Humane Principles of Good Buildings: Rhythm & Transparency

For Preservation Month, the PSC is sharing two principles of good buildings weekly that can be observed and measured within the built environment. They are intended to provide touch-points for the conversation about architecture and the human response that it provokes. This study shows us how common characteristics of buildings have transcended stylistic, chronological, and typological boundaries, and contributed to the ongoing effort to “make our existence not only visible, but meaningful.”


Rhythm applied to architecture refers to the regular or harmonious recurrence of lines, shapes, forms, and details. It incorporates repetition and spacing as a fundamental device to create visual organization. Studies of human perception, including Gestalt theory, show that the mind and eye actually seek some type of organization in order to relate various elements. Viewers are uncomfortable with confusion or unrelated chaos. The mind tends to group items that are close to each other, whether they are objects, or the spaces between objects. Almost all buildings incorporate elements that are by their very nature repetitive. For example, windows and doors repeatedly puncture a building’s surface to allow light and access. When these elements are considered together, they have the potential to create visual rhythm. The result can enliven a surface that is too blank, measure a surface too long, and create visual unity over the façade of the structure. Architectural elements chosen to repeat on a façade, whether a massing form or detail element, can be strong components to provide rhythm and become a primary characteristic of the building’s identity.


Building façades for commercial buildings should have large window areas to share the building’s interior activities with the street. Windows and doors narrate the uses inside the building to the observer and are a measure of how public or private these uses are intended to be. For example, storefront windows at street level are necessarily more expansive, suggesting common uses, while upper levels are smaller, indicating more private uses. The design of storefronts in particular can enhance pedestrian activity. Commercial and mixed-use buildings should provide a high level of transparency at the street level in order to visually connect activities within and outside of the building. Seen from the outside, it is the openings in a wall that create one of the strongest visual impacts beyond the wall itself. As design elements, windows and doors provide the opportunity to accomplish many of the other façade principles while at the same time linking the building to the human perception of its use.