No less playful but more perplexing is the way in which Carlo Scarpa liberates buildings from their prison of fixed dimensions. Spatial volumes in the Olivetti Showroom or the Fondazione Querini Stampalia (p. 190), both in Venice, are less interesting in themselves, shifting all attention to details that entice and provoke. Making these tiny details more surprising, and at times miraculous, is that they often belong to the most prosaic building elements, including, at the Olivetti Showroom, the logotype design in the entry, glass tesserae embedded into the floor and suspension hardware of black steel with brass joints near the ceiling. At the Fondazione Querini Stampalia is a puzzle-like compartment with gold-accented walls for twin radiators, bronze rails for hanging pictures and a cantilevered metal bracket for a glass wall in the entry hall, turning the most commonplace objects into subjects of rumination.
A more frequently repeated inversion develops for the untiring eye at the Brion Cemetery. Here, the smallest things have an involving power reminiscent of a medieval miniature placed in the margin of a liturgical text, where the eye is first caught by a shimmer of gold and deep blue pigments of lapis lazuli or azurite, but, when inches away, discovers that the smudge of colour contains within it an amazingly elaborate world, which recedes into nearly infinite detail – opening a window onto a microscopic realm of landscape, buildings, figures, sky and stars. As before a painted miniature, one must avoid being too hurried or rationally inclined to enter its tiniest wonders. Where a concrete wall terminates in a zig-zag edge, it is inlaid with Murano glass tiles, whose golden hue reveals, on closer examination, other tonalities within its filmy depths. Beneath the twin tombs are small drainage holes covered with perforated metal disks, their silhouettes shaped into tiny figures that one must get down on one’s knees to make out. Similarly, the intricate door handle to the chapel, the marble font with its inscribed brass fittings, the bronze altar with its cloudy reflections and pattern of rivets and the strange, steel-edged skylight in the concrete roof of a subterranean service space (p. 190) serve in different ways to magnetize, collapse and expand space at once.
Most bewildering are the tiny metal objects embedded in the upper edgings of concrete wall (p. 190). Their inexplicable shapes and odd locations fail to suggest any rational function, even while drawing us closer and closer in fascination. Like fossils found in ancient rocks, these things imply industrial detritus left and absorbed into the building. Perhaps they are accidents or vestiges from the time of construction, activating the imagination as an anachronistic presence and giving the smallest architectural elements the greatest degree of surreal mystery and suggestive power.
At first glance, the volumes of Le Corbusier’s buildings from the 1950s onwards, but especially those of his few religious works, appear uncomfortably strange yet excitingly fresh. But something important underlies this mesmeric appeal, for their forms touch the innermost recesses of our psyche and resonate with the subliminal power of the past century’s most primordial works of art, particularly the extraordinary vitality found in the work of Joan Miro, the metamorphic stone carvings of Isamu Noguchi or the congealed energy in the forged steel of Eduardo Chillida. We cannot help but look with amazement at the strange, voluptuous curvatures and openings at Ronchamp (p. 192), the startling tubes and archaic concrete at La Tourette or the volcanic cone and stellar flicker at Firminy (both p. 193), which tap into the kind of primary vision that Claude Levi-Strauss calls the ‘savage’ mind, with its fascination for the ‘mythical’ and the ‘magical’.
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Unlike a painting or sculpture, Le Corbusier’s animistic forms invite us to embark on an unforgettable journey, which allows us to continually reveal startling features that mediate between human conscious and unconscious thought. This seeking and finding transcends vision or logic, for it stirs something deep in the body and mind. It also exceeds any single moment of time, for the adventure keeps unfurling under the force of investigation as we feel our way into shapes and orifices that seem to both enchant and threaten, manifesting their architect’s belief that ‘to make decorating is to make a creature’.110
The transformation of decorating into a passionate search of discovery, where intensely cryptic things aim to enliven the journey, also resounds through the work of architect Thom Mayne and his firm Morphosis, although drawing on a more machined language of form. Their buildings are composed of strange yet vaguely familiar fragments, not unlike the alluring paradox of Picasso’s broken figures or the fantastic images of the Surrealists, in both of which hallucinatory shapes with multiple viewpoints charm and disturb with physically vibrant sherds that flicker in the depths of the mind. The activating source in Morphosis’s designs derives in part from a game of disrupting the world, and then setting it right again in an uneasy balance. The unity of absolute things is shattered and reshuffled, while strengthening the allure of some of those parts by making them highly enigmatic -charging the observer’s imagination to enter into the perceptual tensions and pursue traces of things along various trails. The sympathetic beholder is given immense leeway in how these splintered forms are seen and, more crucially, the ways they can be explored in space by tracking and moving about them. Expanding the range of freedom are mysterious properties that are often alarming, even terrifying, but are sometimes favoured with a lyrical beauty.
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