is tripped up.

Other representational habits have waned. Site plans were often drafted using an engineer’s scale with decimalized fractions of an inch, 1:10, 1:20, and so on. This tradition came out of surveying. Students rarely turn their three-sided scale rulers, if they even purchase them anymore, to the engineer’s side, and then only because they mistake it for metric. Physical models, thought of as extrusions of drawings in some respects, either matched or were a useful declination of the drawings’ scale; half the scale again, say. “Exploded axons” are popular but are typically built up using a digital model literally pulled apart. Tangible models are wed to digital ones and are increasingly fabricated, milled, or feature fabricated components.

Traveler 156 at Night. © Walter Martin and Paloma Munoz. Courtesy of the artist and PPOW, 2005.
Traveler 156 at Night. © Walter Martin and Paloma Munoz. Courtesy of the artist and PPOW, 2005.

Indeed, it is the computer that has relegated conventional scale to a nicety, if and when it is used. No one prepares their work at a scale, not anymore, and this is a profound shift in how we train architects and practice architecture. With computation came a revolution in how scale is treated in drawings and models. It is conceptually dispensed with, and this was the case from the earliest computer-aided design applications to Grasshopper, Rhino, and Maya. With software, one inputs full-scale dimensions from the start of a project. It would be foolhardy to do otherwise or attempt to think in scale while designing a building in Maya.

One reason conventional scales were adopted in architecture and architects used them so assiduously for so long has to do with the idea of process or stages of development that assume that preliminary things are supposed to be smaller, simpler, and less real than finished or fully manifested things such as buildings. One thinks of a painter’s small initial sketch refined and enlarged in various studies, and finally, rendered on canvas. Or, in a biological metaphor, a baby growing, learning, and becoming fully adult. Aristotle’s theory of the acorn held that small things have potentiality and an operating cause striving for self-actualization. There is an intuitive sense that the small is preliminary or unfinished. Accordingly, two disparate qualities—size and origination—were yoked together in the case of architectural representation.

Rudolf Arnheim, in The Dynamics of Architectural Form, references a similar allometric argument (borrowed from Peter Stevens) and connects it to models and visual perception. He questions any process of analysis that ignores scale. He urges us to view the cityscape as a landscape where formal comparisons and judgments can be made and scale is central to this index of abstraction. One of the few to treat scale as a topic of interest at all in the late sixties and early seventies, Arnheim invents the term thought model. Not a material object, Arnheim imagines architects think in model-form, to scale: “No doubt, the architect must imagine with some degree of precision what the actual building will look like when approached from the street or seen from the inside. But much of the actual shaping must be done on thought models of the whole building, mental images that are supported sooner or later by small-scale models built at the office. […] What can be seen in imagination tends, of course, to be less detailed and more generalized, but nevertheless the handling of a mental image bears a striking resemblance to the manipulation of an actual model with one’s hands.”[1]

Arnheim acknowledges the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss who broadens the scope of scale’s conceptual attributes in The Savage Mind, where scale is attached to aesthetics. “Being smaller, the object as a whole seems less formidable. […] the quantitative transposition extends and diversifies our power over a homologue of the thing, and by means of it the latter can be grasped, assessed and apprehended at a glance.”[2] He connects ease of apprehension with a notion of power over something. Through scale, a sort of conceptual shortcut can be had, “knowledge of the whole precedes knowledge of the parts. And even if this is an illusion, the point of the procedure is to create or sustain the illusion, which gratifies the intelligence and gives rise to a sense of pleasure which can already be called aesthetic on these grounds alone.”[3] It is a fundamentally different way of coming to know some­thing, spring-loaded comprehension, the mental buzz of which cashes out as a pleasur-able aesthetic experience.

Structure of Shadow, Bohyon Yoon, 2009. Courtesy of the artist.
Structure of Shadow, Bohyon Yoon, 2009. Courtesy of the artist.

There is a genuine sense of surprise encountered when a project notionally designed from its inception to its refinement at full scale is output to a scale, any scale, and this is owed to never encountering scale in the first place as an economy of drafting, modeling, or even conceptually as a thought model. The qualitative simplification offered by the quantitative diminishment in scaled representation is foregone for the sake of computation and working more precisely in real terms as if in the real world. But academia is not the real world, training architects requires a willing suspension of disbelief and a capacity for abstraction. Spatially, dimin­ishment implies distance. The distant is visually simplified or abstracted, distilled, and recast in an abbreviated way. Critical distance, having “perspective on some­thing,” requires abstraction as a basis for broader comparisons, manipulations, and judgments.

Scale is a useful tool toward graphic and analytic abstraction in the manner of Colin Rowe, or formal and conceptual abstraction in the manner of Rowe’s students, for example, Peter Eisenman’s use of scaling. He suggests that architecture traditionally has been related to the human scale. A house, a theater, and a skyscraper are the same human scale, in that they each reflect multiples of the size of a human being; this implicitly gives the scale of a human body originary value. In scaling there is no single privileged scale referent. Rather, each scale change invokes characteristics specific and intrinsic to itself. Scaling “produces a place that is no place, that had no time, that has no scale, that had no origin, and that’s the one truth—that there is no truth.”[4] Scaling as a technique may have meant more when injected into a milieu when everyone was still habitually working within conventional scales. The destabilization of scaling engendered was all about the friction of scales relying on convention as grist to the mill.

One thing both Beaux-Arts and Bauhaus modes of architectural pedagogy shared was an assumption about scale. For the Beaux-Arts influenced schools, this had as much to do with the composition of drawings on a board as it did with professional emulation. The Bauhaus embraced the idea of prototype and sought easy communication and partnership with industry where architectural rendering approached shop drawing; ergo, the emphasis on the measured axonometric. With nearly universal metrification, a schism erupted between anthropometric and agriculturally derived English Imperial units versus the mathematically pure French metric. Le Corbusier took this as a challenge and sought resolution between the two with his Modulor system developed in 1946, by reintroducing anthropometric measure to the metric, with the Golden Section and Fibonacci sequence thrown in as lures. He spent the rest of his career applying and promoting the system; the Carpenter Center was intended as a Modulor example for Americans to study and embrace.

Modulor Man Tattoo, Kelly Lone, 2007. Courtesy of the artist.
Modulor Man Tattoo, Kelly Lone, 2007. Courtesy of the artist.

Working at full scale from start to finish gives one the sense that they have already started the building rather than an ideogram of a building. The assembly of a project can originate with accurately dimensioned structural components, systems, and skins that can be evaluated and tested throughout the design process. No scale translations of drawings are required to consult with engineers or building trades. Standard parts—doors, stairs, fixtures—can be imported and applied early on. Original details are not considered fragments, but merely parts to a whole. A sense for the genuine size of things taken from personal and bodily experience can enrich a given project intrinsically.

There is nothing magical about 3/16" = 1'−0, which is a conventional scale. 3/16" 1'−0 does not inherently represent or reveal anything better than another scale (nor is the relation of inch-derived scale units to imperially sized building material beneficial, as lumber and steel dimensions are nominal). The only optimization that could be claimed in that regard is visual, where certain scales read well at a typical sitting distance from a piece of paper. What is significant about any given conventional scale is that it is a set calibration, offset from the continuum of scale and related proportionally to other distinct stoppages along that line. Out of all the possibilities of scale, conventional scales are interrelated increments from the full-sized backward to what is, practically speaking, too small to represent. While conventional, 3/16" = 1'−0 is not a commonly used scale. The student explained that 3/16" = 1'−0 was not a conscious choice. It was the nearest default conventional scale suggested by the computer when the paper size was entered as the student went to render her work. The assumption was to maximize the size of the drawing to the output media—36-inch-wide plotter paper—and the student elected to “scale to fit.”

Scaling to fit impacts modeling as well. Having designed a model in Rhino or Maya, one naturally wants to take advantage of digital fabrication. Outputting to a 3d printer eats up a lot of time and money. Given that investment, it is only natural to size rather than scale the model to the limitations of the printing box to whatever those dimensions are. One wants to walk away with the biggest possible object (at least so long as 3d printers remain so relatively small), and here scale completely goes away. The habit with modeling this way is not to scale to fit where the nearest conventional scale is employed, but where these models are sized to fit even if that makes their technical scale something like 3.42/16 = 1'. It is increasingly the norm that a printed model presented at a review bears no scalar relationship to the drawings of the project. The drawings are maximized in their own way, the model in its own way. Here one was has some sympathy for the critics who, even if they crack the 3/16 code of the plots, will struggle to place the scale of the model where conventional scale never had a chance.

Traveler 174 at Night. © Walter Martin and Paloma Munoz. Courtesy of the artist and PPOW, 2005.
Traveler 174 at Night. © Walter Martin and Paloma Munoz. Courtesy of the artist and PPOW, 2005.

It is shocking to see the number of glossy renderings heaped in the dumpster at the end of term. Yet it is not the case that students take no pride in their work; rather, the “work” is no longer bound to its (scaled) representation.  Whereas the drawing delineated by hand was the definitive work of the architect and its archiving essential, the rendering is an iteration of a continuous, mutable, virtual model/drawing; an outward sign of an inward process that is no longer bound to scale. There is a marked disconnect between sign and signified, but it is not a symptom of students’ apathy toward architecture, just a new way of working. Something has been lost in this shift. Beyond any matter of convention, there was something pedagogically useful in working at set points at a range of scales used as specific calibrations of conceptualization from rough massing to precise details. A building is an enormous and complicated thing. To approach designing one with any confidence, it was useful to work from big-scale moves to smaller ones, zooming in, starting with the most implied distance and coming figuratively closer in stages. This method allayed some creative anxiety, accepting that the development of a project was gestational, that projects literally grew as representations in parallel with the evolving and progressively more sophisticated articulation of spaces, sequence, and structure. It also permitted criticism to arrive at opportune intervals where a professor might better help guide the project from abstraction or sketch phase (lessons of type and morphology) to middle stages focused on adjacency and resolution of program to final rounds of innovative detailing which were, admittedly, fragmentary.

Lévi-Strauss aligned what we will call scalar thinking with a claim that something scaled down typically prompts an aesthetic response. This has to do with a condensation of detail and perceived levels of craftsmanship. “All miniatures seem to have intrinsic aesthetic quality—and from what should they draw this constant virtue if not from the dimensions themselves? […] Now, the question arises whether the small-scale model or miniature, which is also the ‘masterpiece’ of the journeyman may not in fact be the universal type of the work of art.”[5] Architects may be too close to these things to countenance them as art themselves, but others often do judge them as such, exhibit them as artwork, and trade them within the art world. But the aesthetic experience is not limited to perceiving the work, but also in making it. Gaston Bachelard writes of this aspect, “The cleverer I am at miniaturizing the world, the better I possess it. But in doing this, it must be understood that the values become condensed and enriched in miniature. Platonic dialectics of large and small do not suffice for us to become cognizant of the dynamic virtues of miniature thinking.”[6]

Architects can take aesthetic pleasure in their scale representations as well as their buildings. This pleasure can reach an apex when one acknowledges, as Emmanuel Kant claimed in The Critique of Judgment, that relative scale rather than size defines the sublime. Kant allowed that the sublime is found at the extremities of scale, the realms of both telescope and microscope. And it is that pleasure that draws many to the discipline. Architects have been caught up in a cyclical pleasure principle tied to making and critiquing scale representations. We still cling to this. The full-scale Maya model is still viewed on a small computer screen, plots of scaled drawings (even if the scales are unconventional) are still pinned up at reviews, and analogically or digitally fabricated models are still mostly miniatures. The aesthetic is maintained, but the strategic deployment of conventional scales in educational settings is not. Aesthetic pleasure is still had in perceiving the work.

Conventional scale is becoming vestigial in many respects. It is an output option rather than a condition of any input. To abide by conventionally scaled representation is a professional courtesy that, for some time yet, will aid in communication and still count as official legal documentation for the purposes of planning and design review. There is no real way to rescue scale for professional purposes beyond these vestigial aspects; Frank Gehry’s office may record his initial models to scale, but these are resolved computationally as if full-scale. Architects trained to work in conventional scales will still do so, even doodling accurately at 1/8" = 1'–0", but their new hires will have other gifts.

It is only the practice of using scale as a teaching tool that, I would argue, is worth rescuing. Its value is in bringing projects to fruition at stoppages that optimize the creative process, giving confidence where needed, promoting abstraction in a very basic way, affording “critical distance” for the purposes of self-critique and student-professor tutelage, and even providing aesthetic pleasure. The convention does not matter—Imperial, Metric, Modulor, whatever—provided the options give us consistent effective increments. Educational needs are distinct from professional ones, scalar thinking has been a component of architectural education for some two and a half centuries and it may still prove an indispensible skill that we claim has robust pedagogical value in its own right.


1. Rudolf Arnheim, The Dynamics of Architectural Form (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1977), 17.

2. Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1966). 23.

3. Ibid., 23–24.

4. Peter Eisenman, Moving Arrows, Eros, and Other Errors: An Architecture of Absence, Box 3 (London: The Architectural Association, 1986), 4.

5. Lévi-Strauss, 23.

6. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space [La poétique de l’espace, 1958], Maria Jolas, trans. (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1994), 150.


Kelly Lone is an architect working in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Her other life as a freelance photographer takes her to music venues across the country. Her featured self-portrait was taken as a student on a rainy day coming back to studio at Ohio State’s Knowlton School of Architecture.

Bohyon Yoon is a multimedia artist working in South Korea, Japan, and the United States. He studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and the Tama Art University in Tokyo, and was a Fellow at the Research Center for Art and the Kyoto University of Art and Design. Yoon’s work examines images of the human body and the boundaries of communication.

Walter Martin (Norfolk, VA) and Paloma Muñoz (Madrid, Spain) are a collaborative team working together since they met in New York in 1993. Their work has been widely exhibited. They are best known for Travelers, a series of snow globes depicting a world of unfortunate, dark, and sometimes humorous situations in a frozen winter land. A monograph of their photographs was published by Aperture in 2008. Their work is frequently exhibited at PPOW in New York.

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