The art of concealing while hinting at beauty, in order that it can be freshly revealed, is apparent in Juhani Pallasmaa’s Rovaniemi Art Museum, in Finland. The entry incorporates two sets of doors with narrow slits, bordered with glass and peripheral glances, ensuring that the world directly ahead can only be gleaned by peering through cracks to traces of future. Each slender glimpse at what lies beyond appeals to our innate desire to uncover secrets and resolve mysteries. Evidently there is something inside that is not left open to just anybody, nor will it be disclosed without our presence, awaiting us to slowly detect and search for meaning within its treasures. Like the African tribal masks that influenced the psychic improvisation of modern art, the building’s doors prod the visitor to draw upon extra powers of vision – a fitting preparation for enigmatic works of modern Finnish art and their demand for insight and outlook.
Where thresholds to desirable space are layered behind one another, leading from one revelation to the next along a succession of open portals, the power of discovery is multiplied into a chain of sequential acts. Each event anticipates the next, on and on, allowing us to foresee and avoid opportunities or hazards as we wish. These sequential disclosures in Western decorating tend to be organized along horizontal axes, as enfilades that form virtual tunnels through plural boundaries and rooms, providing a chance to deliberate over and set out in search of many different stages of future.
Underlying the intense human pleasure of walking through an enfilade are the multiple acts brought under our power to envision and prophesize. Numerous possibilities are grasped along a single line of sight, and are sufficiently visible around the edges to hint at what they withhold, expanding the spatial and temporal range over which we can exert our will. But these chances for disclosure only become real opportunities when they are worthy of our interest and are possibilities we care about. When sequential voids fail to do this, owing to being overly monotonous or vacant, they doom us to numbing repetition.
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By contrast, consider the way repeating bays in a Gothic cathedral are so richly varied in their intensity and colour of light, and hidden attractions of stained glass, paintings and altarpieces, that any sighting along an axis picks up edges of many different destinies that are worth pursuing. A related anticipation occurs along Francesco Borromini’s aisles at the basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome, where the repeating bays are turned into places worth seeking by contrasts of light intensity, the arresting chiaroscuro of cast shadows and lateral options to side chapels, each of which is uniquely shaped and magically toplit. And then there is the airy syncopation of colonnade and portico around The Lawn at Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia, whose rhythms play off one another, rise or fall in terrain and arrive at fascinatingly lit and recessed entries to ten different pavilions. In each of these cases, the transformation of uniform bays into a sequence of desirable events is achieved by a richly flowing cadence of light, whose magnetic powers draw us on through a series of revelations.
Rafael Moneo, National Museum of Roman Art (1986), Spain Standing out among recent efforts to organize buildings around enfilades of discovery is Rafael Moneo’s National Museum of Roman Art, in Spain, shaped to evoke the decorating it honours. Many thin layers of exhibition space are divided by tall brick walls pierced by various openings, the largest and most prominent being huge archways along the museum’s centre line. When gazing about this plane-parallel structure, the moving eye is continually drawn to the edges of layers exposed along each recession, and their intimations of space and artefacts worth exploring. The extraordinarily deep probing extends throughout the entire building, as well as through openings carved out of the floors to signal further levels and art, including an underworld where remains are still embedded in the earth. A different approach to turning procession into waves of discovery appears in the Shinto shrines of Japan, where approaching paths are galvanized by a series of ritual gateways, or torii, that mark the transition from the profane to the sacred. What is important about these gates in terms of human agency is the way in which they signal and lure while celebrating disclosure and, in the case of large shrines with multiple gates receding in the distance, present a chain of futures to deliberate and act upon, culminating in the thousands of mountain-climbing torii at the Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine in Kyoto. Even when the axes become discursive as repeatedly broken and angled segments, a progression used also in the approach to Zen temples, their staged discovery stimulates people to be curious and persistent, and to conduct a unified journey out of many small deeds of searching and finding.
While a discussion of the tremendous range of historical solutions to architectural narratives, many rooted in religious rituals and passage rites, goes beyond the scope of this blog, it is important to mention the achievements of Tadao Ando in giving this episodic structure a contemporary form, and doing this in a way that embodies Hannah Arendt’s precondition for agency, a ‘startling unexpectedness’ that appears in the ‘guise of a miracle’. Ando’s spatial sequences contain a wide margin of error, as well as opportunity. They cannot be followed carelessly, and at times threaten or confuse, but are always intriguing, even bewitching, ensuring that each disclosure becomes a genuine feat. Moreover, the journey contains hidden wonders, often simple things that are psychologically complex, giving travellers the power to find and reveal them by the force of their own actions.