The Poetics of Windows

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The last couple of Fridays at the studio we’ve been engaging in design sessions to further explore and manifest ‘adaptability’ as both a process and product of architectural thinking. To focus this, we looked explicitly at ‘the window’ and asked: what could new unique expressions of a window beyond its immediately perceivable utility as a perforation between ‘interior’ and ‘exterior’ look like? Could it serve a more dynamic interface to some other use, another role, another experience? Could a window give walls and their relationship to each other in the space an unexplored revision of dimensionality? Can windows give a space new voice? Are there new links to be made between how a space and user can modify one another through the medium of the standard window? How might one not only express something macrophenomenal, like a connection to nature or the psychological framing for a specific context of memory, but actually amplify the space in an exponential way, or mediate some aspect of it cross-functionally?

These are just a few questions that got us started. The goal was to consider both doable and completely undoable reconceptualizations of the window through a series of attachments, morphed frames, kinetic prosthesis, and other mechanical and filter elements that would correlate differently with light, sound, visual framing, energy harvest, and insulation. Could we devise a simple but new relation to inhabitability?

The window has always occupied a unique place in the modern psyche particularly relative to the evolution of our sense of home, privacy, and safety. Windows of the church, the prison, the zoo, the military bunker, all carry vastly different but equally critical uses and meanings. They offer their own currency as a spatial dimension of power in each instance. Or a hospital: imagine the importance of a window to a patient—what can be done to turn the window into an empowerment device for those who depend on them?

Even the window inside a downtown urban San Francisco apartment is treated as a different object from a window attached to a Berkeley home overlooking the bay from the hillside. Inside the dense apartment people living together might crack and open the window to a noisy outdoors at varying degrees in order to allow a certain decibel level of street noise to infiltrate the space creating in essence a modified sound wall inside the unit. It’s used as insulation for privacy by tapping fields of white noise that help mitigate more egregious noise being produced from the other occupant inside the space, or even from a neighboring unit. Playing music or blaring the TV often serves this same purpose. There is also the wandering patch of light that travels across the space’s floors and walls as the sun moves throughout the day. Yet, could the window be used as another kind of mirror to further distribute light into places where the space never receives light at all; or, even as a way to keep a source of light fixed to a specific place all day long?

Windows have long served a basic modulatory device in regulating the ambiance of our immediate surroundings, could this be a source of expanding the window’s definition? The more we ponder windows’ multi-use potentiality, we might also consider an architecture that is moving away from windows altogether to a new space perforated by far more dynamic apertures. The window one day could conceivably become an antiquated feature of the past, evolving into another kind of active spatial piercing.

But, who wants to completely move past the classic window? Emily Dickinson, the great poet, wrote much about her experiences with her window as a kind of poetics of the soul. It was for her in many ways an architectural extension of her soul’s shell and the means of exposing and sharing that with the outside world. It also gave her an aperture for soaking up impressions from the outside, and certainly many of her poems were written in front of a window. In this insightful essay, Xiao Situ points to literary critic Diana Fuss who suggests that Dickinson’s bedroom was the most optically powerful room in the house – a “panoptic center.” That is to say, not only are windows often hierarchically placed but they exert on the viewer a kind of sense of being at the center of a universe.

The famous french philosopher Gaston Bachelard also associates the window as a metaphysical space of existential reflection whereby ‘in’ and ‘out’ are dialectically made visible in a single glance—as if the window itself is a necessary place to ponder alienation. And it hardly seems insignificant that Microsoft’s Windows once (if not still) served the operating system of our times as we’ve become increasingly a visually dependent culture, frames the basis for how we engage everything that is digital now. Let’s face it, in one way or another windows (virtual and physical) are a superior meme, a critical surface – a dominant interface. And despite the cliché we still acknowledge that the eyes are the windows into the living soul. What then about the soul of the architecture? Could the window be the eyes into the soul of a space? Or, could it just simply be or do something else in addition to its already vital use? Somewhere therein is a ripe space for design reflection. The window is a fascinating subject. Perhaps it will always remain an important metaphoric template for how we go on imagining our connections to everything around us, which makes considering how actual physical windows fixed in architectural space can function differently all the more profound and exciting.

Stay tuned for the next post which will highlight some of the ideas and prototypes we’re developing.

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