AA Library: Proportions: Architecture & the Body
Eleanor Gawne, Sept. 2015


Architecture is created for, and in the image of, mankind. The oldest surviving architectural text is Vitruvius’s De architectura libri decem written in the first century BC. The AA Library holds several editions. One bi-lingual edition of 1758, titled L’architettura di M. Vitruvio Pollione / colla traduzione Italiana e comento del Marchese Berardo Galiani … is copiously illustrated with engravings by Francesco Cepparuli from Galiani’s drawings. Plate 4 shows the proportions of the human body confined in a square and in a circle (as well as the structure of a roof and wall).


Vitruvius believed the human body was the principal source of proportion among the Classical orders of architecture. Later writers of architectural treatises made more explicit connections between architecture and human proportions. John Shute, a shadowy figure who had travelled to Italy to see important ancient buildings and to learn from the masters of architecture, wrote the first English book on architecture in 1563 titled The first & chief groundes of architecture. The AA Library holds a 1912 facsimile. The plate opposite Folio XI shows one of the classical orders of architecture, Corinthian, as a column alongside a clothed figure, Corinthia, to indicate the close relationship between them, just like the caryatids at St. Pancras Church.


In the twentieth century, Le Corbusier continued the idea of human proportions as the universal principle defining all aspects of architecture, as described in his book The Modulor: a harmonious measure to the human scale universally applied to architecture and mechanics, first published in 1950. This is the cover of the first English edition published by Faber in 1954, translated by Peter de Francia and Anna Bostock. The Pompidou Centre in Paris recently held an exhibition on this topic ‘Le Corbusier: mesures de l’homme’, see https://www.centrepompidou.fr/en.