John Beverley Robinson.

Principles of architectural composition; an attempt to order and phrase ideas which have hitherto been only felt by the instinctive taste of designers [by] John Beverly [!] Robinson online

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351 3S1

C. E. Cebrian

'Principles ot
Architectural Composition

An Attempt to Order and Phrase Ideas
Which have hitherto been onlv felt by
the Instinctive Taste of Designers.


\\'ith (in




Professor of Arrliitr, !,< nf r,<///. ,/////; /'// //(/*;///. n-lamr <ii-i,i-r<ni* a/iiH'oval stimulated
//> t\ffi'l#. (hi* i-olmne is dedicated by the Author.


Ube Brcbitectural IRecorfc Co.

i8 99 .

J. C. Obrian,


Copyright, 1900



It is, of course, a question whether architecture, in
our time, will improve in its artistic character, or will
deteriorate until that character is wholly lost. There is
a tendency in each direction. The evil influences which
cause the tendency downwards are numerous, and have
been discussed on many occasions the commercial
demands which control nearly all costly buildings, the
ignorance of the public men whose opinions control
what is erected for the State, the changed position of
the architect from that of a salaried artistic supervisor
to that of a highly paid fiduciary administrator, and the
disappearance from the modern world of the ancient
instinct towards ornamental design. The good in-
fluence which causes a tendency upward is merely the
slowly developed sense of our own short-comings
caused by that very self-conscious, comparative study
of ourselves and of the past which has injured architec-
tural design in the past but as we believe in the past
only ; to help it greatly in the future.

" Nothing is certain but the unforeseen," and in like
manner, nothing happens but the unexpected. What-
ever we prophesy is surely destined not to come to
pass ; so much wisdom seems to have come to us from
the last two hundred years of political, social and liter-
ary prophesying. Tendencies are all that we can judge
of ; and even these are difficult to trace, lost as they are
to sight and to touch amid the vast complexities of mod-
ern Societies, stretching over continents and reproduc-
ing themselves beyond seas. For aught we in America
can tell, the clearest "pointer" towards the unfulfilled
promises of the future may be traceable in the country


houses of some Australian colony ; or equally well in
the building and adornment of some steel cage con-
struction now rising in some American town. We are
now partly able to judge of the tendencies which were
at work in 1850 and in 1865 ; not yet can we say with
any boldness what was doing in 1880 ; and as for which
way we are tending now, the death of one architect
the breaking up of one firm the appearance of one
rich real-estate man with better taste and more boldness
than the rest of his kind the action of one art Society
with more continuity of purpose than the others and
obviously the appearance of one artist of exceptional
fixedness of purpose any one of these things may in a
fortnight change the whole aspect of things and reverse
what seem to us the probabilities. One thing only we
know, and that is that every little influence which
makes for progress is to be encouraged to the full. In
modern buildings undertaken in haste, decided on in
a scrambling meeting between ignorant committee men
and headlong architects, put through in one-fifth of the
time which their design and construction require in
modern buildings the artistic problems connected with
grouping, massing, sub-division, relation and proportion
have but little weight. These problems are indeed al-
ways in the mind of the architect, if he is of any native
force and of any gained knowledge at all. Let no one
believe that the modern architects are indifferent to
their needs as artists or to the shortcomings of their
work. No man who is rushing a twenty-story office
building toward completion but knows that he is, partly
under compulsion and partly of his own fault, ignoring
all that is best in what should have been his design.
Grouping, massing, sub-division, re ation and propor-
tion are all felt to be necessary subjects of thought
and of study; and our buildings are perfectly well
known to be erected without due consideration of those
vital qualities. If, now, it be possible to thrust into the
daily life of hurried architects some easily grasped

principles and some visible conclusions about those
vital qualities, assuredly there is something gained. It
is because those great qualities are needed that the hur-
ried designer turns to plates in which ready-made pro-
portions are laid down: poor things enough, in which
special examples of great ancient art are tortured so as
to seem fit for universal application. The most accom-
plished architect of the day might become more ac-
complished if he would read and master a statement,
however slight and inadequate, of the true principles
which control, let us say, the sub-division of a build-
ing in its height. The general proposition that a
Greek temple spreads wide and has a low-pitched
roof while a Roman temple narrows itself and in-
creases its own height, stands upon a lofty podium
and gives itself a steeper roof ; that this tendency is
carried further in the Middle Ages, where the outer
walls draw together and push the roof up and the
roof itself becomes at least as steep as forty-five de-
grees with the horizon, and that as the styles develop
themselves this height and this upward tendency
steadily increase ; and all parts increase together
every part sympathizing with every other ; a general
statement of all this should be in every student's hand
with whatever elucidation and whatever explanation of
apparent exceptions the writer's space may allow or the
reader's intelligence may super-add. The substance of
such a statement of principles should be familiar to
every one. A host of these considerations may lie in
the mind, unconsciously affecting one's daily practice ;
and they may leap to light when the time comes for con-
scious use of them, and vitalize the whole of an impor-
tant artistic creation.

There is another weighty reason why these general
principles should be urged, in season and out of season,
and forced upon the attention of all. To a limited
number only is it given to feel so strongly the fitness of
things that a high and narrow building in their hands

will never receive the cornice which is better adapted to
a low and broad one, and that the relation between the
spread at the basement and the overhang of the cornice
will be felt to influence the whole exterior. There are
but few persons who feel instinctively that a gable in this
place is impossible unless certain dispositions can be
made of other gables elsewhere ; and that lacking such
dispositions the first gable must be suppressed or must
be turned into a tower or a flat topped bay-window.
The majority of men need much help in these matters ;
and such help is best given by the reiteration of those
general principles which govern architectural design.
On the other hand, the few who are specially gifted in
this matter of abstract composition are none the worse
for the possession, ready at hand, of a clear statement
of the theories which underlie their natural practice.
Even if the statement of the case does not seem to
them absolutely that which they themselves would have
made even if they disagree with much which the
writer says (as is inevitable in the case of these little
understood, little used theorizings) they will be
strengthened by the comparison of their own views
with those of a careful and discriminating analyst.

For these reasons the book to which these words
serve as preface has been undertaken and is now pub-
lished. Its perusal and re-perusal are important to
practitioners, because they need to think sometimes
about their practice, and more important still to stu-
dents, because they need to think all day long and every
day about their future practice it is recommended
to " laymen," that is to say, to those who do not prac-
tice any fine art, because it is quite time that our " lay "
public were a better critic of the artist. The non-pro-
fessional lover of architecture is hardly aware as he
passes in review the latest additions to the architectural
display of his native town, or as he visits a neighboring
city where the architects have been busy, how little of
artistic feeling and artistic power has gone to the crea-

tion of the monuments around him. The artistic feel-
ing may, indeed, have been in the designer ; but the
artistic power was not there, or was not put to use,
because whatever may have been the native possibilities
the inborn capacities of the man, there has been no
opportunity to develop them. The painter and the
sculptor, each one of them, is practicing a still living
art, an art not thought to be in its heyday of triumph
and yet known to be alive and growing toward still bet-
ter and higher things; but the art, the fine art, of the
architect is in a state not of decadence but of negation.
If, now, the busy architect be reminded, as he will be,
forcibly, as he studies this book, of some of the most
important qualities that go to make up the work of
architectural fine art, he will be greatly helped thereby ;
for he will find it easier, when next the choice is pro-
posed to him of starting his building with the least pos-
sible friction, on the one hand, and of making a finely
designed building out of it on the other, he will find it
easier than before to choose the more difficult but the
nobler way. And as for the student and the beginner
in architectural practice, the importance to them of this
powerful and intelligent exposition of the great prin-
ciples of design will enable the first to study in a vastly
more intelligent way, and will help the second toward
the happy and ennobling career of the artist rather than
the less attractive life of him who merely plans and
erects buildings to order, as the requirements of con-
venience and of investment somewhat hastily ordain.


I. The Involved Nature of Architectural Design i

II. L'nity 3

III. Grouping 7

IV. Grouping of Subordinate Parts 26

V. Appendages 40

Y I . Grouping of Details 50

VII. Horizontal Subdivision 57

Y 1 1 1 . Proportion 69

IX. Classification of Buildings 83

X. Practical Examples 91

XI. Theoretical Basis 104

XII. Transformation of Motives 109

XIII. Double Composition 120

XIV. Criticisms . 126



The Involved Nature of Architectural Design.

DESIGN, in general, as applied to the fine arts, means the dispo-
sition of objects so as to please the senses, in contradistinction
to the mechanic arts, where design means disposition toward some
useful end. To the work of either fine or mechanic art intellectual
pleasure may attach.

In all art, design has various aspects. The painter must take into
account the intrinsic interest of his scene, its fidelity to nature, and
its importance in history or thought, in addition to the work of pure
design the arrangement of forms and choice of colors regardless
of what they represent or suggest.

Perhaps in music alone is pure design possible the juxtaposi-
tion of sounds to give pleasure to the ear alone ; but even here, sen-
timents of dignity, gaiety, and others, are so closely connected with
the mere sounds, that not even in music do we find design pure
and simple.

Especially in architecture is design complicated with considera-
tions of such magnitude and importance, that they are usually set
forth as constituting the whole of architectural design, almost to
the exclusion of the essential part of aesthetic design the deter-
mination and correlation of forms and colors in combinations that
are intrinsically pleasant.

The most important of these considerations is that of utility.
Nowadays an architectural form rarely seeks expression, except
as including some useful purpose. Formerly, when architecture
was chiefly employed in building houses for the gods, utility
counted for less ; next to the satisfaction of the eye, the sentiment
of reverence chiefly needed to be gratified. But now we must build
houses, and town-halls, and office buildings, and put forty windows
where we would rather have but four, and make our design out of
such mundane needs. Sentiment, too, must be taken into account,
if not religious, perhaps domestic, or that of public pride, or private


ostentation. A hundred utilities and a score of sentiments arise for
us to satisfy.

Next to this comes the constructive sense, which, even in the un-
professional mind, shrinks from a post that seems too slim ; and in
the professional mind, objects to an arch with too slight abutments.

Then, again, there is a sentiment with regard to material, which
prefers stone to brick, bronze to iron, marble to plaster.

There are all of these, and perhaps still other considerations, in
deference to some of which we may, at times, find it necessary to
do what pure design would forbid. Thus, to take a familiar building
as an instance the Doge's Palace, at Venice to satisfy the con-
structive sense, sadly needs abutments at the angles, for both the
first and second story arcades, while, pictorially, it is quite right just
as it is.

Most designers, in fact, dwell chiefly upon utility and construe
tion. Admirers of both the Gothic and the Classic modes will urge
that the design must spring from the plan that is, from the ar-
rangement that utility or construction requires.

They are both quite right: the design should spring from the plan ;
but it must spring from it, and not remain nothing but plan. Designs
must be suggested by the plan ; but if no design attaches itself to one
way of satisfying the utilities, some other way of satisfying them
must be devised, which will suggest a scheme that pleases the eye.

Nor would any one ever have exalted the value of the mere utili-
ties, were it not that each starts with a certain type of artistic re-
sults, to which, it is assumed, all utilities must be made to conform.
Thus, when the Gothic man talks of plan, he has in mind as a type
an unsymmetrical group of parts, apparently thrown together as
nature throws the rocks of a mountain, yet really carefully arranged,
according to the skill of the designer. In the mind of the classical
man, on the other hand, there is an assumption of a different type,
to which all of his utilities must adapt themselves. He wants some-
thing symmetrical, with horizontal lines predominating.

Just as the medisevalist cannot think of a house as a square mass,
the classicist cannot think of one all peaks and steeples.

The truth is that men have not thought of design as a general
method, applicable to all styles. They fall in love with some special
beauty of the past; justly, no doubt, but without anything like a
fair appreciation of the possibilities of the case.

Beyond the utility beyond even the construction of a building,
there is the question of design purely from an artistic standpoint
the erection of forms that are pleasing, to the eye, regardless, for the
moment, of whether they are granite or sugar-candy; of whether
they are to be lived in, or worshipped in, or worked in.

It will, perhaps, never be possible to reduce the art of delineating


and arranging pleasing forms to an exact science ; but it is possible
to analyze and classify these operations, in such a way as to help one
to make a simple and pleasing design, or an intelligible criticism,
just as a knowledge of counterpoint may help one to construct a
simple melody or harmony, and aid him in appreciating and esti-
mating the masters. But we cannot make a master by teaching
rules, and design, in its more delicate discriminations, must always
remain a matter of talent and temperament.


IN all fine art that is, art which has as an end the pleasure of the
senses there are two qualities which must be obtained: unity
and grace. Unfty is the manifest connection of all the parts in a
whole ; grace is the pleasing form of the parts thus connected.

Draw eight lines at random, thus (i) ; there is no evident con-
nection among them there is no unity; but if they are drawn thus
(2), unity appears ; they constitute a whole by virtue of their arrange-

1. Random lines without unity.

2. Lines united by their arrangement.

If now, instead of straight marks, we give the parts shapes that
are pleasing, we add grace, thus (3) :

3. Grace added to unity by the shapes given to the parts.

There is another method of arrangement by which separate
things may be united ; not, indeed, into a whole, but into an unfin-


ished part of a whole that must be otherwise completed. If we ar-
range our former units, either regularly, like this (4), or irreg-


4. Objects evenly disposed, giving con-
tinuity to another object upon which they
occur, but only when a boundary is marked;
otherwise giving a sense of incompleteness.


\ \

/ \


5. Objects, unevenly disposed, also giving
continuity, but less than when evenly

ularly, like this (5), with more or less evenness and absence of
accentuation, we give a certain sense of continuity to the surface
thus covered.

So, again, if we apply our lines to a long line (6), we unite them ; yet,

6. Objects, occurring at even intervals, giving a sense of incomplete continuity until
the terminations are marked.

without some termination, it appeals to the eye not as a completed
group, but as a part of something of which the whole is not yet sup-
plied ; this is what we feel in a row of columns, in a wall with dormers
at regular intervals, (7), and in almost every ornamental border.

The quality of unity is essential to all objects of art, and to all
parts of each ; and it constitutes the greater part of architectural de-

In architectural composition there are two principal processes,
in which considerations of unity are paramount the assemblage
of parts that are side by side into a whole, which we may call group-
ing; and the separation of the building as a whole, when it is a sin-
gle mass, or of each of the component parts, when it is a group of
masses, into parts disposed one above another, which we may call
subdivision limiting the word arbitrarily to horizontal subdivision,
and keeping the word "grouping" to describe vertical separation,
even when it seems to be rather the division of a whole into parts
than the assemblage of parts into a whole.

After the arrangement of the main masses of the design, comes a



similar process with each part of which it is composed, whether
vertically or horizontally; and the grouping of details windows,
columns, turrets, and the like for each part, upon the same general
principles that applied to the whole.

8. Group of two masses, joined by a connecting part.

Thus, in figure 8 two masses joined by a lower connecting link
have been grouped ; in 9, the combination has been subdivided hori-


9. The same group, sub-divided in height, and elaborated with minor parts.

zontally into three parts, by the sill-line and the eaves line carried
through ; and upon the gables and the connecting link, windows, dor-
mers, and columns have been placed by ones, twos and threes.
So, again, in 10, the single mass of the building has been sub-

10. A single mass, sub-divided horizontally by mouldings.


divided by means of mouldings; while in n, in each subdivi
sion, windows of different sizes and shapes, and in different num
bers, have been grouped.

11. The same as 10, with minor parts grouped upon the different sub-divisions.

We are to consider, first, the number of principal parts that may
compose a group, and their sizes in relation to each other ; next, the
number of subordinate parts which should be grouped, as details,
upon the main mass or masses: then subdivision horizontally must
be investigated, in the same way, as to both the number and size
of parts.

Afterwards we shall try to find some method of determining the
relative proportion of length to height, both for masses and for de-
tails ; and, finally, make some attempt to apply our conclusions to
practical cases.

Taken together, these different processes of determining the
number of parts, and the size and shape of the parts, primarily for
the main masses; secondarily, for the subordinate masses; and,
finally, for the details, constitute What is called composition.


IN all designs of form, whether it be the design of a finger ring or
of a cathedral, there are but three groupings that give satisfac-
tion to thje eye by a sense of unity.

Other collocations may please by superadded qualities, by richness
of encrusted decoration, by association, historical or sentimental, or
by pleasant color; and even the best groups will fail in satisfying
the eye, if the parts composing them lack the quality of grace in-
dividual and separate beauty. But, as far as mere number is con-
cerned, the experience of designers seems to show that the avail-
able groups are only three.


Rule i. One thing looks well.

Clear and conspicuous oneness characteristic of most of the
great buildings of ancient times, when it comes to us, is fundamen-
tally satisfying to the eye, and is not to be lightly cast away. By
oneness ; we do not mean what has before been called unity, which is
the perception that many parts constitute a whole ; but it is rather the
perception that the whole consists of but one part.

To talk of one, under the head of grouping, may seem anomalous ;
it is so ; yet we must lay all possible stress upon the value of this
singleness. Such we see in a Colosseum and in a Parthenon, in a
Pisan Baptistery and in a Cheops Pyramid ; each is one, as dis-
tinguished from a Pantheon that is two, or a Karnak temple, .that
is three or four, or a modern country house, that may have eight or
ten parts. In the illustrations 12, 13, 14 and 15 are shown other in-
stances of single masses.

Rule 2. Two things look well together.

This is true always, whether the objects be equal or unequal, large
or small, twin Notre Dame towers, or coupled columns, or doubled
windows. 16, 17, 18 are examples of groups of two masses.

Rule 3. Three things look well together.

This is also true, but here we reach a qualification. A group of
three equal parts is not always pleasing. In certain things, in a
triplet window, in a triple arcade, it will do very well; but three
equal domes, as the main bulk of the building, or three equal spires,
or three equal pavilions, would be impossible.

We may illustrate our rules by a diagram, so: 19.

First, one thing; second, two equal or two unequal things all
always good ; third, three equal things, sometimes good ; and of
three unequal things there are two cases.

In both, it is essential that one of the three should be the largest ;
it is also essential that it should be in the middle.

Although the eye may tolerate certain other groupings of three
objects, when they are softened by distance, or accounted for by
reason, yet when we pronounce a pure aesthetic judgment, we find
that the largest of a group of three must be in the middle. 20, 21.

These three rules are the foundation of the art of grouping. All
the rest is but to learn ways of doing what these require, when
other considerations interfere ; of reconciling them with situation
and use, and other modifications and adaptations.

12. A Single Mass. Although sub-divided into horizontal parts by the line of the
cornice, it is single in vertical division; that is, it has no other mass standing beside it.
The oneness is accentuated, too, by the one big dormer on the roof.


A single mass standing alone with none beside it, although composed of two parts,
walls and roof, horizontally.



A single mass, that is a single large gable,
there being no other gables on e.ther ide.
It is subdivided, however, into many hori-
zontal parts. The pyramidal termination in
any composition conduces much to its

A single mass, the slight chancel projec-
tion may be neglected at present, as insig-



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Online LibraryJohn Beverley RobinsonPrinciples of architectural composition; an attempt to order and phrase ideas which have hitherto been only felt by the instinctive taste of designers [by] John Beverly [!] Robinson → online text (page 1 of 8)