Hierarchy of Scale
The main ideas in this pattern were first presented in “Half Inch Trim” (240). But this is such an important and profound idea that it needs to be a pattern of its own. Also called “The Missing Pattern”*.
* For many years I believed that the pattern “Hierarchy of Scale” was already in the original “Pattern Language” book. I was quite sure of it. I even recall quoting it to people. I knew the book so well that I hardly had to actually look at it anymore. One day I tried to find the Hierarchy of Scale pattern and discovered I could not. I had to look three or four times before I could convince myself that it really was not there. More than all the others, this is “The Missing Pattern”.
Truly remarkable buildings all share one feature – they are interesting no matter where we are looking. Exceptional rooms are rich in detail whether we are looking at the whole room or at a smaller scale like a doorway. And the richness continues as we see finer and finer details – down to the very screws and pegs that hold it together.
Simply having beautiful objects in a room will not make it be a beautiful room. It is the multiple levels of architectural detail captured in one space that makes such rooms remarkable. There should be something interesting to look at everywhere we gaze, from big to small and everywhere in between.
Hierarchy of Scale is the idea that each space , whether it is a building or a room or a doorway, is made of an assemblage of smaller things. Each of those smaller things, when viewed closely, is comprised of yet smaller things. Like fractals, details within details. They form a natural hierarchy.
You cannot directly see hierarchies, you can only see the objects that make them up. But the hierarchies are there and they are very important. From “Half Inch Trim” (240) we know that the smallest scale we need be concerned with is about a half-inch, which is also about the same scale as decorative trim and handmade details.
We also know from “Half Inch Trim”(240) that each successive step in scale can be described as a ratio that measures how big of a jump it is to the next level below. Sometimes the jump in scale is small, like 1:3. This means that the space is divided into 3 subspaces or it is comprised of roughly 3 subobjects. Other times we make larger jumps, like 1:5 or 1:7. If the jump in scale is too large, over 1:10, then we no longer perceive it as a natural hierarchy.
When architectural details are members of natural hierarchies, then everything appears to be in its place and right where it belongs. When they are not part of a hierarchy, the features are likely to look unconnected, like they were simply added-on. Hierarchies are all about how things relate to each other and not about the things themselves. Below are three examples to better illustrate Hierarchy of Scale.
First example: Go back and look at the photo at the beginning of this page. (exterior corner of house, with a window, small trees in foreground) Can you see any hierarchies?
Starting with the largest scale: 1) the exterior of the house is visually divided up 1:5 by the protruding ends of the timber frame, which repeat about every 10 feet. 2) Each 10ft bay between timbers is divided up 1:5 by the smaller rafter-tails, spaced about every 2 feet. 3) At the finest scale is the wooden trim at the drip-edge, at about 1:8. It has sufficient detail to take us down to the scale of “Half Inch Trim”(240).
Second example: In the photo above of the exposed ceiling beams can be seen four levels of hierarchy.
1) There are four large scissor trusses, which divide the greatroom into 1:3 (only one section is completely visible). 2) Each big section of ceiling is divided into 1:3 by the horizontal timber purlins. 3) Each of those sections is divided up about 1:9 by the ceiling planks. 4) The edges of the planks display the curves of the logs they were cut from (also called waney board). The exposed knots and curves on the board’s edge have enough detail to take us into the realm of “Half Inch Trim”(240) and we are done.
Third example: 4 more levels of hierarchy, but in this case they are not so much created by division, but defined by the major objects within the space. We start with the same greatroom photo from earlier:
1) This room is defined by its main components such as walls, ceilings, alcoves, etc. Here we focus on the end-wall. 2) The wall is composed of the timber scissor truss in the plaster, the fireplace, and the french door. 3) If we focus on the door we see it has a substantial door frame, brass hinges and hardware, the doors themselves, and the glass. 4) Our focal point might then become the door frame and joinery between the post and the top header. There we find a primitive dovetail joint with hand-carved chamfered edges. Again, the end of our path is at the level of “Half Inch Trim” (240).
We could have taken quite a number of different paths in our choices of what to focus on. When the hierarchies are done well, each one takes us to something interesting. There should be many paths to choose from, each one part of a hierarchy designed to draw the eye towards it.
Realistically you cannot have every square inch of your house contain an interesting focal point with fine close-up detail. But you want lots of these places where you are drawn to look closely, as many as you can manage. You cannot have too many. A good rule of thumb is that there should be something of interest no further apart than the reach of your arms.
While standing a step or two away from a wall or structure, spread your arms out. Somewhere in that area should be something interesting, a focal point that draws the eye and captures the imagination. If you come up short and find a blank area with no interesting feature, then your job is to get creative and remedy the situation. Add some architectural detail or trim, or divide up the area into smaller sections.
Be mindful of the hierarchies and ensure that each space in your house is visually made of, or divided up into, a series of smaller spaces. The ratio from one scale to the next should be between 1:3 and 1:10. Each of those smaller spaces should in turn be divided up until the details reach the half-inch scale. Build special objects or textures of visual interest and fine detail – no further apart than the reach of your arms. Look for opportunities where you can exploit and extend natural hierarchies that arise from the building itself.