Less bizarre, if equally charged with undetermined spaces to probe, are the peasant scenes of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, where multiple vistas spread over a complex landscape. In Netherlandish Proverbs (1559), the earthly tableaux blend into a town whose masses are riddled with windows and doors, porches and arcades, columns and walls, balconies and terraces, jagged rooftops and towers. Packed into the picture are nearly infinite open cells that are clearly defined yet partly flow into one another, and are populated with scores of people involved in a flurry of activities occurring simultaneously (agriculture, hunts, dances, games, festivals), in plain view and around corners or beyond hills, in a world that conceals as well as reveals. In Hunters in the Snow (1565), Bruegel utilizes a high horizon and elevated point of view to expand our scope of involvement and allow us to project ourselves into the canvas to wander about without aim or purpose, disclosing one feature after another.
The captivating, almost cinematic overlays of these Northern Renaissance paintings, derive in part from ‘condensation’, as Robert Harbison notes in Eccentric Spaces, ‘creating little worlds, even worlds within worlds’, in the best of which ‘the details swallow the whole to present an image of plenitude … where you can lose yourself completely in a corner selected at random’.117 But also amplifying the phantasmagoria of crowded forms and, for
Bruegel, often droll subjects, is the variety and pattern of spatial recession – in foreground, middle ground and far distance, as well as above and below ground – so as to seize the eye while drawing it back to the front, to us, in a way that excites and empowers the imagination to move about freely as it detects and pursues its chosen trails of rewarding space.
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A more tangible indication of the architectural field of action is found in buildings caught in transition, when their structures are either under construction or dissolving to ruins. At these moments the silhouette and envelope, as well as internal cell walls, are incomplete, permitting the observer to dissect visually a multitude of components and spaces that would normally be closed to one another, their possibilities removed from sight.
While the formative stages of decorating are fleeting, the unfinished torsos during this phase invite unusually intense scrutiny and fascinate us with their richness of virtual actions. The construction site with freestanding walls not yet covered by roofs, floors only partially sheathed, skeletal frames clad or infilled incompletely, presents a porous world whose implied opportunities and degrees of freedom shrink as the structure is gradually zipped up. This developmental stage is a central attraction of Bruegel’s Tower of Babel, its ziggurat containing an encyclopedic diversity of spatial components and improvised footpaths up, into and through the incomplete vertical city. Even if we momentarily ignore the variety of construction portrayed, and the painting’s larger message of the futility of man’s efforts on earth, we find a protean image whose vast honeycomb is half-exposed. Immense arches, vaulting and unfinished cavities open up channels through and beyond the outer fagade, into receding cells, exposing layer upon layer of pervious space. Incipient volumes are stacked high and in depth, with sufficient closure in finished areas to make the uncompleted parts more suggestive as points of departure for the eye.
When architects portray, through drawings or models, their buildings in an incomplete state – deleting portions of the envelope or roof, internal walls or floors – it is usually for the practical purpose of explaining the anatomy of something closed, allowing themselves and their clients to probe a reality hidden in the finished work. At the same time they are depicting fictional and sometimes extraordinary fields of space, hinting at undreamed of structures. Cutaway perspectives and axonometric drawings are suggestive of a mode of building that is based on a field of broken forms. Beyond illustrating an architectural idea or composition, these depictions empower an imaginative eye to poke around in the fictive structure, to roam through its innermost reaches and undertake ventures that will be severely reduced, if not eliminated, in the final building.
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