From that first stretch of morning light streaming through the bedroom window to the ride in a cab with its smudged, half-rolled down windows to the never-ending rows of office windows. These polygonal holes in the walls surround us as portals to our moods, beliefs, and lives.
What are windows?
In the beginning, perhaps it was simply the empty gap left in the wall, made to let in the fresh air and light indoors. Then we added a filter of a windowpane that let in light and heat and kept everything else out. Surrounded by the safe and confining walls, the window became an aperture to enjoy the outside from within. To soak in fragments of sunlight, watch the first snowfall of the year, listen to whistling wind, wave hello, and say goodbyes. The window is an interruption in the path of the walls. Yet, despite the emptiness of the bare walls surrounding it, the windows shape the rooms filling them with light, air, beautiful sights, sounds, and memories.
But as windows beautify the walls, they become the most vulnerable points of building structures. A favorite access point for thieves and a target for angry mobs, windows become the canvas for violence. Riots and protests begin with a broken window. When anger fuels a crowd, they go for the windows. Is it a primal instinct to destroy in anger what was once a means of seeing the light? Or is it strategic that violence — often a show of power and strength — is directed towards these weak spots in structures and walls?
The growing complexity of human existence has rendered windows with new meanings other than being simple elements of building structure. Even within the context of building and architecture, windows play a significant role in the display of artistic creations. The skylight, the bay, the French, the attic – all categories of windows that serve a certain experience and hold unique places in stories and books.
The transformation of the window with decorative frames and colored glass is a testament to the evolution of human aesthetics. With time the windowpanes have changed, going from flattened animal horns, marble and paper to almost exclusively translucent materials like plastic and glass; as technology progressed and we learned to manipulate glass, steel, and stone and style these structures. Windows became artwork portraying the culture, society, and people.
Windows to the spiritual world
So much of the window’s shape and form was determined by one’s relationship with light. Within the buildings of worship where the light was so often associated with God, the window became the source of the divine itself. And it had to look the part. The Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Iran has sixteen screen windows in its massive dome to filter light (the divine) into this sacred space. But what could have been a simple window shows deep, the intricate latticework of curving vines in absolute symmetry, so fragments of light hit the opposite wall in delicate shapes. It was never just about bringing the divine in; it was always about doing it beautifully. The imagery of Notre Dame de Paris and the rose window are inseparable. The massive flower-like window is not just a marvel in stained glass but also depicts scenes from the life of Christ as well as other saints, martyrs, and angels. Here, the window is not just a passive part of the cathedral wall but an active propagator of its belief.
Windows in Art and Literature
The gradual shift in focus during the Renaissance, from spirituality to nature, found even new ways to look at the window — or rather through it. The frame went from a structure holding a window in place to the borders of a scene, a whole picture with a specific perspective that artists delighted in. It became a lens to enjoy nature through. On the canvas, windows started as sources of light in the backdrop and then slowly became more central. Important scenes in paintings played out in windows, the subject’s emotions — whether waiting or yearning or musing — were tied to the placement of the window. It became an integral part of the composition. Some used it to link the inside and the outside; some used it to put them in contrast. Some painted it as a means of escape, some as a symbol of hope and freedom. Matisse used broad strokes of paint to obscure the border between inside and out — it’s the same atmosphere, he said. Duchamp blackened a window’s panes as a reflection of harsh reality. Magritte used broken shards of the window pane to prove that imitation of reality can never be the same as the original. A hundred different ways to look at and understand windows erupted through the dependable hands of art.
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And one of the most beautiful sights of windows is not in all its multifaceted glory, not in a close up of carved frames and smooth cut glass, but in its simple solitary beauty as a pinprick of light. Pinpricks of light appear along rows of buildings forming a cohesive structure that rises and falls like the breath of a living being — the cityscape, whose body is formed with hundreds of squares and rectangles lighting up from offices, shops, homes, as the walls themselves fade into a unified blackness. A glance from the window seat during nigh time take-off and landing catches the darkness bringing the cities alive meters below the plane. The lit-up dots stretching high up on the horizon of the city skyline become aspirational goals that one wishes to reach someday.
We play around with the knowledge that windows give us. A sneak-peek into the lives of another is a fascinating thrill. The apartment in the neighboring building has a room with green walls. There is a peacock feather hung up on one side. Where is it from? Who put it up there? Windows allow you to craft tales and thrilling adventures, even to make up lies. “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?” Romeo may not have uttered these words, may not have seen Juliet in the image of ethereal beauty far above him, had she not been standing at a window. The very confines of the window — letting only a part of Juliet ever be accessible to Romeo and never all of her — is the scene’s charm. The attraction of the romance lies in its yearning and unreachability. This concept has been thoroughly explored in myriad ways. Hitchcock’s restless photographer Jeff can’t let go of his need to look through a lens when bedridden at home. He obsesses over the glimpse of his neighbor’s lives seen through the numerous windows around him and gets embroiled in a murder mystery. A. J. Finn’s bestseller novel ‘The Woman in the Window’ features a plot around what Anna Fox sees (or thinks she sees) through a window. Her limitation — acute agoraphobia that keeps her within the house with windows as the only access to the outside world — is what keeps you turning the pages of the book. The window is a perfect accessory for a thriller, teasing them with a bit of information and letting them find out the rest.
The symbolism of windows
The window is as much a literary device in real life as it is on the pages of books or screens. The commercial district of any major city is staged with the props of soaring skyscrapers creating a distinctive image of power, success, and affluence constructed through the shining walls of glass windows. The windows are not for viewing; they are the view – making up the walls and becoming a primary element of the structures of modern progress.
Windows symbolizes affluence and poverty, safety and insecurity. Covered in fairy lights, they suggest festivals, plastered with paint; they are blacked out during the war. A candle at the window symbolizes mourning; pelting at windows reflects insult, while bouquets left below the window show affection. We speak through the windows.
We took an essential architectural feature and turned it into a language. Windows are not just windows; they are stories, philosophies, and rewards. In a screen-lined world where we dig deeper into our metaverse, a window is always there to escape. Looking outside the window – it is good for the eyes.
Author: Rati Pednekar;
[Creative Writing, University of Birmingham, Metadata]
Illustration: TDLM Design Team