In their most narrow sense, niches are the professed specialization areas marketing experts tell us to pursue. Like a well-trodden path, is it singularly bound with little perspective. Enter the architectural niche, it’s almost forgotten cousin. While indeed also a focus point, the niche is hardly limited in its imaginative appeal. Rather, it is a destination mark, more like a whirlpool than a dead-end. Here, the ornamental artist with poetic license creates secretive, whirling, cup-holds of space, suitable for only the most special of visual accompaniments. How wrenched a word is worked.
“Society is one vast conspiracy for carving one into a kind of statue likes, and then placing it in the most convenient niche it has.” Randolph Bourne’s multi-faceted pun accurately expresses the lack of individuality these metaphorical niches create. Though no statue, the individual is tagged by society to fit within a specific mold. It is a static image, if you will. Conversely, though concrete and highly unmovable, the architectural niche is fluid in design and imagination. It is a decorative embellishment that is limited by few restrictions.
Nowadays, niches articulate a space upon which the eye can both rest and delight. No longer just delegated to a church or official building, they beautify and enhance many homes. Though one may feel compelled to fill it with a vase of flowers or statue, left empty, this carved recess still strikes a seductive pose. Usually set into a wall, it is a carving into space as opposed to a relief embellishment. It is a leading into a unique, highly individualistic eccentric unexpected area. Here, it becomes a destination point , centering and balancing that which surrounds it. As an architectural flourish, it naturally draws in the eye.
While most tend of think of niches as being curved, the modern niche has its own linear profile. Straight, square and rectangular shapes are not uncommon. Traditional niches are usually adorned with all types of classical motifs, including keystones and ribbon-type mouldings. Narrow or wide, deep or shallow, tall or short, niches vary vastly in form. They can range in size as much as they can differ in material. Some are made of stone, others from plaster, some from sheetrock, and yet others still from composite materials such as polyurethane. Some are sheathed in glass, others swathed in fabric. Some are painted, other made of metal.
Some so large, they are subtly disguised alcoved rooms. Perhaps, the bay window may be viewed as such, as it seems to fit comfortably within that niche. As Michael Zimmer of Balmer Inc. (one of the foremost and excellent fabricators of gypsum niches) notes, “Wall niches have been a popular decorative element since ancient times and were often used as architectural embellishments in churches and other classical buildings. Even today, architects and designers will incorporate them into their work, adding style and character to a modern home, while expanding display space without requiring one to add more furniture.”
Adding a sense of Drama
How light is reflected or provided is one of the niche’s most interesting attributes. Like a whirlpool, light swirls around the curves of the recess. The niche seems to capture the nearby light, culling it from its contiguous walls. Most often, however, a light is placed within. When perched on the top of the niche recess, it highlights what is poised below, adding a sense of drama.
Most interestingly, niches enlarge a room by creating perspective and an almost false sense of depth. Though, indeed, there is a physical depth, it is sometimes so slight as to almost appear on a plane with the wall. Yet, one senses that depth, as the eye tends to move comfortably within its void. Here, like the reveal, it is the void that appears to create a more significant impact.
While niches tend to be found most usually on staircases and entry foyers, they fit comfortably almost anywhere, anywhere where there is a semblance of symmetry and proportion. Creating an aura of mystery and drama, niches surprise and delight, adding character and individuality to any carved space.