How many of us, as kids, could resist the temptation to climb the stairs in a strange house to see what was "up there"? Now that we’re grown, we suppress these kinds of urges for the sake of propriety, but they still exist in our subconscious minds, and can be drawn upon quite subtly by a clever designer.

In architecture, spaces that draw on the human sense of curiosity are said to have mystery — they foster the creation of drama or suspense by alluding to architectural spaces or features while keeping them partially concealed.

Mystery can subtly entice us toward a particular space. Let’s suppose there are two hollow 8-foot-square cubes about 10 feet away from you. The front of one is open, so that the interior is completely visible. The front of the other has only a 2-foot-square aperture at the center, so that the interior is largely concealed. Which cube will attract you more?

Most people will approach the enclosed cube precisely because they can’t see what’s inside. Likewise, an architectural space that’s immediately comprehensible presents little challenge to the mind — it simply isn’t as interesting as a space that keeps us guessing. And although entertainment is not a designer’s primary charge, an intriguing space is inevitably more memorable than one that simply functions.

Here are a few ways to evoke a sense of mystery in your own designs:

1. Allude to the destination. For example, the head of a staircase often disappears up the stairwell so that we can’t see its termination. Yet the presence of the staircase obviously implies a space above and arouses our curiosity. If the destination is obvious, it holds much less interest — we already know what’s "up there."

Small interior balconies and other openings opening into a room can also hint at the existence of spaces beyond. This entices the viewer to reach them, all the more so if the means of access isn’t obvious. 

2. Provide tantalizing glimpses of rooms or areas in the home, rather than making them obvious. A room that immediately reveals itself is disappointing to the mind’s sense of curiosity. By carefully considering sightlines during the planning stages, you can control the views from one room into the next, so that the spaces unfold in an intentional and effective order. Columns and screen walls can also be used to alternately reveal and then conceal the destination without "giving away the store."

3. Manipulate light levels. Here, contrast is the key to creating mystery or drama. Try to play light against dark — the effect of a bright, sunlit room will be redoubled if it’s approached from a dark and mysterious one, and vice versa. A uniformly bright or uniformly dark series of spaces will lack this counterpoint.

At night, dimmers can help provide dramatic artificial lighting. Indirect lighting is especially effective in creating a subdued or mysterious effect. Of course, bright light should always be available when needed for cleaning and maintenance.

One caveat: Use these techniques with a bit of restraint, or your interior may end up feeling like the set of a Hitchcock thriller. Subtlety, not theatrics, is the key to creating mystery.

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