The Oculus

Cupola under construction

 We designed the inside of our dome as an upside-down house.

The downstairs would be divided up into two bedrooms, a utility room, and a large bathroom. The kitchen and living areas would be upstairs––the small kitchen in the center. Mark’s ham shack would occupy a quarter of the pie, at least as much as would be left after taking a bite out for the kitchen, stairwell, and deck. My little art studio would fit into another piece of the pie, the same size as the ham shack. Another quarter would be our sitting area and the fourth a dining area. The dome structure itself (44 feet in diameter) would rise up and over us. It would cover us––no walls dividing up the upstairs areas––just openness.  It would be topped off with a 5-sided cupola.

Cupola finished

The cupola seemed like a wise idea. It would give us windows to open to let the hot air escape out in the summer, and cool breezes in. It brought extra light in. Our carpenters built a dropped floor and added a “temporary” wooden ladder so we could go up there and look at the view from all sides and to open and close the windows. It’s also served at times as a sleeping loft for grandchildren.

But I wonder what it would be like if we didn’t have a cupola but had put in an oculus (“eye”) such as they had in the Pantheon in ancient Rome. Its dome was one of the largest ever built back in the early 20’s BCE. It still stands. At the top of its dome is this round oculus which lets a large shaft of light come down inside. The light changes its angle during the course of the year to illuminate various statues all around its interior. This oculus is open to the heavens. Rain and sometimes snow fall down through it and are carried off by drain pipes below the floor.

Oculus in the Pantheon

Imagine having an “eye” looking down on us from the top of our dome. Our oculus would have to be covered with glass––we need no rain pouring down on us, nor snow piling up on the floor. And it would not be round but in the shape of a pentagon. I visualized the warmth of the sunshine beaming through and illuminating the wooden triangles of the dome’s interior.  It would, however, be directly over the kitchen and more than likely the “eye” would be watching me as I chopped celery, made sandwiches, poured juice, wiped up the counter, and cooked.

I, in turn, could look up through the oculus. I could watch the clouds pass over, the leaves flutter and dance across, birds stop by to peer in or just to rest, the rain splash down, the stars on a clear night, the moon on rare occasions, the glow of early mornings, and the fog rolling by. But what about all the leaves that would stick to it? Who would sweep them off? And the snowflakes? Would they just skitter over the top and go on their way? I doubt it knowing the winters we have here. One by one they’d land. Higher and higher they’d pile up. Then the “eye” would close and would remain asleep for the winter. It wouldn’t be able to watch me in my kitchen. I couldn’t look up through it. Its light would be turned off. There would be nothing up there to see but darkness.

Cupola from inside

I instead look up from the kitchen at the underside of the cupola and see the beautiful cherry wood panels of the pentagon, designed and built by our carpenters. They didn’t just make the bottom flat, but brought the triangles down at a slight angle to meet at a point. I remember when I first saw it how amazed I was. The cupola floor seemed to float over the room––it was a piece of art, a piece of sculpture. It still is. It still floats.

The five small rectangular “eyes” above in the cupola don’t see me in the kitchen while I work. Instead they each face sideways looking in different directions. They let the breezes come in, the summer heat go out; they protect us from rain and snow. Their light comes in––their “eyes” are always open throughout the seasons.

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