The French naturalists of the 18th century like Zola and Balzac, writing stories from the alcoholic vagabond to the coquette of the small bourgeoisie, surely expressed the archetypes of their time… Simplified, caricatured or stereotypical, scale figures or silhouettes, both popular among students and professionals, are depicting the “mythological figures” of our contemporary human condition. 

Impulsed in the 1990’s by the escalating popularity of digital features like Blocks on Autocad, the whole western architectural representation felt in a Standardization, in both means and ends. Representation surely became a mercantile tool able to sell better. In fact, libraries in which architects can easily pick people, channels most of the public appeal for architectural drawings. In more technical terms, scale figures mediate the communication between the architect, the clients, and the users. In this system, clients have to project themselves in the architecture. Drawings are aimed to reckon the needs of the users, and more subtly, the needs of the clients. As such, to please decision-makers, an ergonomic rule is enforced on scale figure catalogs. Standard or Ergonomic, figures are drawn with the intention of accommodating through their dimensions and identities the affordances of the many. However, seeing them as perfect clichés of the American white-collar class, in which men are drawn wearing formal workplace attires reveals a filter from which catalogs were initially rolled out… 

Unable to represent the infinite number of individuals, catalogs have to be exhaustive and partial by means of simplification. Called “Ergonomy”, this process tends to smooth out all forms of individualities to come to a global and generic figure that a broader population could identify to. Modern interpretation of the Vitruvian Man, the desire to shape an homogenous figure can be found in the work of Ernst Neufert in his book Architect’s Data, regularly re-edited as to match the current legislations. Throughout the editions, the figures remain the same: standardized and anonymous. Through this process, the physical world is distorted. The permanent dialogue between the physical and projected realms complexify and obscure identities, since individuals are presented with a way to define themselves. Yet, presented as hostile to diversity, Ergonomy could be seen as the simple wish of exhaustivity. Not able to represent the society in all its complexity and individualities, they tend to simplify and smoothen peculiarities to adapt and incorporate reality onto such a medium. But whose reality is adapted here? 

To address the harmful anonymity of scale figure catalogs, design collectives like Hipotesis cast a spotlight on marginalized individuals, depicting people like an obese influencer referred to as Berta. This approach represents a departure from the ergonomic rules that defined scale figure catalogs and their impersonal archetypes, and instead shows human traits in both their complexity and contradictions. Hipotesis' figures are the antithesis of ergonomics, as they can hardly be understood without their contextualized para text. Through many examples like Conchita Wurst, notable drag queen to partake in the Eurovision, or the “STOP DESAHUCIOS” spanish protesters marching against the 2011 real estate crisis, we understand most of the figures as spatially and timely situated objects, giving them an extra meaning far from the bazillion archetypical ghost-like figures that exists on the internet catalogs. 


Usually seen as a cartesian tool, scale figures are given two purposes throughout the literature: they seemingly inform the reader about scale and depth. Following these two functions, they don’t necessarily need to display a strong presence as they can be drawn merely simply by giving the bare minimum of information: the height and body contour of the figure. Hipotesis’ body of work, which conveys layered and figures with complex extra stories, have what individuals carry in the physical realm. As opposed to the polarized and ergonomic ones, these figures display an extra function that is neither scale nor depth: scale figures are able to perform “narratives”. Attaching this word to the scale figures means they can engage in a seemingly literary-like process and create narratives of their own. 


Within narratives, characters project and conduct the reader into subjective outlooks. In fact, the reader is able to identify themselves through a process called “Empathy”. Referring to the capacity of projecting emotions onto someone else’s experience, Empathy mediates the connection between the user and the scale figures, and thus with the space projected. In a book, the reader can feel the emotions one character is going through as they are being plunged within their frame of reference. Presenting the high capacity of humans to partake in empathy, scale figures are, as a writerly tool, able to foster such a cognitive ability. The word “writerly” is not innocuous. Reflecting on their own work, Hipotesis expresses in an article the importance of narratives given by scale figures themselves. According to the collective, architectural drawings are presenting new forms of narrations ostensibly opposed to most of the common literature. As such, the narration is apparently shuffled and the reader turns into a proactive actor of the writing process. Comparing their approach to the book S/Z by Roland Barthes, Hipotesis are extracting two kinds of storytelling: the writerly and the readerly. Whereas in the readerly the reader is a passive spectator of the unfolding storyline, the former gives views on a narration in which the reader is triggered as to co-build the narration. Two attributes are able to give architectural drawings such a definition: -the empathy rendered by figures, and the non-linear narrative structure inherent to drawings. If the first one has been mentioned, the latter seems more subtle. Whereas a text is inscribed by both temporal and spatial markers, drawings are lacking the former, giving spatiality a culminating position. Thus, a drawing is read as a holistic artifact in which the reader is given the space to more-or-less gaze freely within the page. For the reader, figures are fragmenting the whole architectural space, giving directions, paths to follow and ways to experience the space. A subjective filter is added by the addition of figures. As such, when users are reading an architectural drawing that presents the experience of the dominant classes is creating a sentiment of exclusion and a feeling that some groups do not belong to certain spaces. 

Plans of a Corbusian Unité d’Habitation, inhabited by an ergonomic anonymous figure (left) and by Berta (right).(2019, Hipotesis)

From the complexity and infinity of people and personas, a scale figure catalog is a formal synthesis of such a diversity, creating a range of contemporary archetypes. Becoming clichés, these archetypes are a biased projection, and are affecting the necessary tryptic: architect, client and users - from which we chose to perceive society. They influence this tryptic because they express the capability of some to enforce codes and mores. Being subject to the clients, the architect can choose to encapsulate people’s identity by means of simplification. We seem to perceive the privileged and unique relation between architect and user. Yet, the latter doesn’t seem symmetrical. Users are crushed and subjected to the way the architects choose to represent them. They experience violence when their stories are not told, as they cannot relate or feel invited to the space projected in drawings. Reacting to the numerous ergonomic scale figure catalogs driven by capitalistic implications, a new approach is tackling the status quo. Represented by collectives and practices like Hipotesis and MOS Architects, these new kinds of blocks are defined by the prevalence of a paratext, making them (pop) cultural objects. Giving them an extra contextualized definition in the virtual space - as their individual qualities have not been removed or erased out, the interactions they undergo are seemingly more intense and tangible. Their extreme individuality makes them interact differently in the drawn projected world. Unlike the ergonomic figures and their smooth and uniform synthetic environment, the former is creating more of a fragmented world composed as a collage of disparate pieces. Not pretending to appear cohesive, this new virtual realm is even showcasing the process of assembling this world, from the catalog to the architectural drawing. Immaterial and fake per se, the projected world still ripples acutely on the built environment. Following this, it also matters to know if scale figures can be used, not only as a representational tool, but as a design apparatus too. Figures could allow the architects to think critically about the spaces they design. Should we not all trade the Modulor for Berta?