Under the spell of dimensions

10 min read


At first glance, the contrast between the Cinderella Castle in the American Disney World and the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris could hardly be any greater. Playful comic kitsch meets a venerable historic monument. But at the second glance, they reveal something special they share: both the castle and the sacral building benefit from design concepts that make them appear exponentially larger than they really are in the eyes of the viewer. Careful consideration was given to scales and proportions in the design of both buildings. Their special structures and substructures make them appear larger to the eye. In other words, they modify our dimensional perception. A feat of strength? No, but rather a complex correlation.

When we think of scales, rigorous numerical ratios are often the first thing that comes to mind. 1:1, 1:7… but scales mean so much more than just mathematical relationships. In an architectural context, they can be described as perceived and interpreted proportions, generated by complex interaction between humans and their surroundings. For dimensions of size are never perceived in isolation, but invariably in a context. In the process of perception, viewers experience the actual dimensions in terms of complex relationships, so that the real dimensions are only relative. The way they are evaluated is not at all based on absolute single variables either.

Up to a certain degree, we are in charge of determining our perception. As rational beings and free thinkers, we create our own dimensions based on our ideas, experiences and values. We adjust these mental references every day. Nevertheless, we are characterised by supraindividual viewing habits, epochal and cultural structures and human cognitive processes.

For example, we subconsciously follow the grouping laws, a number of generally accepted principles of perception.

Visitors in visual perception test at the Museum of Illusions in Vienna
This phenomenon plays an important role in the Museum of Illusions in Vienna where visitors can put their visual perception to the test.
Insight into the Museum of Illusions in Vienna
Our perception is heavily influenced by certain psychological principles of cognition.

We see similar objects as belonging together, automatically form groups consisting of obviously similar elements, and we have a preference for closed, whole structures. We cannot escape from our own nature either. So we invariably perceive dimensional characteristics in relation to ourselves and to our own body measurements.

These parameters make it possible to establish basic principles for the perception and evaluation of size in buildings, which deliver important clues for finding answers to questions of architectural design. Do I want to design something that is prominent and monumental, or something attractive and human? Impressions such as these can be specifically enhanced by matching the building’s dimensions to those of its elements.

The architect Silke Vosskötter has examined these relationships in detail and identified three main relationships that influence the perception of a building’s dimensions.

  • the human being and the building
  • the building and its elements
  • the building and its surroundings

These reference parameters, put into context with each other and compared with our own mental references, have a decisive influence on how large a building seems to us in a specific situation.

People standing in front of the triumphal arch
The triumphal arch in Paris only reveals its enormous size if single elements, like for example the huge figure reliefs at the base, are directly compared to people, cars or other human values of reference. Photo: Nikada / istockphoto.com


But what we see is not only determined by what we perceive with our eyes. Our whole body influences our perception, since it is the centre of our sphere of perception. We see everything in relation to it. It is our scale of reference, even when we find it easier to relate details such as windows and doors to it than an entire building. Because of this, we overestimate verticals. We can make a fairly accurate assessment of large lengths and widths by walking along them, but heights are invariably somewhat elusive. This is why they make a deeper and more emotional impression on us.

Without experiences, we would drift through life without points of reference. This equally applies to our perception. Memories of dimensional experiences are anchoring points for our sensory impressions, and we possess a large pool of such dimensional concepts. A shed, a lighthouse, a cathedral? Whatever we have in front of us, we compare it with our memories of buildings we have seen before. During this process, sizes of objects that we know of fairly accurately, uch as steps of a flight of stairs or bricks in a wall, are what counts besides the type itself. Recognising such architectural elements makes it easier for us to estimate the real size of a building. So by using elements in standard sizes in a building project, I can contribute to making the building comprehensible and fulfil existing expectations, resulting in a positive experience on the viewer’s part. But in the same way, I can surprise the viewer by alienating such elements or by leaving out reference values.

Anyone who has already stood under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris knows how small you suddenly feel by comparison to its huge figural reliefs.

When we look at a building, we not only relate ourselves to it, but also relate its individual components to each other. The scale of this structuring has a vital influence on our reaction to the size of a building.



A basic principle of perception is that we overestimate the size of buildings consisting of multiple structures. This is why, for example, Notre Dame with the complex structure of its façade appears significantly larger to us than the Arc de Triomphe, which has much fewer structuring elements – although it is actually not much smaller than the cathedral. This principle can be extended further. If I reduce the size of the structuring elements towards the top edge of a building, this will further enhance the impression of height. Therefore all elements in the Cinderella Castle in Florida are downsized by about one third at each higher level. The builders have also applied some other tricks, which Silke Vosskötter discloses as follows:

“The structural elements not only become smaller towards the top edge, but are also generally smaller than their standard architectural precursors. The windows of the castle start with a size of no more than 30 cm and shrink further to 15 cm.”

Two pictures of the Cinderella Castle
The constructors of the Cinderella Castle made good use of the laws of perception and different structural measures, so that the Castle appears bigger than it really is. Photo: Clément Bardot, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Magic_Kingdom,_Disney_World.jpg

To prevent a person standing close by from unmasking the windows as “lookouts for dwarves”, they only start from the third level upwards.

Not only downsized elements, but also oversized elements can be an effective means of influencing dimensional perception. Where large forms are emphasized, the building looks massive and monumental, however, where the emphasis is on details, or these are even “shrunk”, intimacy is enhanced, and the viewer feels more important. Such an emphasis on fine structures is often found in outlet centres loaded with awnings, folding blinds, ornaments and lanterns to make them look cosy and inviting.

What also counts apart from the elements themselves is the way they are arranged. Hierarchical structures, where smaller façade elements are grouped together to form substructures, help viewers to visually comprehend complex structures and to compare dimensions. This enhances the impression of size. Coequal, extremely minimalistic structures can suggest order, but may also very quickly drift off into monotony – a balancing act without a clearly defined threshold value.



When we step back and let our eyes wander, the surroundings of a building will also inevitably draw our attention. That may be the moment when all previous impressions are virtually blotted out. For the reference dimensions of the surroundings can put the dimensional perception of a building into perspective within seconds. Trees, adjoining buildings, but also optical guidelines we establish with the help of roof edges and ledges, are combined into a complex, formal system of correlations. They help us to put the building into the right perspective, and when in doubt, to identify any architecturally atypical elements.

Notre-Dame next to the barrack de la Cité
Once a visitor approaches Notre-Dame while catching sight of the barrack de la Cité at the same time, the grand cathedral suddenly does not appear as impressively sublime anymore. Photo: narvikk / istockphoto.com
Notre-Dame without the barrack de la Cité

The deceptive alignment when comparing both buildings with each other weakens the visual effect of the cathedral. In relation to the police office building, it appears only slightly larger. This does not fulfil our expectations regarding its monumentality and grandeur.

This reveals how closely perception and evaluation are correlated and influence each other. Real dimensions perceived as yardsticks by the viewer are combined with non-material content. They are linked by processes of association to stored background knowledge and thus gain a significance. The effect is positive when internal and external schemata correspond to each other. In line with the three directions of perception, Silke Vosskötter has identified three relevant levels of evaluation:

  • (formal) aesthetic evaluation
  • functional evaluation
  • symbolic evaluation



In aesthetic terms, we pass a positive judgement primarily on structures we find understandable; in functional terms, we judge the sensible design of a building to serve its purpose. A particularly strong influence is exercised by its symbolic evaluation. The dimensions of a building are physical manifestations of ideals and established values for as long as the building stands. That the visual dominance of a cathedral like Notre Dame should manifest the power of the Church is easy to understand. The architects of the Walt Disney amusement parks, on the other hand, emphasized positive cultural connotations.

The Cinderella Castle is deliberately modelled on the design vocabulary of castles such as Neuschwanstein, to evoke associations with these fantastic, magical buildings. Yet it stays clear of being an imitation to avoid the negative effect of a “bad copy”. 

Silke Vosskötter knows that symbolic evaluations of dimensions have an enormous effect on viewers’ perception of their surroundings: “They strengthen existing dimensional schemata or stimulate the formation of new ones. In this way, dimensional design influences future evaluation processes, strengthens social values or initiates, together with other factors, their change.” Which means that dimensional design is more than just playing with figures. It is all the more important to take a very astute look at the dimensions of buildings and the values expressed by them. Neither the approach of “larger, higher, broader” nor the plea of “Unity is everything” is enough to satisfy the need for an elaborate dimensional concept. For buildings which exceed all known scales and limits may look strange and inaccessible, but can also impress and fascinate viewers. Large buildings may be at risk of stealing each other’s thunder, but when deliberately designed in pairs, they can also form fascinating street fronts and transform urban skylines in an impressive way. When looking at a building as such, both sensory overload and lack of sensory input can be frustrating, each in its own way. So the task is to create well-balanced dimensions and fine proportions which harmoniously combine the old with the new – so that even Cinderella dreams can co-exist side by side with sacral history.

Palace Neuschwanstein
The Cinerella Castle reminds observers strongly of Neuschwanstein, the well-known Bavarian palace, without blatantly duplicating its silhouette. Photo: Rachel Davis /Unsplash
Part of the series:

Dimensions [#4] or: figure vs. feeling – what matters?

More about this theme

About scales in architecture:

This article is based on the reference book “Maßstäbe in der Architektur” (Scales in Architecture) by Dr. Silke Vosskötter. The author is Head of Architecture at the architect’s office bkp kolde kollegen GmbH in Germany. This informative volume, which is simultaneously Vosskötter’s doctoral thesis, sheds light on the origin and significance of the dimensional concept in architecture with numerous examples.

Vosskötter, Silke: Maßstäbe der Architektur (Scales in Architecture). An examination of dimensional perception and dimensional evaluation of buildings. Published in 2010 by: Tectum Wissenschaftsverlag, Marburg. (Available only in German) ISBN: 978-3828823020

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