Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Windows, panes and the hole damn thing
‘A hole,” said Henry Moore in 1928, “can have as much shape-meaning as a solid mass.” He would say that, I guess. And feminist scholars note that although Moore declared 1932 the Year of the Hole, Barbara Hepworth had already produced her first hole – and, although it may be unrelated, her first baby – a year earlier.
It’s easy to get tangled in hole talk, and not only because of the tempting double entendres. There’s also that weird figure-ground flip that can happen without your knowledge or permission, so you no longer know which is donut and which is hole. But, tangle or no, it’s hard to deny that Moore had a point.
Say, for example, you’re going on a meme hunt inside your brain, looking for whatever punches the mesh through which your thoughts and perceptions are filtered: try interrogating your photos. This is best done after a long trip, so there’s a decent body of images from which to distil your underlying themes, and of things other than the kids washing the dog. Best, too, to use snaps rather than your considered art-photos, which generally resemble something you saw in National Geographic 10 years back. And yes, it’s OK to try this at home.
In my case, the recurring theme, meme or motif is the hole. There’s the odd object: the burnished wooden submarine, hung pheasant or atrophied aristocrat. For these I thank the orthodontist’s waiting room. Broadly, though, I shoot holes: not many Moores (though some of his donuts I still rather like) but windows, doors, courtyards, squares, gates, porticos, streets, corridors, colonnades and entranceways of all kinds. So the question, for me and my analyst, is why? What is it, actually, about the hole?
Popular architectural wisdom, if that’s not an oxymoron, makes this a gender thing. Men, it is said, see objects; women see relationships between. (Admittedly, anyone with half a brain can counter this adage with the equally plausible “men do, women be”. Be that as it may.)
Socially, then, men see individuals (earning this, driving that, bedding the other) while women typically locate themselves, says the US academic Carol Gilligan, within a “web of attachments, affiliations, obligations and responsibilities”. Women read fiction, especially relationship fiction, men read documentary. Women read people-books, men read thing-books. In architecture, similarly, men emphasise the object while women focus on the space around and between: the hole.
This would make urban design – which typically casts buildings as space-shapers first, objects second – a feminised, if not feminist, pursuit. And perhaps it is so. Urban design is after all widely misunderstood (by its mainly male practitioners) as the designing of city buildings, when it’s really about designing spaces to sustain and vivify the relationship-web that equals “city”. Sadly, in so male a profession, the theory that women would do this differently remains untestable.
And yet, even in our increasingly female schools of architecture, the art of the hole remains largely untaught. No longer are students drilled in the fine art of making and embroidering the hole in the wall. No longer do they experiment with the hole’s infinite variety, its minutiae of meaning, its limitless capacity to charm, inveigle, ensorcell, forbid and repel, even at once.
Students may parse the obscure semiotics of the Corbusian strip-window versus the nuanced buttonholing of a Palladio or Hawksmoor. But the equally arcane craft of making a hole to carry its intended array of meaning – as well as the weight of superintending wall – remains largely unexamined.
This is odd, because so much of architecture’s enchantment, or failure to enchant, derives from the making and modification of the hole. It’s not just the practical and obvious functions, wherein openings are a building’s facial features, the windows on its soul, whose embellishments – lids, lashes and brows – modify light and resist environmental invasion as well as indicating mood, availability and scale.
Beneath all that, but easily forgotten in our threadbare obsession with project managers and cost consultants, is the witchery of architecture. Even classical architecture is essentially romantic; an exercise in otherness, a threshold.
And although the reality of transition may be disappointing, this Alice-in-Wonderland moment is the moment of architecture.
It’s the glimpse of the water-garden from the cathedral’s black interior; the worn oak stair disappearing inside the medieval stone doorway; the secret door into a priest’s hole, or a palace. It’s the enfilade courtyards of Paris or the crazy jumbled ones of old Berlin; the Swiss-cheese nature of Barcelona’s gothic quarter, more solid than void; the stroboscopic light through Wren’s Trinity library windows; the flung-open casements onto street or orange grove. The hole is Aladdin’s first glimpse of the cave.
And yet, for most contemporary architects, openings are little more than required practicalities. And ironically, as architecture drifts ever further Gehry-wards into fantastical pavlovas of fibreglass and titanium, the more emphatic the donut, the lesser the hole.
So for any student stuck on the next design project, remember.
The hole is not only where the light gets in. It’s what connects the noun, entrance to the verb, en-trance.