A Window Place

I’ve had a long love affair with windows. As a child I spent endless dreamy hours curled up in the window seat of my second floor bedroom, watching the play of birds and squirrels in the little side garden below, along with the occasional guilty spying on my neighbors, whose patio was easily observable from my secret perch. In winter, my front window often framed a world buried in a foot or more of snow, an unexpected delight and message of possible freedom from the requirement of school that day. This magical vision was always followed by an early morning family gathering around the radio to listen to the list of school closings in our small town; and then the whoops of joy and a mad dash for snow clothes and sledding equipment–my mother calling out her predictable warning that no one would be allowed to leave without breakfast.

All of this is neatly folded into my memory in a file marked “windows.”

So what is it about windows that holds this special allure? Often referred to among feng shui practitioners as “the eyes of a home,” windows create places of connection between the outside world and the inside world. So of course, we want them to be clean. (Dirty windows are like looking through dirty glasses.) That’s the most common feng shui advice. But there’s more.The placement and shape of windows influences the ease, (or lack of it,) of how we interact with the outside world. A window can “frame” our attitude. And while most of us have an instinct for what makes a user friendly window–one we want to sit next to, one that encourages the wonderfully creative activity I like to call “sitting and staring,”–it’s interesting to break the pattern of “perfect window” into its elements.

No one does this sort of thing better than the architect Christopher Alexander in his monumental book about buildings and design called “A Pattern Language.” This is the only book about feng shui I recommend anymore, even though Alexander is not a feng shui practitioner and the words are never even mentioned in his book. Even so, he knows more about the essence of feng shui (which is our reciprocal relationship to the environment,) than anyone out there. So here are some things that he has to say about windows:

1) Windows which create “places” next to them are not luxuries (think of your favorite Victorian writer nestled for hours in the comfy window seat of a large bay window overlooking the cottage garden below,) but are indeed necessities for every dwelling.

2) A window without such a “place” keeps the occupant in a state of perpetual conflict between the unconscious desire to sit down and relax, and the equally strong pull to be near the light. If all the comfortable places to sit are away from the window, there’s no way to resolve this conflict. The result is perpetual tension.

3) A “place” is an identifiable spot within a room. We can create this “window place” either structurally (bay windows, alcoves, window seats,) or functionally (a comfortable chair and table for your book and tea drawn up next to the window.)

It follows that one of Alexander’s rules for building and design is this:

“In every room where you spend any length of time during the day, make at least one window into a “window place.”

He has even given us the ideal ratio of window to solid wall in a room, and the ideal height for the sill (12”-14” on the first floor, 20” on upper floors.) I have some personal experience with this latter detail. I recently moved into an older house, built during a time when architects still had an old fashioned sense of the importance of windows. My southeast facing living room has a large multipaned window, just about the length of the entire front wall, overlooking the yard and deck. The sill is about 12” from the floor–too high to be mistaken for a door, but low enough to invite the creation of a “window place.” So this is where I have my reading chair and tea table–my “window place” for sitting and staring, a transition space between the safety and comfort of “inside” and the openness and possibility of “outside.”

Creating such a place only takes an understanding of the basic principles involved, and a willingness to allow for the possibility of future hours devoted to the lost art of daydreaming. Oh, and you may need to take up reading again; but that leads to another topic called “alcoves,” which we’ll get to on another day.

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