Friday, January 30, 2009


Whatever happened to ceilings? In most designs they are forgotten about except as a place to hang a light. Look up there and most of the time all you see is an expanse of white and a smoke detector or a grid of ceiling tiles and fluorescent fixtures.

As James Hillman points out, our neglect of ceilings is a loss of the upward gaze. Most of the time our eyes are caste downward or straight ahead. We focus on floors, beautiful and supportive, but all about the practicality of holding our feet and our furniture. Or we look at the horizontal view, sensing opportunities and oncoming threats. Tilting our heads backward and allowing our eyes to rise is an act of trust. It's letting go of the boundaries we use to place the world in knowable categories. It's allowing our minds take in the expanse beyond what our fingers can touch. Looking up and appreciating a ceiling usually makes us stop in our tracks. There's something up there that calls to the energy within us that longs to soar. A beautifully designed ceiling offers something worth soaring toward. 

To make such a ceiling is to participate in the currents of that soaring spirit. Yet, it's one of the most difficult architectural elements to create. Think of Michelangelo's struggle to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or the city of Florence waiting 100 years for someone to figure out how to put a dome on its cathedral. Creating wonderful ceilings is all about knowing gravity so well that you can defy it.

It doesn't take much. During one of my travels, I arrived at a small town that didn't seem to have a hotel. Near the edge of the village a sign indicating a place to stay pointed to what looked like a house. After knocking on the door and going through the ritual of signing in, getting my key and settling into my room, I climbed into bed. After reading for a while, I switched off the light and lay on my back. In the darkness above, thousands of tiny iridescent stars glowed. Magic... 

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