Analysis Of Canterbury Cathedral As an Example Of Incorporating Ideas About The Human Body Into Architecture

For thousands of years architects have been looking at the human body as a way to inform their design decisions as well as create standards in design. The three authors Vitruvius, Le Corbusier, and Hosey, discussed in class all take different approaches on how to use the human body in design. In my opinion, the building that has the most successful approach to incorporating the human body in the building that we discussed in class is the Canterbury Cathedral, in Canterbury England.

Vitruvius studies the human body as being a well-designed system and uses it to form basic concepts about “hierarchy, proportion, order, geometry, organization, symmetry, and part-to-whole relationships” in architecture. The body is a working system in which all parts relate to each other and create balance and order. One of the things Vitruvius studies are proportional relationships in the body and he creates theories about how these proportions should be translated. One way he does this by creating a set of rules for the design of the different orders of columns and the intercolumnations between them.

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A more general concept about the proportional relations is that each component of the building should be dimensioned with relation to the general scheme of the building just like each member of the body is in proportion with the frame.

The Canterbury Cathedral is an excellent example of a building in which the proportional relations of the different parts of the building relate to those of the body. The largest and most important part of the church is the choir which is where the clergy sits and the altar stands.

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This is like the trunk of a body. This is the central part of the building and all the other spaces branch off of it like the limbs of the body. The nave is the long space for the congregation which can be related to the legs. The most sacred and holy portion of this church is the chapel and the shrine. This is like the head of the church. Proportionally as well as symbolically this building has strong connections to the human body.

The reason I think this building is so successful at using the human body to inform its design is because it uses broad concepts about proportions and part-to-whole relationships rather than trying to follow strict rules about sizes and dimensions of parts. Vitruvius’s theories about proportion are more successful than his rules about columns and intercolumnation because they allow for more flexibility in design. There is definitely logic behind his thinking and reasons for wanting uniformity in the design of columns. However, they will not work in every case. For example, the site of building might not have the space required to have the “correct” spacing of columns. The human eye may not pick up on the variations anyways. The Greeks realized this and had many subtle changes in their temple designs that didn’t follow the pattern of the rest of the building. The last intercolumnation on each edge of their temples are shorter than rest. However, the large void on the outside of the building makes the eyes not pick up on that change. This is another example of why the strict rules Vitruvius defines for column design are not necessary because human eyes can be deceived and may never pick up on when the rules are broken.

Le Corbusier studied the human body in a similar way to Vitruvius by looking at body measurements and proportional relationships. How he proposed to use that information is very different from Vitruvius though. He wanted to use the body as an actual system of measurement called the Modular. This system of measurement Le Corbusier wanted to use to create uniformity across all forms of design and fabrication. I believe the Modular is an interesting study of the human body and was successful for Le Corbusier to utilize throughout his work. However, if it were to truly become a universal standard of design as was his intention it would become very boring. His studies using the golden section to create different patterns are interesting and look nice in his projects but if those were all I saw everywhere I looked I would quickly grow tired of them because they are so repetitive. They are all rectangular forms, never having anything angled, or curved, or any additional details and ornamentation. All of these things are needed in some capacity to create beautiful architecture.

Le Corbusier’s Sainte-Marie de la Tourette Monastery was the example discussed in class that uses the Modular system of measurement to create the design. While the building is strong conceptually, it is a rather bland building. The Modular is too limiting in design. The Sainte-Marie de la Tourette Monastery and the Canterbury Cathedral are both religious buildings yet the Canterbury Cathedral is a much more visually interesting building because it has many beautiful details and ornamentation that simply are not possible using the Modular system. The cathedral is filled with carved statues, decorative arches, fluted pilasters, and many other details. The only variation in the monastery is textures of the concrete and some color. Le Corbusier didn’t believe in that kind of ornamentation which is why he pushed for the Modular but sometimes ornamentation can really make a building stand out.

Lance Hosey would argue that both Vitruvius and Le Corbusier’s ideas about bodies are very limited for two reasons. One, both of their studies were entirely off of white male bodies, and don’t have any evidence of diversity. Two, both neglect the fact the architecture is made to be occupied by bodies. He also critiques the Architectural Graphic Standards book for only being applied to white men. Since architecture is made for human bodies it is important to make sure it is accommodating for all bodies to occupy the space. The Graphic Standards was created as a guide to set standards to ensure bodies can occupy and be comfortable inside the spaces of the buildings. However, it was only representative of fully grown, white men until the 1940’s. The Canterbury Cathedral was built long before the Graphic Standards was written however when you look closely at the details of the building you can tell the designers were making a lot of the same considerations in their design. First of all, they needed to consider the expected size of the congregation to be attending this church and then make sure there is enough room to seat all of them. When studying the layout of the seatingyou will notice that the aisles are designed very similar to how auditoriums or arenas are today. They step up every row you move farther back2, thus ensuring everyone in attendance will have a good view over the people in front of them and nobody will have to strain their neck. So even without the Graphic Standards to reference you can see that the designers of the Canterbury Cathedral were making considerations about how bodies would use this space and trying to ensure comfort.

One critique one may have of the building is that it is overbuilt for the human body too occupy. Its vaulted ceilings are extremely high, the doorways much larger than necessary for humans, and the building is just at a very large scale in general. In my opinion, this is not a concern because this was the style of how all gothic cathedrals were built. The high vaulted ceilings are intended to make you feel small before God and give you the impression of looking up towards heaven when you look up and see the top of the vault. Vitruvius studied the measurements of the human body to develop theories about proportions and part-to-whole relationships. Le Corbusier also studied the measurements of the human body, instead to create a system of measurement to standardize design and fabrication. Hosey critiques them both, as well as the Architectural Graphic Standards book, for only referencing a white, male bodies.

Overall, I find that the Canterbury Cathedral does an exceptional job of incorporating ideas about the human body into its architecture. I believe its success comes from its general approach to using the human body as an example of successful part-to-whole relationships rather than focusing on specific measurements to derive rules in design. It also successfully designs the building to make it occupiable and comfortable for all people to be in. The human body is a perfect system in which all its members relate proportionally to one another and all need each other to function properly which I think this is something all architects should consider and try to achieve within their work.

Updated: Feb 29, 2024
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Analysis Of Canterbury Cathedral As an Example Of Incorporating Ideas About The Human Body Into Architecture. (2024, Feb 29). Retrieved from

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