The importance of ratios and proportion is rooted deep in the ideals and design process of classical architecture, creating rooms and buildings that feel in place with itself, its components, and its surroundings. While such principles found in ancient buildings are researched and written about quite often, many individuals are surprised to learn of their usage in more traditional and later architectural forms. Creole homes throughout Louisiana, as vernacular as they are, are often designed by these classical shapes, creating cottages and plantation homes with wonderful proportions and comfortable rooms.
Now don’t get me wrong, the builders of Louisiana’s early homes were not all following Alberti’s guiding principles exactly. If you try to measure and compare early Louisiana columns, for instance, you’ll find that they are all somewhat different. However, with a closer look, one can realize that the builders of the state’s early homes knew and understood the importance of implementing classical knowledge.
Architectural proportion is simply a relationship between two ratios, commonly seen as the association between two or more rectangles. Simply put, to design with “good proportions” involves paying close attention to the shape of a singular rectangle (a room) and how it fits among a unified whole (the plan). Steven Semes, in his book The Architecture of the Classical Interior, describes how the relationship between rooms (A and B) can usually be described by three terms: equality (where A and B are equal), punctuation (where the disparity in size between A and B is large and one serves as a bordering or framing element), and differentiation (which is a comfortable midpoint between equality and punctuation). Differentiation can provide a variety of room sizes while creating the sense of hierarchy necessary in a classical plan.
Many proportions and classical room shapes can be found in Creole architecture, from perfect squares, whole-number rectangles, root-2 rectangles, and so on. To limit the discussion, I’m going to mostly focus on a common ratio used for differentiation, the Golden Section. Based on the half-diagonal of a square, the Golden Section ratio has the unique trait of self-replication. If one starts with a golden rectangle and subtracts out a square based on the shorter side, another golden rectangle emerges 90 degrees to the first. This can be repeated and forms the commonly seen Golden Section spiral, which I use to represent the shape and components of a golden rectangle.
The Homeplace-Keller Plantation home is a raised, creole plantation in Louisiana’s colonial style. Constructed around 1790, it is one of Louisiana’s oldest and most original large-scale creole homes. It’s plan is typical of an early Creole home, consisting of large, central rooms, with smaller rooms around the sides.
If one takes a look at the plan of the entire building, one can see that the overall dimensions form one large and exact Golden Section rectangle (represented with the Golden Section spiral in the images below). The rooms, themselves, are based on two squares, or a 1:2 ratio.
Taking a closer look at the plan, one can see a pair of square rooms standing front-and-center. In the traditional Louisiana form, these rooms are arranged with the salle-et-chambre plan, a core module found in creole floor plans that has roots in northern France. The module consists of square sale coupled with a narrower chambre, utilizing the concept of differentiation. The proportional scheme relating the chambre to the salle is seen as the Golden Section. This proportional system and ratio for individual rooms resonates throughout the entire plan of Homeplace-Keller, but with more observations, even more proportional schemes can undoubtedly be found throughout the home.
(Click images to enlarge)
Another example can be seen in the Evergreen Plantation home, which was originally a raised, creole home before it was modernized in the Greek Revival style. Luckily, the original floor plan from the 1830’s is still in place. Like Homeplace-Keller, the entire plan of the house is a large Golden Section rectangle. The plan of the rooms is a little different, however. Evergreen represents a different family of creole floor plans that posses a single, central parlor with symmetrically placed rooms surrounding it. The main core of rooms is seen as another Golden Section rectangle which is set centrally and to the back of the surrounding gallery. The two side-rooms adjoining the main parlor can each be seen as being a Golden Section rectangle and forming a larger golden rectangle when placed with the core room. All three rooms, when joined, form what is called a root-five rectangle. Even the two, small cabinets in the rear are Golden Section rectangles. Evergreen, as well, consists of many different proportions to compose the plan and facade, so these are only a few examples that helped guide its form.
Determining an architect’s or builder’s underlying proportional scheme is always interesting, and while I stressed the use of the Golden Section in these examples, many more classical proportions can be found throughout Louisiana’s historic architecture. Below are a few more examples that show how less grand and more ancillary buildings were also guided by these principles. These time-tested design methods, spanning from ancient Greece to coastal Louisiana, help tell the story of the classical language of architecture and is one of the many reason Louisiana’s traditional architecture is still appreciated today.
All architectural drawings shown are from the Historic American Building Survey.