Monday, February 27, 2017


A dark setting gives this
lovely stained glass piece
all the more power.
Imagine a symphony whose movements are all exactly the same loudness and tempo. Without the contrast of allegretto and andante, piano and forte, the music would quickly sink into deadly dullness. Contrast holds the same importance to architecture. It provides the unexpected twists and turns that can transform a bland design into a powerful one—to turn, as it were, Muzak into Beethoven’s Fifth.

Contrast works by heightening the perceived difference between sensations. Suppose it’s a sweltering summer day, and you walk off the scorching sidewalk into an air-conditioned building. You, being hot and bedraggled, will appreciate the coolness a lot more than the people who’ve already been inside all day.

In the same way, your senses can best appreciate architectural effects when they’re contrasted against their opposites. There are lots of ways to accomplish this. Here are just a few:

Architect Louis Sullivan was a master at wringing
the maximum impact from ornament using contrast.
Here, the ornate bullseye window practically explodes
from the building's otherwise plain facade.
(Merchant's National Bank, Grinnell, Iowa; 1914)
•  Bright/dark. While a uniformly dark home would no doubt be depressing, a uniformly bright one might just as easily bore you to death. To create visual interest, bright rooms should be played off darker ones. Besides creating variety, the contrast between these opposites heightens the impact of each. That’s the basic premise of using contrast.

•  Plain/ornamented. The architect Louis Sullivan was a master of this type of contrast. His buildings were often composed of powerful masses of bold, rough stone. But against this background Sullivan would add decorative panels of incredible delicacy and color in a few key areas, creating the perfect balance between coarseness and refinement.

The same lesson holds true today: Ornament run wild is not much better than none at all.  To be effective, highly decorative surfaces should be contrasted against plain ones.

At Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House
in Los Angeles, a low entry ceiling—barely higher
than the doorways—supercharges the drama of entering
the soaring living room. (1921)
•  High/low.  Many homes of the Fifties were built with uniform eight-foot ceilings throughout.  When people grew tired of this sameness, vaulted ceilings became the rage, and often whole houses were built with lofty, slope-ceilinged rooms. The ideal lies somewhere between these two extremes, since the impact of a high ceiling is quickly lost if there isn’t a lower ceiling nearby for contrast.

In his First Church of Christ, Scientist,
Bernard Maybeck combined hard
industrial materials such as concrete
columns and steel sash windows,
but tempered it all with lavish,
wisteria-laden wood trellises.
Frank Lloyd Wright frequently dropped the ceilings of his entrance foyers to uncomfortably low, hat-scraping levels. Imagine the sense of impact (and relief) when the visitor suddenly stepped out into the soaring space of a vaulted living room.

Although most building codes now require a minimum ceiling height of 7’-6” (7’-0 in kitchens, bathrooms and halls), Wright’s trick is still effective today. Try playing high-ceilinged living rooms against cozy alcoves, for example, or vaulted master bedrooms against intimate baths.

•  Soft/hard.  Landscape architects have long been familiar with the importance of contrasting plants against “hardscaping” such as brick or stone. Architectural interiors can benefit from the same contrasts. During the Victorian era, interiors were smothered in tapestries, rugs, velvet drapes, and overstuffed furniture.  A hundred years later, during the Eighties, it was fashionable to design ascetic interiors with bare hardwood floors and uncurtained windows. The result was rooms that were cold, harsh, and uninviting. As usual, the secret lies in between. There should be just enough hard surfaces to make the soft ones appreciated.

No comments:

Post a Comment