Stillness and Light: The Silent Eloquence of Shaker Architectureby Henry Plummer
Shaker buildings have long been admired for their simplicity of design and sturdy craftsmanship, with form always following function. Over the years, their distinctive physical characteristics have invited as much study as imitation. Their clean, unadorned lines have been said to reflect core Shaker beliefs such as honesty, integrity, purity, and perfection. In
Shaker buildings have long been admired for their simplicity of design and sturdy craftsmanship, with form always following function. Over the years, their distinctive physical characteristics have invited as much study as imitation. Their clean, unadorned lines have been said to reflect core Shaker beliefs such as honesty, integrity, purity, and perfection. In this book, Henry Plummer focuses on the use of natural light in Shaker architecture, noting that Shaker builders manipulated light not only for practical reasons of illumination but also to sculpt a deliberately spiritual, visual presence within their space. Stillness and Light celebrates this subtly beautiful aspect of Shaker innovation and construction, captured in more than 100 stunning photographs.
"I highly recommend this book for anyone who is appraising Shaker items or Shaker architecture or for those who simply love high quality art photographs. A welcome addition to your book shelves." —www.examiner.com, 9/24/2009
"[A] stunning color photographic essay... Plummer's discerning photographic eye not only captures the feeling of serenity and peace that pervades these buildings, but also reminds us that for the Shakers, daily work was prayer and every space in their community was a chapel... This book is a must for libraries and any religious group planning to construct significant spiritual space." —Nova Religio, Vol. 15, No. 1 August, 2011
"These images of historic Shaker buildings are stunning." —Stephen J. Stein, author of The Shaker Experience in America
"These spaces... are mirages infused with a sense of reality and epiphany." —Juhani Pallasmaa, Former professor of architecture at Helsinki University of Technology and currently Ruth and Norman Moore Visiting Professor of Architecture at Washington University in St. Louis
"I have written that when an architect finds out that LIGHT is the main subject of Architecture, he begins to be a real one. How could a real architect not know about LIGHT? How could a good photographer not control LIGHT? How could a good professor not speak to his students about LIGHT? Henry Plummer, who is a real architect, a splendid photographer, and also a wonderful professor, does all of these things for us in Stillness and Light." —Alberto Campo Baeza, Architect and Visiting Faculty at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design
"This is a book that you will want to have open and in sight, turning its pages from time to time, absorbing the meditation its photographs evoke. The stillness is the stillness of concentration, a quieting of the mind that could be termed soulful. The light glowing from its pages is transformative. The words bring thought to place, echoing original intent, giving their own illumination to the qualities of Shaker life and thought. The quality of color and light indeed give "earthbound rooms a skyward inflection". The photographs are masterful; their vantage, profound. Plummer’s work not only records Stillness and Light, it gives them." —Donlyn Lyndon, Eva Li Professor of Architecture, University of California, Berkeley
"These images of historic Shaker buildings are stunning." Stephen J. Stein, author of The Shaker Experience in America
"I highly recommend this book for anyone who is appraising Shaker items or Shaker architecture or for those who simply love high quality art photographs. A welcome addition to your book shelves." www.examiner.com, 9/24/2009
"[A] stunning color photographic essay... Plummer's discerning photographic eye not only captures the feeling of serenity and peace that pervades these buildings, but also reminds us that for the Shakers, daily work was prayer and every space in their community was a chapel... This book is a must for libraries and any religious group planning to construct significant spiritual space." Nova Religio, Vol. 15, No. 1 August, 2011
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Read an Excerpt
Stillness & Light
The Silent Eloquence of Shaker Architecture
By Henry Plummer
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2009 Henry Plummer
All rights reserved.
SIMPLICITY ~ PRISTINE LIGHT
The radical simplification produced by a single exterior color, characteristic of Shaker architecture, serves to unite each form, while accentuating the play of light over a surface, enveloping the whole in a subdued atmosphere. These monochromatic effects, free of either visual friction or excitement, range from the absolute purity of a white meetinghouse, to the monotone crust of stone or brick around a dwelling, or continuous coat of yellow paint on a workshop.
PURE WHITE CAVITY
A spotless surface of smooth plaster and white paint serves to purify Shaker space. This image of perfection reveals the slightest sign of dirt, is devoid, one might even say absolved, of darkness, and is inherently ethereal, reduced to nothing but sheer light.
In part to avoid smudgy finger marks and keep white surfaces entirely clean, and thereby virtuous, Shakers stained or painted the bordering elements touched by people—banisters and drawer pulls, doors and floorboards, peg rails and trim. These darker points and edgings have the further benefit of perceptually heightening the purity of whiteness left unblemished. By having its chaste glow framed and thrown into relief, the white ground is emancipated from the wall, and its whites made even whiter by contrast.
BETWEEN WOOD & PLASTER
A harmonious blending of heaven and earth was achieved by a Shaker palette reduced, often, to two very simple materials—white plaster above, and plain woodwork below—so that dwelling occurred in-between, linked to both of these realms. The wood of a floor normally extends up into peg rails, and a partial sheathing of walls, elaborated at times into long banks of built-in cabinets and drawers stretching to the ceiling, whose continuous relief is brought alive by raking light from corner windows.
In several rare but beautiful cases, soft wood lines an entire Shaker room, wrapping around every surface and over the ceiling to produce an impression of being inside the wood. In such a monolithic volume, the whole space fills with a warm tawny atmosphere. The ambience is golden, and faintly celestial, where wood is washed with a bright yellow or orange stain, as if transmuting the earthen material into a more pure and, for Shakers, divine substance.CHAPTER 2
ORDER ~ FOCUSED LIGHT
The Shaker striving for order and calm gave a prominent visual role to the window, which often appears as the seminal force around which a room is developed. This centering power is magnified by simple geometry, symmetric placement, empty walls, and a halo-like frame, which are all further strengthened by a radiating pattern of light from a still source.
The repetition of standardized elements in Shaker architecture served basic needs of economy and order, while ensuring anonymity and plainness, but also gave to every room a calming rhythm that served the spirit. This reverberation, suggestive of the rise and fall of a fugue or chant, is especially pronounced in the Shaker meetinghouse, whose windows shed a mesmerizing pulse of energy. Alternating rays of light echo into broad stripes of white plaster, divided by lines of blue paint on wooden beams, knee braces, and peg rails. As a result, tremulous patterns of light and dark envelop the entire worship space, and its sacred dance, in a visual incantation, whose simple waves could instantly soothe mind and soul, and invoke a faintly mystical spell.
The parallel realms of space characteristic of Shaker dwellings produce a hypnotic symmetry of bright and dark zones. These figures of light, most highly developed in the Center Family dwellings of South Union and Pleasant Hill, furnish twin centers in a nonhierarchical order. A perceptual balance of the whole is maintained by the dual arrangement of a large number of stronger and weaker optical foci, consistently drawing attention back to an invisible centerline. Contributing to this representation, as well as mechanism, of self-unity are the facing nodes of windows and doorways, echoing into subtler patterns of indirect and reflected light, all exerting a perceptual power that arrests and settles the human mind, while disciplining human movement.
At the heart of the trustees' office at Pleasant Hill is an extraordinary double staircase built by Micajah Burnett. Considered by many the pinnacle of Shaker architecture, the stair consists of two facing spirals that coil up to a single oval skylight. As if enacting the geometry of light above, and continually turning in on its center, each curled flight rises through a growing rain of zenithal light, to finally arrive at an attic landing immediately beneath the luminous source—evocative, both in substance and shape, of the heavenly vault. Wood and plaster turn into light the higher one rises, similar to the rarefaction, described in the 1871 Shaker Manifesto, of "all matter, more or less attenuated, sublimated, etherealized, up to the lowest sphere, and thence up to the heaven of heavens."
The twin stairways of Canterbury's dwelling house are gradually pulled up four different levels by showers of light from a pair of attic skylights, one for brethren and one for sisters. Each ascent finally arrives at a chrome-yellow landing, set barely above the everyday floor, and appearing to lead nowhere—but the sky itself.
Beckoning from the top of twin stairs at Hancock's dwelling house is an unexpected vortex of light. Skylight is funneled through two different levels of attic space, via a large opening cut in the floor, to bathe, halo, and seemingly to consecrate, a single freestanding stair. For those climbing to the attic, the two facing stairs arrive at an astonishing sight. The final ascent shifts back 90° to the building's centerline, and rises through the shower of light as a "flying staircase," as if the last flight were freed of gravity, allowing one to rise and hover in air. Reinforcing this upward sweep, and the gathering power, of a luminous core are angling rays of falling light that appear to converge on, and point back up to, a higher reality.
The first means of heavenly ascent built by Micajah Burnett at Pleasant Hill was a double staircase in the Center Family dwelling. These dual flights are drawn upward, and crowned at the top, by two successive zenithal lights, whose illumination leaks through gaps in each floor below. First to emerge is an attic skylight whose brilliance, as well as emanation, perceptually centers the room beneath. This modest storage area for winter clothing, along with its ring of poplar drawers, seems to be gathered and blessed by light, as if it were a chapel. The penultimate stage is followed by a dormer-lit void higher above, whose flood of light leads to the roof, but whose journey points to empty sky—suggesting a doorway onto the heavens.CHAPTER 3
LUMINOSITY ~ INNER LIGHT
In their efforts to squeeze as much daylight as possible into buildings, Shakers pierced the outer walls with closely spaced windows, allowing illumination to stream in from every side. As the most sacred place in the Shaker settlement, and the nearest thing to heaven on earth, the meetinghouse was made especially airy and bright by a continuous band of repeating windows. But rendered almost as porous, and at times cathedral-like, were utilitarian buildings such as laundries and machine shops, tanneries and poultry houses, mills and barns.
The internal shutters with which windows are equipped at Canterbury and Enfield permit a range of lighting adjustments. At Enfield's dwelling house, a four-shutter system allows each panel to be operated independently, or in combination with others, so that light can be regulated at will, like a camera aperture, according to weather, temperature, and human activity. When the shutters are opened, they fold back and disappear into window reveals.
WHITE KENTUCKY LIMESTONE
The muted radiance of limestone dwellings at Pleasant Hill derives from an exceptionally white stone, known locally as Kentucky marble. Te blocks vary slightly in tone and texture, according to where they were taken from the quarry and how they were subsequently cut, and were given an added perceptual depth by raised mortar and brighter stones used for lintels. The result is a wall from which light appears to issue, rather than merely reflect.
In the dark basement rooms of Pleasant Hill's Center dwelling, scarce light admitted through windows is conserved by continual reflections of the white-painted foundation walls. Beyond brightening spaces that would otherwise be gloomy, whiteness sensitizes the texture to raking light, folding cast shadows into highlights, and making the dim illumination appear brighter by contrast.
WHITE ON WHITE
As daylight pours into Shaker buildings, it immediately reflects of mirror-like floors and silky white plaster. The whiteness is neither uniform nor sterile, however, for a varied interplay of source and surface produces a thousand subtle, almost indefinable tones. As a result, rooms do not appear superficially bright, but seem to have soaked up light, as if taking possession of falling rays and wedding them into their own substance.
The luminous yellow paint used routinely on woodwork by early Shakers, set of by slightly dimmer yellow-oranges and yellow-reds, conveys a belief in color as materialized light. Sharing an intimation of heaven with adjoining white plaster are the radiant yellows of doors and window frames, cabinets and peg rails, baseboards and floors, all of which seem to emanate joy from unexpected directions, and give earth-bound rooms a skyward infection.
Unpainted Shaker woodwork appears at first glance to be dark and dull, perhaps friendly to touch and forgiving of fingerprints, but a dim foil to gleaming white plaster. Closer inspection, however, especially for the moving eye, reveals a gentle sheen that waxes and wanes with angle of view and incident rays. This muted glow, often brightened by an orange stain or thin yellow wash, appears to lie within the grainy woodwork itself, an impression deepened by the shadow-lined facets of multiple panels.
Rare curves interrupting the rigid straight lines of Shaker architecture tend to curl around, and caress, the illumination that fills them. From the vaulted side entries at Pleasant Hill, to the sinuous banister of Canterbury's schoolhouse, these soft, almost sensuous cavities stand out and gleam against the shade of central halls.
The most commonplace yet varied source of natural light in a Shaker attic is the dormer window. In addition to brightening the shade beneath a roof, this spatial cell is imbued with its own light, and inserts into the material building a volume of immaterial energy. Gaining added presence by the attic's overall vacancy and plainness, the dormer induces the human eye to perceive it as a container of light, whose radiant shape derives from angled reveals as well as its location relative to floor or ceiling, whose plane becomes an extension of light.
The skylights of Pleasant Hill's Center dwelling and trustees' office open to sky through dormers set perpendicular to the ridgeline. What result are lanterns that are recessed and extend above their ceilings, into which light arrives from two directions, whereupon it is mixed before being gently diffused to spaces below. Daylight is thus not delivered immediately, but is first canalized through a series of reflections that diminish its intensity, and vary both its quality and route. While the luminous cavity hovering over the dwelling attic is polygonal in shape with a simple vault, the void above the trustees' office is a sinuous oval that emulates the sphere of the sky.CHAPTER 4
EQUALITY ~ SHARED LIGHT
Transom windows, frequently placed by Shakers above inner as well as outer doors, provide a means to increase the light shared between neighboring rooms, and maintain this flow even when doors are fully closed. Interior transoms are typically set over doors connecting dark corridors and well-lit perimeter rooms, and take shapes ranging from multi-paned rectangles to arched or semicircular fanlights.
The stretching of light, and the open feeling, afforded by an interior window are especially impressive when able to transform an utterly mundane space, such as a back stair or closet. An ingenious device to siphon daylight deeply into a building, this glazed opening serves also to share illumination between rooms demanding acoustic separation, so as to spread light in a peaceful way, free of disrupting noise.
By guiding a portion of daylight directly across an intervening space, the double window illuminates two different rooms at once, ordinarily a perimeter stair and a room further inside. Surprising views to the outside, as well as into the stair between, are thus opened through a normally closed dividing wall.
ENFILADE OF OPENINGS
The continuous channels of light and view carved through the mass of a Shaker building depend upon a precise alignment of corridors and doors with exterior windows. Like X-rays piercing solid matter, these lines of energy intersect one another to form a grid of routes for flowing light.
LATTICE OF LIGHT
Vertical and horizontal streams of energy interflow in the vicinity of stairs, where differently colored intensities of light, from skylights and windows, are shared and mixed after arriving from many directions.CHAPTER 5
TIME ~ CYCLIC LIGHT
SHADOW PLAY ON LIMESTONE
Pleasant Hill's limestone dwellings are extremely responsive to shifting skies. Displayed upon their white volumes are all of the sun's refracted colors, including faint hues often missed by the human eye. With its walls aligned to the cardinal points, each building behaves as a gnomon, registering and showing the flow of shade from plane to plane, as well as at the microscale of masonry texture, produced on the Center dwelling by raised white mortar.
The absolute white of a Shaker meetinghouse, as prescribed by the Millennial Laws, gave each village a spiritual center of maximum purity and radiance. But maximized also on the plain and highly reflective clapboards was a visibility of each passing moment, and each new emanation of sun. Melting the sky into walls are delicate tones of colored light, ranging from the soft grays of overcast weather and starched whites of clear days, to the transparent yellows and violets arriving early and late, and deeper blues and oranges of twilight.
Dappled shadows cast onto walls from neighboring trees turn noticeably bold, and cinematic, on a perfectly white meetinghouse. As if thrown onto a blank projection screen, shadows tell of the slant of sun and weather conditions, but also convey the time of season by their relative thinness or density. Revealed as well by swaying shadows is the presence of wind, painting walls with a fluttery time that derives from the sky but whose tempo is not the same as the sun.
SPLASHES OF SUN
When a low, and almost horizontal, beam of sun penetrates into a shadowy room, at daybreak or sundown, its patch of light takes on a spellbinding presence, as does its slow progression around the walls. Set against empty planes and placid space, the concentration of energy appears to the eye as a luminous figure, and constitutes a metaphysical reality that is more real at that moment, and throbbing with life, than anything around it.
COEXISTING TIME STATES
Adjoining white rooms with contrasting window orientations foster a multiplicity of time states. Windows might illuminate one space with warm sun, while its neighbor is coolly washed with violet sky, or cast bluish-green by light filtered through trees, making the different moments of waxing and waning energy simultaneously visible. These celestial hues grow in presence, as they are mutually intensified in the human eye through simultaneous and successive contrast, making yellows appear yellower and violets more violet than they actually are.
Dispersions of sun off highly reflective and warm-colored floors can completely transform a simple white room. The faintly yellow rays become further tinted when bouncing off floorboards of unpainted pine, or coatings of paint that are reddish-yellow or yellowish-red. At the same time, enigmatic rising shadows are cast from below and, due to the floor's mirror-like finish, bright spots ricochet onto ceilings to double the brilliance. As this golden light reaches into every corner, the room is bathed in an ambient hue that Shakers identified with heaven.
REVOLVING LIGHT & COLOR
The space of a Shaker meetinghouse is described, in a Sister's diary in 1837, "as if the windows of heaven were open and showers of blessings descended upon us, yea more than we had room to receive." One can almost follow these showers with a human eye, tracking the revolution of sun, as its slanting rays glide over objects, and alter hue, in a continuous circuit from dawn to dusk. With its ring of windows, framing successive moments in the solar course, the meeting room creates a greater world of space, and, in doing so, makes an unintended but telling analogy with ancient circles of stones linked to the sky, such as Stonehenge in Britain, or the Medicine Wheels of American Plains Indians.
Excerpted from Stillness & Light by Henry Plummer. Copyright © 2009 Henry Plummer. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Henry Plummer is Professor of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he is also an associate of the Center for Advanced Study. He is author of Poetics of Light, Light in Japanese Architecture, and The Architecture of Natural Light.
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