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Why are we so reluctant to turn up the volume?

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Architectural design is overly focused on area and too little concerned with the experience of volumes, writes Paul Finch

Paul Finch

Many years ago I invented a formula which attempts to describe the nature of volumetric space. Called the Rosen Ratio, it is named after London property man-about-town David Rosen, who had taken me to see a lower ground floor property in Soho which had been converted to gallery use. It had the benefit of natural light, which helped, but its chief attribute was its double-height volume.

The question was how one might describe this volume; the only conventional way to do it would be to say ‘double-height’, but then, without knowing the area, this wouldn’t mean very much. The idea of the Rosen Ratio was to relate volume to area. Application of the ratio would then show the difference between an ordinary Georgian terraced house and, say, the product of Messrs Persimmon.

Being shy, retiring chaps, neither David nor I have ever pushed the ratio idea but perhaps we should, as the downward pressure on space, let alone volume, continues in the housing market in general, despite London mayor Boris Johnson’s minimum space standards policy.

What about minimum volumes? As ever, the free marketeer argument is that if people are buying hutches, then hutches must be what they want. In reality it is all they can afford – other than the vast majority of home-buyers who would prefer to buy homes from almost any era other than today’s.

However, it is not just home-builders who are generally reluctant to discuss the apparently abstract concept of volume. In the mid-1990s the AJ set a student competition brief with Cedric Price for the design of a ‘Museum of the 20th Century’ on a site in Milton Keynes. One of the few stipulations in a pretty open brief was that the designers should describe the sequence of spaces in their proposal, and provide the volumetric dimensions.

Very few students did so, although many provided the spaces created as areas. It is surely curious that such a fundamental aspect of architectural design is treated in the same way today.  

The agonising that takes place over floor-to-ceiling heights is almost always a discussion about servicing, and rarely about the desirability of the additional volume being created. Or, alternatively, it is taken as read that increased volume is necessarily desirable without further discussion being required – ie we all like bigger-volume interiors. Really? What about the cosy snug in the public house, or the inglenook fireplace?

Moreover there are plenty of examples where the contrast between compressed and released volumes is an essential part of the architectural experience – for example the tunnel from which football teams emerge into the infinite volume of the stadium. That adds to the drama and spectacle experienced by the spectators, while for the players it is routine space. Impose the same compression on people queuing up to go through security at an airport and the result is rather different – instant misery.

Analysis of volume is something that is generally ignored in discussion of architecture. Charles Jencks once asked Norman Foster and Richard Rogers whether the designs for, respectively, the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank headquarters and the Lloyd’s building had been based on ‘golden sections’. Neither knew; nor, one imagines, did either have any great interest in whether they did or whether they didn’t. Both building are example of magnificent volumes that derive from the plan.

The old architecture school joke question: ‘It works in volume but does it work in plan?’ is akin to that other saw: ‘It works in practice but does it work in theory?’  With this in mind I will be consulting Mr Rosen about what we can do to bring the ratio into general use.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Paul Finch hits nail on head (again). Never mind adding the Rosen Ratio to architectural taxonomy, it would be good if a few more submissions to design review thought about the section as an essential part of design. Amazingly the very worst even seem to have avoided drawing one. The high end of design, concert halls, theatres, museums, art galleries depend on an understanding of volume, but everyday building need sections too. The result? - Design so dumbed down by crude area limitations that any opportunity for delight is lost.

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