Mart Stam’s “Scale — Right Scale — Minimum Scale” (1929)
Translated from the Dutch by C. v. Amerongen.
From Mart Stam: A Documentation of His Work, 1920-1965.
(Royal Institute of British Architects. London: 1970).
• • •
Our domestic utensils and furniture
Every day from early till late we make use of a quantity of different utensils.
There is the coffee service at breakfast, with knives and forks.
There are our books, fountain pens, watches.
They make life easier for us. We handle all these things every day. Their scale is the scale of our hands, of our bodies, the scale of convenience. The right scale for each of these objects is the one consistent with their use. Table and chairs are in scale with our limbs.
The right scale is at the same time the minimum scale, for it would be wrong to design our chairs larger or heavier than they need be, or for reasons of display. All they need do is meet our requirements, that is to say, they should be light and mobile.
Our rooms and our homes
If the objects we have in our homes are there to make life easier for us, then likewise our rooms and our homes are there to serve us. They have to help us to live, they have to support us, they have to add to our performance. The scale of our rooms should take account of the human scale, should be based on our physical and mental needs.
They should, on the one hand, assist an automatic sequence of practical activities, and on the other, enable us to relax after the day’s work. Doors should be in scale with our bodies. The scale of windows should satisfy our need for air and sunshine by strongly illuminating every corner: turning the house into a health-giving organism. Scales are right if they satisfy our requirements, if they reflect our needs and are free from any display motivation, if they would seem to be no more than what they are. Scales are right when they are acceptable with the minimum of expense, when the least extra would be sheer weighting and would add to the difficulties of life instead of making it easier.
The scale of our requirements
As I said above, our utensils, furniture, rooms and homes have to serve us, which means that they should take account of every human need and psychological characteristic, and should satisfy human requirements. But what is the scale of such requirements? Their scale and number increase with the pace of modern industrial life, while technological inventions make their satisfaction cheaper. The scale and number of requirements increase, while well-organized services make their appearance and substitute economic, mechanical aids for household labor. Our requirements are growing, but compel us to accept the means by which it becomes possible to satisfy them cheaply. It may not be until we have replaced individual sculleries by a central laundry, individual storerooms by co-op warehouses, individual coal cellars and boiler rooms by central heating, and possibly the kitchen in every home by a restaurant or communal eating place that we shall realize the revolution that is taking place.
Our objects are to be on a human scale, they ought to be but they are not yet, for there is still something nineteenth-century about our furniture, rooms and homes, in our layout of public places and town-planning too.
There is not one of us completely free from something that our parents and grand-parents really had in their blood: design for prestige’s sake. That is representation and not the human scale, it is excess, it is trying to impress, it is trying to seem more than the truth. And excess is a proof of want of principle and of an antisocial way of life, most of all at a time when the minimum requirements in housing and standard of living of many thousand of the working population remain unsatisfied.
Modern architecture is therefore fighting against prestige designs, against excess (Übermass) and for the human scale (Menschenmass).
[From Das Neue Frankfurt, No. 3, 1929]