Forced Perspective in Architecture

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Architects have several tricks up their sleeves to help them create the perfect structure. In this lesson, we'll explore the concept of forced perspective and see how architects have used it across history.

What Is Forced Perspective?

When we tell kids about Santa Claus, nobody accuses us of lying. Moviegoers don't storm out of the theater if they suspect that the visual effects are computer generated. When we go to a magic show, no one accuses the magician of being dishonest. Sometimes, illusions are okay.

One important form of illusion found throughout art history is forced perspective. Look around you. Do you see how some things look closer to you, while others are further away? That's a matter of perspective, of how your eyes perceive the world. Forced perspective is an optical illusion meant to emulate the natural perception of depth. It's not 100% honest, but that's okay. Some illusions are worth having.

Forced Perspective in Architecture

Forced perspective is used in a variety of arts, but let's focus on architecture. Architects work in a unique medium in two ways:

  1. Architects tend to work on a larger scale than other artists.
  2. Buildings have actual depth.

So, if buildings have real depth, why do architects need to manipulate the illusion of depth through forced perspective?

Architects tend to view a building as a unified whole in which various components interact harmoniously. That means that your windows need to look good together, the doors need to look good in the facade, etc. Everything needs to work together, visually. The problem is that when working on this large scale, the human eye tends to distort space so that things that are, in reality, the same size look mismatched. Other times, architects don't have the physical space they need to create the actual depth implied by the design. In either case, forced perspective can be the solution.

The Parthenon

Forced perspective in architecture has been a part of architecture for about as long as codified architecture itself. The ancient Greeks and Romans were obsessed with architecture, which they believed could represent the ideal forms of nature. This was achievable by creating perfectly symmetrical structures. However, they quickly realized that a building could either be exactly perfect, or it could look exactly perfect. The human eye distorts things over distance, so large temples of perfect proportions could actually look off-balanced. To fix this, they developed some of the early versions of forced perspective.

Some of the best examples come from the Parthenon, an ancient Greek temple in Athens. This temple is abundant with forced perspective, but let's just focus on the columns. According to perfect rules of symmetry, every column in the front should be the exact same size and should be evenly spaced apart. However, the columns on the very end had to be thicker to compensate for the weight of the structure. To adjust, there is more space between the columns on the end than those in the middle. The result is an optical illusion where all columns appear evenly spaced and the same size.

The Parthenon makes heavy use of forced perspective
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Speaking of Greek columns, these support structures are so tall that they appear to be narrower at the top. To counteract this natural illusion and maintain the appearance of a completely straight column, Greek and Roman columns actually bow out in the middle. They're not completely straight, but they look like they are.

The Palazzo Spada

Our next example comes from the 17th century, after an interest in Classical ideas of mathematical harmony was revived, in Palazzo Spada of Italy, designed by Francesco Borromini. The main corridor appears to be a standard Italian corridor, roughly 100 feet long, with a life-size statue at the end.

Borromini wanted to create this sort of corridor, but he didn't have enough physical space to do so. So, he created an optical illusion. The columns decrease in size along the corridor and the floor rises, creating the impression of more depth than is actually there. In fact, the corridor is only about 26 feet long, and the statue is the size of a small child. Achieving this level of illusion required precise mathematical formulas, which Borromini was able to figure out.

The Palazzo Spada
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