Shaker buildings have long been admired for their simplicity of design and sturdy craftsmanship, with form always following function.
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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 stunning photographs. The magnificent craftsmanship of the Shakers, who for two centuries were America's most successful utopian society, gave visible form to a firm belief that usefulness and holiness are one and the same. There was no separation between practical and sacred values in this evangelical sect, which reached its height in with nearly six thousand members in eighteen communities, set in rural and isolated locations from Maine to Kentucky.
A twofold striving for perfection, epitomized in the Shaker maxim, put your hands to work and your hearts to God, was manifested in everything they built—from a door to a window, a stair to a railing, a wall to a roof. Underlying this double vision was a desire to live in two different worlds—spiritual and natural—at the same time, and with equal intensity, for as Shakers believed, heaven and earth are threads of one loom.
Beyond its solid outer form, as simple and handsome as it is, Shaker architecture displays another, more elusive dimension where utility and theology merge—a pragmatic, yet also sublime treatment of natural light. Although Shakers themselves were reticent about explaining this preoccupation, their buildings exhibit a love and care for managing light that is unique in American architecture.
While good natural lighting was beneficial for everyday tasks, such as working and cleaning, the other, undoubtedly more profound source of Shaker passion for natural light was religious. Despite a contemporary bias toward emphasizing the material culture and social mores of Shakers, it must be kept in mind that Shaker ambitions were, at their core, divine rather than material or social.
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The appealing images of Shaker forms that meet our rational eyes today—superbly crafted boxes and chairs, walls and cabinets, floors and stairs—belie a far deeper purpose, and spiritual intent, which has nothing to do with material aesthetics or adoration. Modeling their ways after Christ, Shakers were engaged, rather, in a constant attempt to cast off possessions and become free of objects, stripping away the artificial wrappings of worldly culture, in order to get back to an ultimate state of.
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.
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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.
Stillness and Light: The Silent Eloquence of Shaker Architecture
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.
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.
These failed very properly to satisfy the home craftsmen or, for that matter, the professional cabinetmakers, especially when they found that when they followed or tried to follow the plans given, the results ended in outright failure, or frustration, or worlds apart from what they initially expected. John Kassay, a professor of wood technology in, of all places, California--a continent removed from Shakerism and its works-- caught fire with what could only have been divine inspiration.
Skilled in furniture design and construction, in the professional art of drafting, and also in the fine art of photography, he set for himself the goal of providing exquisitely drawn and meticulously detailed construction plans of all the various major forms of Shaker furniture. That he has succeeded in realizing this goal is amply proved in the following pages. To reinforce the drawings, he has supplied splendid. An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while. No cover image. Read preview.
Synopsis Of the more than one hundred experiments in communitarian living that proliferated in America during the nineteenth century, the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, whose adherents are best known as 'Shakers, ' is certainly one of the most interesting, successful, and enduring.
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