It may seem redundant to point out that something in Disneyland is fake, but on a recent trip to the theme park my family was surprised to “discover” visual tricks hidden right in front of us. While the robotic pirates and dancing cartoon characters may be obvious, an architectural concept known as forced perspective manipulates our perception of space in a more subtle way, particularly in its application on Disney’s “Main Street, USA.” It’s a trick that Disney is said to have borrowed from film-makers in Hollywood, but its use extends all the way back to architecture in ancient Greece, not to mention some really tall depictions of people.
Building smaller to look big
Forced perspective is a series of small adjustments a designer can make to create the perception that a space is larger or smaller than it really is. It taps into our brains’ understanding of how parallel lines seem to converge at a distance, and how objects appear smaller when they’re further away. In Disneyland, this means that structures are made to look taller by making their upper extremities smaller, giving the illusion that they’re extending further away from a viewer’s eye than they really are.
There are many examples of this kind of design, many of which are right at the front of the park. Buildings are made to look like they’re three stories tall, but the second and third “floors” are reduced in scale by 3/8 and 1/2 respectively. The Matterhorn has full-sized trees at its base, with smaller model trees higher up to imply a soaring peak. The castle at the center of the park has small upper floors, and thanks to strategic angling on the buildings leading up to it, looks further away, and therefore bigger, than it really is when you first see it.
Faking and fixing ancient architecture
This kind of deception certainly didn’t originate in Anaheim or Hollywood. An example of many of these concepts can be found in the Palazzo Spada in Rome. Architect Francesco Borromini didn’t have room to build the traditional 100-foot-long hallway and colonnade in the palace, so he did the math to figure out what adjustments were needed to make a 26-foot-long hallway appear nearly four times longer than it really was. The tiles in the floor were carefully sized to appear further away. The floor is actually on an incline to imply more depth. Finally, a sculpture that appears to be the size of an adult at the far end of the hall is actually the size of a child, all to create the illusion of a full-length building. All together, it’s an aggressive set of adjustments that make the space look bigger, at least until you try to walk down the hall.
The ancient Greeks employed some similar ideas, but for slightly different effect. With a building like the Parthenon, the goal wasn’t to use forced perspective to make the structure look larger than reality, but to fix what perspective normally does to a large building. Regularly spaced columns, for instance, don’t look regularly spaced when viewed at once. So the Greeks made the columns in the Parthenon wider apart at the corners and closer together in the middle. This way, a viewer looking at one side of the building would see what appears to be a perfectly regular pattern of columns. The columns themselves were adjusted as well, being tilted and made wider in the middle, all so that they appeared to look straight and even when viewed from below.
That viewing angle doesn’t only matter to buildings, but sculptures as well. Large sculptures, from Michelangelo’s David to the Statue of Liberty, are often created with the understanding that their relative height to the viewing audience will make the heads and shoulders look “too” small. To undo this effect of perspective, these sculptures’ have unnaturally large heads and shoulders so that they would look “right” to someone looking up at them from the ground. In an era of zoom lenses, drone-mounted cameras and more, this may seem a bit arcane, but may help explain why seeing something in person can be so much better than photo or video reproductions.
Source: Forced Perspective in Architecture by Christopher Muscato, Study.com