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The Nature of Things

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This post began by revisiting some of my favourite windows but morphed into something else, bringing together some past themes as well as some more recent ones.

Rear garden window at Villa Beer, by Josef Frank, 1929

This window is all about enjoying a boundary rather than blurring one. This is a very Edwardian notion – until Spring comes around, why not enjoy the outside from the inside where there is heated seating? [c.f Architecture Misfit #33: Josef Frank, Architecture Misfit #35: Edwin Lutyens]

The study window at Casa Malaparte by Adalberto Libera, 1937-ish

Whether or not this house is the sole work of Libera or a joint effort with Signor Malaparte is disputed, but a window to illuminate a writing desk is a good call anyway. I’d always imagined this window facing west, so that when the sun was shining in one’s face it was time to put down the pen and go up on the roof. But no, it faces SSE. I’m sure the experience of writing at that desk is still magical, but my imagination conjured up something differently pleasant and not in sync with reality.

The round window of Blue Box by Mayumi Miyawaki, 1971

The bamboo is long gone now but, back in the day, I remember reading that the round window offered a view of Mount Fuji. I never questioned this, or suspected Mt. Fuji could probably also be seen from the living room below with its Eames lounge and ottoman, Achille Castiglioni Arco lamp, a fab circular conversation pit and modular wall unit housing a modular stereo with a reel-to-reel tape deck.

The round window I remember because of a story, possibly apocryphal, of some Zen master building a wall around a garden that would otherwise have had an expansive view of the ocean. At the bottom of the garden was a water fountain and, when one cupped one’s hands and bent down to drink, there was a hole in the wall from which one could suddenly view the ocean and, the story goes, realise that the water one held in one’s hands and the water in the ocean beyond were one and the same. I remember thinking I might resent being forced to think that each time I wanted a drink of water.

The round window in Blue Box is an example of something very simple and unaffected being understood as something greater and deeper than it really is or perhaps was ever intended to be. For me, that window is and has always been an essential part of that wall. I’ve never seen a photograph of the claimed view but, Japan being Japan, I’ve always imagined a view of Mt. Fuji something like this, only more circular.

I recently repeated myself saying symbols are just substitutes for the real thing but I’ve begun to think that’s not necessarily true. Sometimes a window may be just a window doing what windows do and not trying to be beautiful or deep or ambiguous. The window may have prompted our subjective associations and desires but it’s not the window’s problem if we see in it more than there was ever intended to be or more than what somebody paid for there to be. This leaves open the possibility for things that mean more to us than they cost to produce. This was the premise upon which Post Modernism was based – and it was true, at least until everybody caught on. [This is a topic that needs another post.]

Making things mean more to us than they cost to produce was never explored beyond making us pay more for something designed to have meaning.

Alessi has a lot to answer for.

The circular skylight at Uncompleted House, by Kazuo Shinohara, 1970

This is another of my formative windows. It’s a rooflight to an otherwise unlit internal passageway. There’s something more happening now. The rooflight is part of an axially symmetrical composition that, along with the double-height constriction creates that sensation we recognise as “formality”, especially when it gives axial direction to movement. (Formality doesn’t deviate or use side tracks.) This association would exist even if the roof light were square, rectangular, or octagonal. Moreover, there’s also a round, light-emitting thing above one’s head.

Construction details aren’t forthcoming, but one extant elevation and section suggest some sort of PVC dome covering (as the year was 1970). I’ll wager that constructing this circular rooflight cost only marginally more than a rooflight of any other shape. Aesthetically – i.e. in terms of those subjective ideas we can only argue about – it provides a lot aesthetic food for thought without costing very much. And provides some needed illumination to boot.

The circular windows of House in Uehara, by Kazuo Shinohara, 1976

Paired windows on a building are easily associated with eyes, especially when those windows are the only ones that are round and are positioned towards a rounded top of a building.

Smit House’, Gerrit Rietveld, 1946-49

It’s said the eyes are windows to the soul and the same can be said of windows. We look out. Other people look in. The association with eyes and the notion of looking out is just as strong, and in some cases even stronger, when it’s not even possible to look out or in.

In these two examples, the promised portals carry more weight than the actual ones but this is to stray from my point that any actual, real and functioning doorway shouldn’t have to be separated from its symbolic content.

Here’s a doorway you saw last week. Its functional content and symbolic content are so in sync that you’re some way inside before you even get to use the door. Much money and labour have been used to make both the doorway and the point it makes.

Doorway on Brewer Street, Campion Hall (1935-7) by Edwin Lutyens, Oxford

The three coloured glass apse windows at the World Peace Memorial Cathedral in Hiroshima, by Tōgo Murano, 1946

In April 2016 I wrote “It’s a church for remembrance and make you remember it does and there’s no doubt about what.” It’s easier to find comfort in the shape and colour of those red and blue windows rather than focus too much on that intensely disturbing slash of gold and red mosaic throwing the icon off centre and cutting through it, suggesting that for a few moments even Belief ceased to exist. There are more expensive ways to make a rose window but these ones take it back to basics.

• • • 

There are expensive ways of making things we appreciate but there are also things we can appreciate and that didn’t cost that much to make. I’m not arguing for a return to postmodernism selling us emotions packaged as things, but rather for meanings that have meaning despite the things that convey them costing not that much to make.

A doorway is always going to be an opening leading to another place, whether we see it as a gateway, portal or promise or not. A window is always going to be a window to see into and out of, whether it reminds us of eyes or not. Whatever the window and whatever the door, this symbolic content persists because it is part of what they are. Signifier and signified come as a package. If they didn’t we wouldn’t recognise a door in order to use it.

As a concept, this notion of an aesthetic value for money derived from the nature of things goes against the general expectation that something that’s been “designed” must cost more. Machines may have made it cost less to make a product but “Design” continues to make it cost more to buy. Aesthetic value for money will never be as popular a concept as Design for mass marketing turned out to be, but it can still be a useful one.

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Comments

  • A very interesting post, Mr. McKay that has brought Christopher Alexander’s ideas to mind twice. First, the picture of a window by Josef Frank is a perfect example of a “Window Place” (http://www.iwritewordsgood.com/apl/patterns/apl180.htm) and, then, a version of the story about the zen master appears in his “Zen View” pattern (http://www.iwritewordsgood.com/apl/patterns/apl134.htm). I know you are not a great fan of the man’s work but, to me, both “The timeless way of building” and “A Pattern Language” are among the greatest architecture books I have ever read.
    Best regards,
    Iago

  • Considering your usual content, I must say I’m very surprised by your appreciation of these kind of elemts. It’s good to keep an open mind.

    • says:

      Thanks Andrei. To be honest, I never stop thinking about things like this. I think it’s only when we understand them that we can finally be free from their power, and perhaps not waste time or money trying to achieve the unachievable. I’m planning to share what I think I’ve learned so far, in a couple of months. Until then.