The intrigue of the Japanese lattice lies in the fact that it stimulates our visual questioning of the world; we can glimpse just enough of what lies beyond to excite our perceptual faculties. The contours and features of what we see have been half-erased and finely broken up by the intervening medium, making them more bewitching and giving added creative force to the eye by leaving something unseen to discover. In renouncing visual certitude and its predetermined facts, the wooden veil enlivens both the imagination, by affording it extra room to manoeuvre, and spatial action, for the filtration alters slightly with every step or turn of the head, keeping us involved and urging us on with the thrill of detection and the lure of something faintly forbidden. Though such deliberately imperfect views may frustrate the rational eye by deleting part of the literal world, it is precisely this loss that activates us as seekers and finders, giving us nothing but offering us everything.
These marvellous old veiling effects have been revived as a source of power by architect Kengo Kuma, who retains much of their timeless value while adapting them to modern technology. Especially convincing in drawing upon yet transcending the past is the densely woven and multilayered cedar lattice that partitions and covers his design for the Bato Hiroshige Museum. Changing views through the lattice, according to angle and motion, envelop the museum in what Kuma describes as a ‘cloud of particles floating in the landscape’, evoking a world fogged by rain or mist, as often depicted in the ukiyo-e woodblock prints of the artist Utagawa Hiroshige.99
Today, a more common source of secrecy is a membrane of finely perforated metal stretched across a sensitive boundary, as in the filmy envelopes of punched aluminium by Toyo Ito, Itsuko Hasegawa, Kazuyo Sejima and Jun Aoki. Interiors are secluded behind veils that are seductively luminous, their allure strengthened by evocative silhouettes or moire effects from layering, persuading us to actively question their mysteries, which continue to change and emerge for the moving eye. Parallel sheets of glistening aluminium with cloud-like silhouettes and the interference patterns of overlapped sheets, for instance, covered Hasegawa’s interior pavilion for the 1989 World Design Expo in Nagoya to suggest a floating mist full of vague impressions, an experience that resonates with the vaporous atmosphere of Japan. Though shimmering and industrial, and no longer dark and rustic, the burnished webs continue to express a preference for space wrapped in enigmas and capable of revelation.
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An especially convincing inducement to exploration is the perforated skin of the Tepia Science Pavilion in Tokyo, whose architect Fumihiko Maki has stated: ‘The illusion that there can be secret places must be maintained.’ Large but very thin hangings of punched aluminium are inserted between inside and outside, turning the boundaries between city and building into beguiling curtains. Whether looking in or out, the space beyond is thrown out of focus and ground into fine particles of light, allowing the detection of indistinct shapes with fuzzy outlines and diluted colours that can only be resolved by taking action in space. Though we infer what lies ahead, we can never quite grasp it, and it sinks back into the veiled light as we try to fix or isolate it, attracting and leading us on.
Though rarely as nuanced as their Japanese counterparts, Western screens have also played a dual role in providing seclusion while stimulating inquiry. Frank Lloyd Wright’s inclination to overlay windows with complex webbings of leaded glass, epitomized at the Dana House in Springfield, Illinois (p. 168), creates an experience far exceeding surface delight, for it motivates the curious eye and adventurous soul. Geometric filigrees of slender, dark lines, obscured further by small panes of autumnal colour in complex patterns of chevrons and rectangles, are meant not only to look at, but also see through, gazing at the world as if through abstract prairie vegetation, echoing a primeval experience. ‘By means of glass something of the freedom of our arboreal ancestors living in their trees becomes a likely precedent for freedom in twentieth-century life,’ Wright wrote in his autobiography.100 When peering through one of these ‘light screens’, as Wright called them, the space beyond is defocused and filled with both doubt and allure, retaining intimacy while inciting action.
These primeval associations would also seem to underlie the timber screens characterizing modern Finnish decorating, which derive in part from the availability of wood but also from a mode of perception that evolved in the northern forest. The infinitely fractured light and view when filtered through densely packed trunks and branches must have shaped the way the Finns see their world. The simultaneous ability to hide and seek, which largely determined human survival in the distant past, is maximized – especially in glaciated Finland – at the forest edges of clearings and lakes, where people can gaze out at the world from sites of filtered retreat and adjust this balance by simply moving back and forth, controlling the view of space beyond while minimizing their own detection.