Paul Rudolph’s foray into kinetics at the Walker Guest House controls two-thirds of the entire perimeter. Located on Sanibel Island, Florida, the elevated cubic dwelling is wrapped with horizontally hinged plywood shutters, two on each tripartite fagade, and counterweighted by visually prominent steel balls, painted red and suspended from a rigging of steel cables and pulleys. Panels can be raised singly or collectively to vary the home’s connection with weather and the sea, while also serving as sunshades and ventilating elements, or lowered and bolted to provide a shield from storms or prowlers when the family is away. These changes are not merely physical, for ‘when the panels are closed, the pavilion is snug and cave-like’, Rudolph notes, ‘when open, the space psychologically changes and one is virtually in the landscape’.63
How lighthearted these motions appear by contrast with the gravitas of Le Corbusier’s huge bronze door at La Tourette (p. 66), in Eveux, France. This tremendous dark plane of patinated metal, containing a smaller door for individuals, carries a trace of the countless hands that have pushed it open. To enter, one must first withdraw a large bolt from the floor and twist it in place, then press one’s shoulder and torso into the mass to initiate its swing. The bronze structure is noticeably heavy and initially resistant to pressure, but astonishingly smooth once set into motion. When rotating through its 90° arc on a hidden pivot, the door rapidly gains momentum and calls for an unexpected counter-effort of muscular tension to slow it down and, while holding it steady, resetting the bolt in the floor, to find it has opened a wide passage into the church and thrown a shaft of light into the darkness.
A related desire to impart play to elemental things appears in the houses of Louis I. Kahn, where visually strong mobile elements have the tactile appeal of a wooden puzzle. Adjustability at the Esherick House in Philadelphia is centred on the largely glazed rear elevation, its south-facing windows framed by a thick lattice of cypress wood. Set into the deep reveals of some openings are shutters of the same wood, enabling wide control over light, sound and temperature, and views to the garden and park beyond. Eight pairs of shutters in the double-height living room are hinged and stacked, one above the other, to open or close in diverse permutations. When all of the inset shutters are open, the entire wall turns transparent; when closed, the exposure is cut in half. The quality and amount of daylight can be subtly managed, for the shutters combine with fixed central windows to produce different shapes, directions and flows of light. Manual control also appears in slender ventilation panels dividing the living-room blogcases, reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s pivotant aerateurs, and, with some humour, in a large wooden drawer in the bathroom that slides from the wall to convert the bathtub into a sofa.
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More condensed and intimate are the recessed window boxes of the Fisher House in Hatboro, Pennsylvania. The living-room window seat (p. 93) is especially commanding, set into a structure of folded glass and forming a kind of cockpit encompassed by beautifully crafted oak components, some of which move to finely adjust the ambience. The seat itself contains hidden cabinets, and at either side are shutters that can stay open in storms without allowing rain inside. Recessed windows with more vertical shutters appear in other rooms, their operable panels moving inside glazed wooden boxes. Each allows the control of qualities residents care about, such as natural light, summer breezes and the sounds of nature. They also entice human hands and fingers with seductive woodwork, and in this respect bear a close resemblance to Japanese puzzle boxes (himitsu-bako), whose sensuous wood elements can only be opened by a complicated series of manipulations, perhaps simply squeezing in the correct spot or twisting several small parts in the correct sequence to eventually open and reward the player.
The intensely perplexing yet enchanting motions of Pierre Chareau’s Maison de Verre give continual proof of the causal powers of human beings. Manually operated elements, from doors and windows to screens and cabinets, perform work at a practical level but also introduce a mischievous dimension of surprise and paradox that exceeds any immediate purpose. They possess what Hannah Arendt calls the ‘character of startling unexpectedness’, which ‘is inherent in all beginnings and in all origins … The fact that man is capable of action means that the unexpected can be expected from him, that he is able to perform what is infinitely improbable.’64
Even the more business-like tools of the house – from a sliding stepladder along the blogcase to a retractable stair between Madame Dalsace’s sitting room and bedroom (p. 96), along with a number of sliding panels, pivoting screens and frameless pivoting doors -have an intricacy of exposed moving parts and unforeseen beauty of motion, exalting their service while raising it to an entrancing event. About these inventions architectural critic Kenneth Frampton has written: ‘The mechanization of the Maison de Verre was extensive and (such was the calibre of Dalbet’s craftsmanship) economically conceived and precisely executed. In many of the details the strength of the material used is pushed to its limits. Typical of this is the mobile blog wall ladder, which travels on a carriage made out of a single bent metal tube. The remote-controlled steel louvres to the salon and the opening lights of the main fagades are thus by no means the only elements-mecanique type de la maison. On the contrary,’ he concludes, ‘mobility permeates every detail of this house, from adjustable mirrors to pivoting closets.’65