To illustrate aerial dwelling at its most primitive yet most invigorating, we must return to Santorini, whose black and red volcanic bluffs are dotted with hundreds of small white houses perched in the contours. The towns of Oia and Thera, along with the hamlet of Foinikia lying between them and Thirasia set on a facing clifftop across the caldera, are built up from tier upon tier of footpaths, stairways, rooftops and courtyards, each overlooking dozens of others like steep amphitheatres pressed up to the precipice. Space falls away from one to the next, and further down to the distant sea, so that one is continually flirting with danger. Accentuating the precarious footholds, dangled hundreds of metres above the sea, are visible signs of seismic activity in the cracked walls and rubble that has cascaded down the cliffs.
Introducing a spiritual dimension to the aerial life are sanctuaries perched on mountains, intent on dwelling closer to heaven and far from the secular ground below. At the monasteries of Mont-St-Michel in Normandy and Mount Athos in Greece, or the small chapel of St-Michel d’Aiguilhe atop a volcanic cone in Le Puy-en-Velay, France, people are able to commune with the sky from ecstatic yet terrifying heights. ‘There dwell the gods, there a few privileged mortals make their way by rites of ascent,’ wrote religious historian Mircea Eliade. ‘He who ascends by mounting the steps of a sanctuary or the ritual ladder that leads to the sky ceases to be a man; in one way or another, he shares in the divine condition.’38 But even apart from these aspirations, and while one may know it is impossible to fly, there persists an awareness of living among the clouds and birds and sharing in their conquest of gravity.
The journey to reach such a lofty world is itself a feat, for it entails an arduous and perilous climb, and for the believer a passage rite whose difficult path makes possible a new mode of being, overcoming death to be reborn. The Greek monasteries of Meteora (meaning ‘hanging in the air’) are perched on towering sandstone pinnacles, whose forms seem faintly ominous and almost alive. The geologic masses, into whose cracks the buildings claw a tenuous foothold, evoke internal tensions and pressures, a kind of petrified muscle and bone vented with strange dark orifices, suggesting something that might any moment shudder and move. The isolated pillars rise so perpendicularly from the Peneios plain that, for centuries, the dizzying ascent could only be made by wooden ladders of 30 m (100 ft) or more in length, or in nets drawn up by a rope and windlass. Recent stairs chiselled into the cliffs have not lost all their vertiginous power, being steep and narrow while tightly wound up naked rock and overhanging the abyss, retaining a trace of mystic ascension.
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Among twentieth-century buildings where people can reach for the sky, especially pronounced is the aerial freedom felt in the San Francisco Bay Area houses by Joseph Esherick, suspended over steep and supposedly unbuildable sites. Exemplifying this danger and bliss are Cary House in Mill Valley, Bermak House in Oakland, McLeod House in Belvedere and Oestreicher House (p. 58) in Sausalito, dwellings that fully embody Bachelard’s ‘poetics of wings’.39 A sense of sharing the freedom of birds in air is reinforced by entry bridges and balconies cantilevered into the treetops. The tremor of nervous excitement and hazard does not disappear inside, where tall windows extend from ceiling to floor, some to capture entire tree trunks, others to frame a slice of landscape similar to a Chinese scroll painting, where the eye can scan an entire progression from mountain peak to valley floor.
Another high-wire act derives from Esherick’s hollowing interior cavities to create overlooks within. Stairs climb high walls and lofts dangle above double-height rooms so that one might be gazing onto a floor or cascade of floors below, and then further down through windows to steeply descending trees and earth, compounding the aerial intensity of each point in space. The dweller is immersed in ‘one of those impressions of happiness that nearly all imaginative men have experienced in their sleeping dreams’, as Baudelaire admirably put it, where they ‘felt freed from the powers of gravity, and, through memory, succeed in recapturing the extraordinary voluptuousness that pervades high places’.40
Avian freedom and vertiginous power are equally felt, if differently aroused, in the Douglas House in Harbor Springs, Michigan, by Richard Meier. The house consists of a narrow stack of floors and mezzanines wrapped with glass, jutting into the treetops with elevated balconies and lookouts, interlaced and bordered with bridges and staircases, one stair dangled over the falling ground and a ladder descending the shear foundation, all perched high above Lake Michigan. Continuing this precipice into the units are interior windows and floors cut away from the walls to open glimpses to other levels. Visually amplifying the sense of adventure are pure white forms that keep drawing attention to nature outside, while bathed in constantly changing colours that meld the house into the sky.
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