In sharp contrast to these deadening structures are buildings whose parts are related to the whole and display pattern inside pattern, allowing them to alter and reveal new depths. Close examination may be rewarded by something as small as a floorboard or stepping stone in a Japanese house or garden, or as large as the beton brut of La Tourette, whose monolithic walls were impressed with multiple scales of texture. The appearance of each begins to transform as we draw near, as if its smallest elements were lying in wait to further encourage our energetic inquiry. We are drawn into a playful game of hide and seek as we move about, advancing to examine it more closely and then stepping back, to see it in context, only to detect something new that was previously imperceptible. Such things are always incomplete in a perceptual sense, for as one pattern appears another disappears, and thus can only be grasped over time by a highly creative mind’s eye.
Recursive decorating of this kind is open to discovery at many scales relative to each person’s height, age and agility, not to mention curiosity and interest. It is incomprehensibly small and unimaginably large at once. It is both tiny and immense, containing what is large in something small, and something small in what is large. In a sense it lacks scale, for it contains important features at all sizes. As we draw closer, we may discern ever-smaller details of interest, but also find that beguiling new depths have come into view. Miniscule features and hollows appear and then expand as we near them, only to recede into unfamiliar realms of space, inviting us into their secret universe – ‘to see the world in a grain of sand’, as William Blake wrote. Microcosmic textures and joints, or infinitely minute details set inside other details, transport us into a kingdom that never fully releases its treasures, granting us the power to endlessly explore and rediscover them anew.
Obviously this scope of freedom requires something more than vacancy or bland repetition or, at the other extreme, sculptural bravado or lavish decoration, which remains unresponsive to our presence. The human potential of miniature things depends on what we can freely make of them, on the exploratory range and elasticity they offer us. But it also depends on a degree of anonymity to loosen details from the stylistic control of their maker, from our being reduced to the complacent audience of someone’s creative excess and end product. When granted the power to enter something tiny that has been left open to our imagination, we experience what Bachelard considers an ‘inversion of perspective’, a ‘source of freedom’ especially abundant in nature, as when peering into the infinite depths of a tuft of grass or vein of a leaf, or in finding a compressed world in a glowing planet in the night sky.107 This power in which the imagination serves as a human faculty, he argues, underlies in part the delight of small toys, taking us back to childhood.
Outer Arbour, Katsura Imperial Villa, Kyoto, geologic depths of a stepping stone, set into a floor of pounded earth (left); Le Corbusier, La Tourette (1960), Eveux, rain gutter and concrete imprinted with rough formwork in the east wall (right)
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While not physically small, the reiterated forms of a Gothic cathedral are so selfembedded as tiny hollows set into medium-size voids within monumental cavities that the entire structure appears in a state of fluctuation, now shrinking and now expanding. Every element displays recursion across many different scales (p. 184). Huge piers break down into clustered columns and thin colonnettes, and these into countless vertical lines. A single large bay sprouts into increasingly smaller repetitions of the same basic form, and by this gradation remains plastic with change and ever-responsive to human scrutiny.
The peak in a Gothic propagation of images, where what is small becomes large and vice versa, occurs in stained-glass windows (p. 185). Lancet windows echo the spatial forms around them, but also contain figures and landscapes with fresh details that continue emerging the closer the eye. What first appears a uniform colour is found to be pieced together from many different shades of the same basic hue, presenting a multitude of mosaic-like spots, whose internal facets can never be completely disclosed, even when inches away. Huge rose windows shatter into radiating sherds and fragments, each of which can absorb the eye in a squinting investigation of its mottled colours and gem-like complexity. As the observer moves back to grasp the whole window, or moves close to take in its detail, vision is ratcheting back and forth, widening to take in the breadth and then zeroing in to make out the source of a miraculous glitter that keeps receding out of reach. Amiens Cathedral (begun 1220), France, multiple scales of form and detail in the west fagade St-Ouen Abbey (begun 1318), Rouen, France, aediculae at every scale In Heavenly Mansions and Other Essays on Home Design, John Summerson proposes the cathedral is essentially an ‘aedicular fantasy’, whose attraction, stemming from multiple bays of ‘little houses’, is rooted in our ‘primitive and universal love’ for miniature shelters, such as a doll’s house or the improvised houses we make for ourselves as children.108 Each aedicula forms a small, empty and airy shrine harboured in ever-larger shrines, which are
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