We use them every day, but they’re so familiar as to be hardly seen. Fabricated for very practical purposes, doorways are a necessary part of any building. But in their design and construction they convey messages that go well beyond the simplicity of their workaday purpose. So on a whim last week I walked around my neighborhood to see what I could learn by some careful and conscious looking at doors.
I began my ramble on streets lined with homes. With windows widely viewed as the eyes of a house, it struck me that a door is a kind of mouth, the opening by which everything is taken into the body of the structure. And the more I looked, blocking out the distraction of gables and chimneys which draw the eye upward, the more significant doors seemed. “The most important place on the house façade is the front door,” wrote architecture professors Charles Moore and Kent Bloomer over thirty years ago, a feature “belonging to and largely expressing public values, but ‘possessed’ by the house.”
Their early development is a measure of their importance, and doors predate windows, chimneys, foundations, steps and, of course, the wires and pipes so essential to modern living. No doubt they have always been needed to enter and exit, but doors were also once principal sources of light and ventilation, roles they still serve.
Besides residences, in twenty minutes on foot around Collinsville I passed doors to commercial, industrial, and public buildings. Some doors were welcoming and included windows offering a peek inside, or made statements with flags or wreaths tacked to them or nearby. There were also austere, featureless doors, just flat slabs of off-putting wood or steel, almost conveying a sense of foreboding. Some doors were surrounded by elaborate porches, creating friendly, inviting spaces. Even a small overhang above the door which offered shade in the heat and protection against rain seemed enticing.
Artistry and craftsmanship were the signature of many doors, belying their functional forte with decorative panels and moldings, pediments, sidelights and transom windows. Others conveyed grandeur in collaboration with columns or steep steps. By contrast, I saw overhead and large hinged doors in barns, garages, and factory buildings meant for vehicles, machines and equipment rather than people. They suggested a whole other realm of activity.
Plate glass was represented in residential sliders and commercial doors. The former were designed to bring a sense of the outside indoors while the latter were placed to draw trade by offering those outdoors a glimpse of enticements within.
It didn’t take long before I found myself looking not just at a structural building element, but at an expression of the inhabitants. Doors spoke of privacy, security, fashion, function and history. It seemed only natural that they are frequently used as powerful metaphors. Open or closed doors are common expressions of opportunity or its lack, and welcoming or unfriendly attitudes.
“The experience of entering a building influences the way you feel inside the building,” according to A Pattern Language, a philosophical architecture book published in the 1970s. Thus, ones attitude about a place may vary depending on whether the building’s accessed through the more formal front entry, a kitchen door off the driveway or, as is increasingly common, via the garage. In fact, front doors seem to be an increasingly vestigial element, so seldom used that many front walkways aren’t cleared of snow in winter.
Looking at doors can open whole new worlds of appreciation and understanding for the spaces we inhabit. If a short walk yields such a trove of structural and expressive variety, there’s no telling what we might uncover in the course of our regular routines.