Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Restoration of Human Scale
I read a phrase today that really put words to an experience I’ve had. It is a line from Sunset Magazine’s “Western Ranch Houses by Cliff May”, [1958] and is in a chapter entitled “Traditional ranch house for a working ranch”. Here it is,

“In place of the lonely countryside and limitless sky, the house provides shelter and enclosure and the restoration of human scale.”

I love the implicit assumptions in this phrase. One of architecture’s functions – or abilities - is the “restoration of human scale”. It's a poetic statement - and leaves us with a bit of a mystery. What does it really mean? This phrase comes half way through the book. It's a context that suggests restoring human scale is not simply about being among things that are more or less the same size as us; sometimes we need a space that can help us feel ourselves again. But still this explanation falls short. The definition is hard to put into words.

Image of Ranch House living room from “Western Ranch Houses by Cliff May”

If you are trained in modern architecture, you may have been brought up to believe that creating modern spaces leads firstly to creating spaces that are full of conceptual meaning. For May, modern design centered firstly around nothing very conceptual – just a list of human needs.

If you need your architecture politicized, that is pretty political. Like the Bauhaus, May is not interested in representing the ideologies of any government or elite. He is looking at what people need. He just stayed there, that's all. He didn't get into semiotics or forcing materials to embody truths. He just stayed with his proles and built to their lives.

At the end of some days I come riding in off of Market Street. My day is spent in a place where the force of glass storefronts and brushed aluminum facades has practically pushed my sense for my own flesh out of me and replaced it with what aluminum and glass feel like. My body feels as twisted and crispy as a potato chip at the end of those days.

What I need is human scale restored.

...And if you can get a hold of this book do so. It’s the Rosetta stone for anyone raised in a ranch style tract. My family lived for 10 years in a new (then) tract in Claremont - just outside of LA. You’ll find out where some of the things you hate about ranch houses come from and you’ll find out some of the great things that are going on with these houses. And if you are looking for a people based theory of modernism you might find that here as well. The writing is excellent. Here's a link to it at Amazon [since I was writing this anyways, I've decided to be part of their Associate Program. What the heck.].

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