Modernist guru Mies van der Rohe is supposed to have said that ‘God is in the details.’ But that dictum doesn’t only apply to modernist design, of course.
When looking at images of Felbrigg Hall recently I found these amazing shots by David Kirkham, which zoom in on details of objects and surfaces in the house.
From an objective, rational viewpoint, these ‘things’ – and the collective thing that is Felbrigg – are the direct and indirect evidence of history, of the coming and going of different generations who left successive layers of objects and decorations.
But quite apart from the causal relationships between objects and events, the different textures, shapes and colours in the house also seem to communicate with us on a more subliminal level.
The myriad material factors in a house like Felbrigg, and the juxtapositions between those factors, are simultaneously deliberate – in reflecting the choices of specific people at specific points in time – and random – in that they represent not one moment of taste but many, and that some evidence has inevitably been lost or erased over time.
The result is perhaps similar to what Marcel Duchamp called the ‘art coefficient’, the effect that art has on the viewer: an arithmetical relation between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed.
In the context of a historic house we would probably call that ineffable coefficient the ‘spirit of place’.
And to that immensely complex body of material evidence we then need to add the subjectivity of the visitors, each of whom is unique and brings yet another set of factors into the equation.
So, paraphrasing Mies, we might say that the spirit of place is in the details: in our unique, subjective reactions to the innumerable sensory impressions as we move around a historic house.