A related synesthesia occurs in the detonation of a Zen temple bell used to summon monks to prayer, as well as to simply mark time or signal important ceremonies. The intermingling of sensory acts begins with lifting a weighty mallet by hand, and then swinging it through an arc to strike a massive bronze bell, whose vibrations extend back into the fingers and arm. The lifting, swinging and striking produces a surprising and pleasing aural event, an extraordinarily low tone with deep resonance that carries over a great distance. The sound begins with the clear clean tone of an impact strike, followed by the prolonged reverberation of a low rumble, which then dissolves into a decaying resonance that can last up to a minute, a sound felt to be calming and highly conducive to meditation.
The deep satisfaction felt in a door responsive to human initiative can also derive from a window endowed with latent mutations that are unexpected and full of wonderment. Consider, for example, the colourful painted wooden shutters of old Dutch towns, especially those with combinatory or nested motions. Some streetside shutters are hinged to open up and down, rather than across, turning the shutter into an impromptu sunshade or shelf.
More complex are the large banks of shutters in the tall leaded windows of seventeenth-century Dutch houses, which can be subtly adjusted to control the illumination of long, narrow rooms lit from one side. These finely tuned lighting effects were carefully studied by Steen Eiler Rasmussen, who described their typical form as a ‘four-framed window with a shutter to each frame that could be opened or closed independently, so that the light could be regulated at will … the light could be dimmed down to a most mysterious gloom. Or all of it could be concentrated on one spot, leaving the rest of the room in semi-darkness. No one has employed these effects with greater skill than Rembrandt, as his paintings show. They also show the wealth of textural effects that could be produced by this special lighting method.’60 Rasmussen goes on to discuss how similar shutter manipulations were used by Vermeer to produce the delicate moods of his paintings.
Related controls over light and air must have also been a concern in otherwise fortified castles, palaces and monasteries, for their deep windows were often given self-embedded shutters to permit control over conditions of the recess and room beyond (p. 84). Light, view, breeze and sound can be roughly governed by opening or closing the overall windows and shutters, and more finely regulated with smaller hinged flaps inside the panels, expanding the scope of action. Especially intricate shutter systems were invented by American Shakers in the nineteenth century, who were renowned for merging practicality with simple beauty. These include adjustable wooden transoms for ventilation, and so-called ‘Indian shutters’ that slide horizontally over windows and eliminate winter drafts. On the ground floor of the huge granite dwelling house at Enfield, New Hampshire, a four-shutter system was built into each window to finely modulate light and outlook. Each of the dualhinged shutters can be folded in half, allowing it to assume three different positions – fully closed, half open, or fully open – so that each window has, in effect, over eighty permutations. The degree of participation increases as people deliberate and test the latent positions and motions of shutters, finding pleasure in the way smaller hinged orbits pass inside the larger orbits of multifold panels. When opening all the shutters at once, something equally marvellous occurs, for they disappear, as if by sleight of hand, into the recesses of reveals.
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From the standpoint of its atrophy of manual control, decorating’s dual threat of immobility and automation can be seen as a process of disembodiment, and in this sense a betrayal of man. Those few built parts retaining a role for human operation – standard hinged doors, double-hung windows, sliding curtains, Venetian blinds – are stripped of any real action that would confirm our power to be a cause and, more broadly, feel a sense of responsibility in the physical world. By failing to exceed their functional purpose, eradicating play from work, these mobile remnants virtually destroy the possibility of human deeds.
Fortunately this trend to fossilization and cybernetics has been resisted by architects concerned with preserving some human dignity in modest acts of kinesis. Among them is Wharton Esherick, who fitted the doors of his house and studio with hand-carved latches and handles of satiny rosewood (p. 88), no two of which are alike, with shapes and textures inviting fingers and skin to touch and engage their mechanisms. People doing so become the locus and source of action by entering into a toy-like play with the intermeshed parts, whose movements and repercussions are enthralling but never immediately apparent. In a similar vein, Esherick’s light-pulls are tiny metal figures that startle and delay our grasp, and lamps are hung from long wooden arms that swing through space in wide orbits. The largest kinetic element is a trap door to the bedroom operated by rope and pulley, facilitated by a rising and falling counterweight. In each loving marriage of use and delight is an idea about the core of life that echoes the words of Robert Frost in his poem ‘Two Tramps in Mud Time’: