Among the few architects who have tried to revive the plasticity of scale in a Gothic cathedral, albeit with touching modesty and ingenuity, is Fay Jones, whose skeletal chapels keep activating our relations to them. His unpretentious Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, resonates with the surrounding forest in its abstraction of infinite trunks and branches, which themselves are echoed by the standardized lumber of Southern pine with which they mingle, helping the building share in the immensity of the receding trees.
The framing is multiplied over and over to create an airy canopy of stick upon stick, but also form a primitive shelter that has the intimacy of an overturned bird’s nest. Upon entering the chapel, its larger image equated with the forest reverberates through the timber cage, down into a repetition of small wooden lamps that line the nave. Each light is a miniaturization of the overall character of the chapel, its intricacy of line and space receding beyond the reach of the eye. The result is a building that breathes in and out, losing every fixed dimension as it expands and contracts.
The same supple language reappears more purely in Jones’s later Pinecote Pavilion in Picayune, Mississippi, where there is nothing left to distract the eye from the latticeworks at multiple scales, which carry the genetic code of the forest into the overall structure and down to its smallest components. Every part of the building keeps opening up to the searching eye with features that are at once huge and minute, galactic and nuclear.
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Fay Jones, Pinecote Pavilion (1987), Mississippi, self-similar structure and details A more playful instance of miniaturized freedom – the capacity of tininess to liberate us from absolute facts and set dimensions – is Sir John Soane’s Museum, in London. Designed both as a residence and a setting for Soane’s collection of antiques and art, the house possesses every scale but no single scale, with compelling elements at all sizes. Rooms are surrounded by ever-smaller bays and zones, and smaller still are innumerable objects whose wonders are compressed into forms so tiny we must bring our eyes close to peer into their secrets. Hidden dimensions keep appearing for the inquisitive eye, as if squinting like Alice through her looking glass to find a magical realm that can only be partly entered, with unexpected dimensions and treasures, each ‘curiouser and curiouser’. It is crucial to remember we would never be drawn into this Soanean universe – large spaces harbouring ever-smaller subspaces, encrusted with plaster casts, etchings, paintings, bronzes and ancient urns – or would our eyes and imagination be inspired to conduct a leisurely exploration, unless the subjects of our scrutiny were inherently appealing and worthy of our attention, time and devotion. Among the peaks in this enchantment are diminutive architectural details, including lanterns over the Breakfast Parlour and Dressing Room with the scaled-down appeal of a doll’s house (p. 188). These minute worlds are brightly illuminated and perceptually salient, attracting and then giving wide creative scope to the eye. In the case of the Dressing Room, the domical lantern is a model from Soane’s architectural practice, now free of its previous function and scale.
A more optical source of spatial elasticity occurs in the small convex mirrors scattered about the house, but concentrated especially on the Breakfast Room ceiling. As we catch their sparkle and then draw near to gaze into their curved reflections, perspective is inverted by shrinking the world in which we stand. The dwarfed and warped space is loosened from rational certitude, presenting something large in a tiny volume, a space we can enter only by reverie as we press the eye near to probe into its magical depths.
Sir John Soane’s Museum (begun 1792), London, Dressing Room ceiling, with lantern incorporating Soane’s model of the domical light in the Masonic Hall; Breakfast Parlour lantern, in Flemish stained glass with small convex mirrors below; view up into the dome (clockwise from top left)