It’s been said that the essence of beauty is a pattern containing fluctuations. In other words, the human mind likes to have a handle on the overall aesthetic pattern, but it also longs to be challenged by fluctuations or unexpected changes in that pattern. That’s where the element of surprise comes in.
In architecture, surprise entails the use of unexpected spaces or elements. The real trick is knowing when to break the pattern — which isn’t as simple as it sounds. A design full of nothing but odd and unexpected elements won’t be seen as beautiful, but rather as simply disorienting or bizarre. Rather, a good designer gives us an unexpected fluctuation just when we think we’ve figured things out — keeping the expected pattern always at hand as a reference point, and only then deviating from it.
Here are some ways to add surprise to your own designs:
1. Add unexpected forms, recesses or features. Something as simple as a niche in a hallway can provide interest to an otherwise routine space. For example, homes of the 1920s often featured a small arched recess off of the entry containing a set of doorbell chimes. These kinds of touches are inexpensive, but can go a long way toward making a space more memorable.
2. Vary floor levels. Break out of the two-dimensional mold of conventional floor plans by including raised or sunken areas. Overlooks from higher to lower levels are also an excellent way to add interest, for just as people like to explore, they also like seeing where they’ve been. Especially effective are overlooks where they’re least expected — from bedrooms or other upstairs spaces.
3. Vary ceiling height. Ceilings can also frequently benefit from breaking out of the two-dimensional doldrums. Once again, contrast is the key: Very low ceilings can be intentionally oppressive and claustrophobic, while high ones give a great sensation of spaciousness and release. Hence, a narrow, low-ceilinged passage that unexpectedly opens into a huge, soaring space wrings the maximum possible drama from this transition.
4. Introduce unexpected views. Asian designers have long utilized the technique of "framing" a view from selected places within a room, rather than exposing the entire wall of the room to it as we often do in the West. They recognize that, just as we grow inured to the sound of ocean waves, we soon grow numb to even the most beautiful view if we’re constantly exposed to it. Framing a view has the effect of renewing our appreciation for it, so that it remains a recurrently delightful surprise to the senses.
5. Use mirrors to make spaces look bigger and more dramatic. Integrate them into the architecture so they’re not just hung on the wall like a picture. Try using mirrors at the backs of niches, above high wainscots, or in places where they’ll reflect columns or other architectural features — that way, you get two features for the price of one. Just don’t place mirrors where confused people might run into them. That’s not the kind of surprise you’re after.