Plumb Lines

May 20, 2009

High Ceilings

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 4:06 pm


Are taller ceilings yet another example of wretched architectural excess? Not necessarily. In fact, it is low ceilings that are the aberration. Throughout the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries, ceilings in middle-class homes, offices, and institutional buildings were 10-12 feet or more.

Mid-20th-century Modernism demanded flat roofs and low ceilings. In both cases, architectural theorists claimed that these prescriptions were merely pragmatic. The function of a building should dictate form, and no more building than was needed should be built. That flat roofs are in fact wildly impractical and expensive in most climes is now well known. That low ceilings are equally impractical should be more widely discussed.

Living and working in older buildings, people discovered that taller rooms simply felt—and looked—better. Builders were happy to oblige since tall ceilings didn’t cost much more, as Stern points out—but you could charge more for them.

This is a bit of a dodge. High ceilings, by this logic, are only practical because people are willing to pay more for them. A diversity of ceiling heights, however, with the height of rooms proportional to their width and breadth, has a much more concrete benefit. Because of the stack effect, differing ceiling heights naturally circulate air within a building.

David Schaengold


  1. I know very little about architecture but as soon as I began reading this I thought to myself – wouldn’t higher ceilings help with air circulation?

    So much is lost when only function is considered – including, ironically, functions that seemingly unnecessary “form” helps to create. This applies when removing various body parts as well, I suppose, like the tonsils which were considered relatively useless until recently when we started to learn about possible links to the thyroid etc.

    A good argument to be conservative in our medical and architectural practices, I suppose…

    Comment by E.D. Kain — May 20, 2009 @ 5:54 pm

  2. I couldn’t agree more, E.D. There was a tremendous amount of wisdom embodied in traditional ways of building, and a great deal of that has been simply lost. Architects are now rediscovering the functionality of the old ways of building, but the idea of the building as a “machine for living” was quite disastrous for the profession. What’s especially galling to me is that many Modernist ‘advances’ can be justified on purely aesthetic grounds. Flat roofs can indeed be beautiful. There was never any need to make false claims about their functionality.

    Comment by David Schaengold — May 20, 2009 @ 6:00 pm

  3. Cue Chesterton:

    In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox.

    There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

    This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable.

    It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease.

    Comment by jacobus — May 20, 2009 @ 9:47 pm

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