In many buildings constructed before 1950, the ceiling is the aesthetic focus. Even when the walls are plain or are devoted to practical purposes, the ceilings are available for decoration. Our eyes are drawn upward.
My two examples (quickly selected from a multitude of possibilities) date four hundred years apart and differ in materials, style, color, and most other respects. But both exemplify the ceiling as an opportunity for free play.
My contemporary example (below) is unfair: just a typical drop ceiling from an office. But I have noticed that even when an architect designs a contemporary space and the walls and floors are meant to be enjoyed, the ceiling is often an afterthought–an array of panels bearing a random assortment of sprinklers, lights, and audio speakers. It’s as if, by convention, one does not look at the ceiling when assessing a room aesthetically. In fact, it’s hard to find photographs online of fine contemporary rooms that even show the ceilings: photographers choose angles that conceal the upper plane.
This seems like a waste to me.