Seeing the fascination of the children peeking into the Illumaison lantern houses at the German Christmas Market in Mountain View reminded me of the simple magic of miniaturized houses.
Of course, a large part of what makes the Illumaison houses so special is the stained glass effect, the light streaming through gem colors. But another reason is the universal fascination with a house made small. I am not referring to the functional dollhouse, which is large enough to accommodate furniture and dolls, but the tiny house, which cannot fit anything in it except a child’s thoughts. A miniature house does not offer enough space for physical objects, but is hospitable only to the eyes and to the imagination. When a child is arrested before an Illumaison lantern, I see his fancy padding around quietly inside, then unfurling, and flying about outside, like a fire fly.
What is it about a miniature house that is so evocative for a child?
It’s thought that Saint Francis of Assisi was the originator of what in English we call the “nativity set,” referring to the recreation of the manger, farm animals, wise men, shepherds, and Holy Family. At Christmas, these representations of the scene of Jesus’ birth–the “Belén” in Spanish (literally, the “Bethlehem”) or “crèche” in French (literally, crib)—pop up all over the world. They range from elaborate, realistic depictions that encompass the entire city of Bethlehem to crude or abstract approximations of a shed, a sheep or two, and the Holy Family. At the beautiful neo-Gothic St. Willibrord’s Church in Utrecht, Netherlands, we set the Illumaison chapel next to a life-sized nativity set.
Compare this to the crude set on sale at St. Martin’s Cathedral’s gift shop, also in Utrecht. This Cathedral–which has had its Gothic stained glass shattered, its statues decapitated by Protestant iconoclasts, and which partly collapsed in a tornado–offered perhaps the least inspiring tiny house of our journey to Europe.
I have written elsewhere in this blog about the Lichthaus, the small house sculpted out of clay, painted, and then baked in a kiln.
Then there was the Dutch version by Delft, which was glazed and fired china. Notice how the Dutch miniature house conjures up the fairy tale quality of the real Dutch home with its elongated proportions and whimsical design features.
During my travels to the Far East, I found a few other versions of the magical small house in Taipei, Taiwan, and Manila, Philippines. Near the Yongle Market in the oldest part of Taipei, Dadaocheng (大龍峒), I found a store on one of the narrow alleys full of tea shops, medicinal herbs, and chic shops in the Sino-Japanese aesthetic that characterizes Taipei. Art Laser Unique produces little houses made with laser cuts in the early twentieth-century colonial architecture of the area. Whereas the lichthaus and the Illumaison are lit up, and the rauchhaus is filled with incense, these little houses have music boxes in them.
Manila’s Spanish colonial section, Intramuros, literally means “between the walls.” Across from the San Agustín Church, a Baroque and neoclassical sanctuary that goes back to the sixteenth century, is an enchanting boutique called, The Papier Tolé Shop. Like the Philippines itself, which feels like a piece of Latin America in the Orient, the Papier Tolé Shop blends the European and the oriental. The merchandising is fanciful, putting a French miniature house at the feet of two wooden statues of Don Quixote and in the shadow of a legion of Chinese bronze figurines.
A cluster of German Fachwerk houses made of composite wood and printed laminate paper was placed next to a Chinese doll of a man dressed in silk.
Across the shop was a pop-art house with strips of multi-colored glitter, a magazine photograph of a young housewife, and crank windows. There is nothing of the fairy-tale, but a great deal of kitsch. One has to wonder whether this postmodern take on a miniature house is meant to, as Ortega y Gasset says about art after 1917, signify nothing transcendent or magical outside of its own weird materiality. But even this little house, unromantic as it is, cannot help stir my imagination, as all these little houses do.
What is it about a little house that gets the imagination going?