On a nocturnal stroll, looking to deeply contemplate the heavens, Plato reported that Thales stepped into a well, eliciting laughter from an onlooker. The forces of gravity and levity pulled the Ionian philosopher in opposite directions; dreaming of the cosmic order above his head, he fell into a void under his feet. Ceilings can extend lived space into dream space and, thereby, introduce dream space into lived space, acting as gateways to other worlds.
Ceilings are often repositories of stories, events and otherwise invisible oneiric narratives. Too often, ceilings have become the blind spot of modern architecture, the location of equipment. Utilitarian building is concerned with the square footage of a planar floor area, whereas the space of ceilings is inevitably volumetric. The phrase ‘the glass ceiling’ reveals the paradox of popular conceptions of ceilings as a terminus, an upper limit, while at the same time suggesting a space beyond.
Where is the space for dreaming in architecture today? In a world where fast-forward horizontal progress prevails, is there a place for lofty thoughts? For the third Frascari Symposium, we ask for your contemplations on the implications of ceilings and dreams, addressing any time period, culture or building activity that touches one or more of the following three areas.
Dreams have long been avenues of divination and, as Synesius suggested in De insomniis (c. 400), enable vertical travel ‘making contact with higher spheres.’ Divinatory dreams reveal building sites and designs to architect-seers across many cultures. Dreaming need not be opposed to reality. Ceilings resound with storytelling: what floats over–head is over–heard. Ceiling shares an indisputable relationship with the sky – ciel in French. Many ceilings were created as a second sky: Nero’s dining room in the Domus aurea had a dome ornamented with the heavens that revolved ‘day and night, in time with the sky.’ These complex dynamics of ceiling and sky intertwine, challenging conceptions of interiority and exteriority. How is dream space manifest when we wake in order to continue dreaming? Sebastiano Serlio designed a labyrinth soffitto perhaps to alleviate boredom and to promote lucid dreaming. If dreams have the power to foretell the future and unravel the past, the time of dreams, as the time of ceilings, is not uni-directional, it moves forward and backward.
The word ceiling is related to sealing – the finishing of surfaces to contain a space. Ceiling construction is often separate from structure. How can a ceiling be ‘false’ and yet be physically present? The ubiquitous ‘drop’ ceiling of modern building is nothing new; some Greek temples such as the Hephaisteion had coffered ceilings with thin sheets of marble dropped in-between the beams and Vitruvius discussed how to suspend a vaulted ceiling from flat beams. The facture and materiality of finishes can evoke the firmament as can the processes of finishing. According to Homer, when Penelope wondered if her dream of Odysseus’s return was true, she explained false dreams that deceive enter through gates of sawn ivory, while true dreams that will come to be arrive through gates of polished horn. Leon Battista Alberti’s category of finitio expresses material finishes, the caress of the hand, and also the idea of finite human limits and finality. Rather like nightmares, as Alberti explained, the purpose of the ceiling is to limit, to seal, and to ‘keep out the night.’
Looking up can be a pain in the neck. This posture can be so irritating that tourists often use mirrors to gaze upon ornamental ceilings. With a mirror, one can look down in order to see what is up. In architectural representation, drawings almost always unfold a space to allow a direct view of each surface. Yet, reflected ceiling plans follow an alternative logic of the mirror image. As the ceiling is drawn in reflection in the plan, dashed lines are drawn in the plan to indicate what is above. The inversion between above and below is the stuff of dreams. Phantasia, the spiritual material of dreams, is also the place of the imagination where architects create and drawing provides access to the dream space of design. Architects draw their apparitions and even false awakenings in order to foresee visionary projects and castles in the air. Exploring and exposing these mirrored relationships in the architectural imagination manifests the role of the ceiling as the meeting place between solidity and levity, dreams and world.