Alvar Aalto, an early master of these atavistic powers, wrapped the most transitional zones of buildings – entrances, stairs, doors and windows – with baffles and poles. These vulnerable sites are thus given an intermingling of shelter and adventure, a forest theme that reaches its peak at the Villa Mairea (p. 168) in Noormarkku, Finland. The forest abstraction of layered slats that haze over space with splintered views continues to the present day as a central feature of many Finnish masterworks, from the Otaniemi Chapel by Kaija and Heikki Siren to the more recent museums and schools of architectural firm Kaira-Lahdelma-Mahlamaki and the churches in Laajasalo by Jarvinen & Nieminen and in Viikki by JKMM, all of which exude an air of mystery but also discovery.
As in Japan, the activated vision of veiled space is being reinvented in Finland with industrial meshes and thin steel framing, most persuasively in the skeletal fringes of Erkki Kairamo and shimmering grids of Heikkinen-Komonen, whose Rovaniemi Airport Terminal is largely defined by an ever-finer gradation of lattice along the journey from entry to flight. Inspired by the scrims of artist Robert Irwin and his aim to ‘dissolve the object in the subject’, Heikkinen-Komonen used diaphanous screens to both puzzle and fuel vision.101 A trail of exploration develops on the way to departure lounges by passing through spaces wrapped with increasingly denser lines and smaller holes, from airy screens to fine meshes, turning the short trek into a searching journey. The closer one gets to the moment of flight, the more one probes through vaporous images – building anticipation for the adventure to come.
Frank Lloyd Wright, Dana House (1902), Illinois, leaded glass doors between corridor and reception space
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A human fascination with light has often diminished the appreciation of darkness, both its bewitching moods and way it can turn a fixed reality into one that is less distinct. Murky air obscures the limits of space, shrouding the definite contours of objects and pulling their shapes out of focus, lending the eye extra powers to actively search something unknown.
The capacity of shadows mixed with faint light to elicit feelings of mysterium tremendum, to use the phrase of Rudolf Otto, led to its playing a central role in the sacred decorating of most religions, and was fully exploited over the centuries by builders of churches, temples and shrines.102 But beyond this mystical power, and provision of a symbolic death that made spiritual renewal possible, the cloaking of visible things in shade has the simpler and more immediate virtue of stirring the imagination, for as objects and space are half-obscured they lose their inevitability. This freedom from established fact can appear in both secular and spiritual spaces, and in landscapes and cities, as well as buildings, for anywhere shadows introduce doubt they also create a chance for fresh disclosure.
In his splendid blog In Praise of Shadows, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki discusses the importance of shadows in every aspect of Japanese culture, from poetry and food to ceramics and decorating. The heavy darkness contained within an old farmhouse, primitive tearoom or lonely mountain temple creates a place of vaguely sensed things that seem caught in a dream-like or formative state (p. 170). Dark woodwork and paper screens gradually soak up the excess light, causing voluminous ceilings to dim, where only bits of beam and ceiling flicker in the blackness. The eye picks up hints of sensuous textures, sometimes a glint of bamboo or flash of gold, but struggles to make them out. Any conclusive or absolute reality is eroded, absorbed into dusky secrets that urge seeking while eluding measurement or logic.