Inside and outside meet at the external wall of buildings and in particular where the wall or frame defining the internal volume opens out to the wider world. There are parts of the world where the opening is left as just that, with shutters or curtains providing a degree of separation, protection from the rain or sun and a degree of security. Etymology reveals interestingly that the word comes from Old Norse ‘wind eye’ reflecting the idea of the unglazed hole.
For the most part these sort of conditions work in and around the equator. Where it gets more complicated is where we need to deal with temperature swings and associated environmental conditions, where the hole in the wall or frame has to moderate the conditions between outside and inside. The window becomes that moderating element, at one a seal and the other transparent. It has a huge range of roles, at one extreme historically, a characteristic of traditional buildings was to make the opening in the wall as small as possible whilst in contrast our modern sensibility in maintaining the inside outside linkage has continually sought to maximise these openings.
The physical effect of having to seal the enclosure between outside and inside, irrespective of the size, transforms the experience between inside and outside - how we work with that is the issue. At a point the window becomes not simply a transition but an element in itself. It has a remarkable series of roles transparency of course, in sealing the building, we have to deal with not suffocating ourselves and the window system plays a role as it always did in the past, then there is not throwing heat away and counter to that overheating, the greenhouse effect downside of glass. What we ask ourselves as designers then is how best to dignify this most important element of construction accepting the need to design within the limits and assumptions of current industrial production.
The Georgians showed us how in the triumph of their subtle delicacy of the sash window with its delicate glazing bars, and mouldings. The cathedral designers of the great ecumenical age developed a complex and beautiful metaphysics of light using stained glass. Our modern northern architectural heroes, Lerwentz amongst them, sought to make the window disappear by the use of huge single panes of glass whilst others such as Kahn created window boxes, variants on the window bay as spaces to occupy.
Echoing these variants, our work at the Theatre Royal sought to make the frame disappear to reveal the silhouette of the theatre goer in the bay window like frame of the Theatre Royal Crown, at Dollar Academy creating a cantilevered balcony to the view of the hockey pitch which is actually the corridor to the classrooms and at the smaller scale in our projects on Bute, sliding the window screen between the arrow slit apertures of the existing stone barn so the window frame disappears.
In dealing with all the technical aspects we need to remember the window makes us conscious of inside and outside. Crucially though the window makes us aware of light and as such it occupies a deeply symbolic and poetic place in the psyche. It is no coincidence that we describe our own eyes as ‘the window to the soul’.