Professor of Architecture
Director of Studies for Architecture
Department of Architecture & Civil Engineering
University of Bath
Bath BA2 7AY UK
A nation's measuring rod is the most succinct and precise statement of the dominating forces within a civilised society. Consequently, measure is representative of culture and is an essential aspect of the history of ideas. Yet, neither scientists nor historians have considered measure as an art. More usually it is presented one-sidedly, as a catalogue of related numbers and quantities, which have quasi-scientific status.
Commemorative medal of the metric system, designed in 1799 but not cast until 1840. Pavillon de Breteuil, Sèvres, Paris
The idea and reality of what measure represents has been transformed. Measures in western society were once mostly derived from the notion of the ideal male body, its qualities and proportions as well as its dimensions. These were represented in classical sculptures and buildings, artefact that have influenced art and architecture into modern times. However, during the European Enlightenment the body as measuring standard was criticised. Scientists and politicians became intent on providing a system of rational, universal measures independent of the human body, and the metre rod was formulated.
It is the idea of measure - what it purports to be and what it actually represents - that is the focus of this paper. Measure, I will argue needs to be recognised as more than an abstract calibrated length of inert material: it is a deliberate consequence of human thought - in Latin, mens (the root of 'measure') - and the dissembler - in Greek, eiron (the root of 'irony') - and simulator of power. The metric system has universal authority - except in the USA - but it is no more rational than the idealised body that once dominated the ancient world. Indeed, I will argue that it might be better understood as the measure of all irony.
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