27 February 2013

At the window

Like January's, and in keeping with the season, this month's patterns are also focused on the home (visit this post for some background on Christopher Alexander's A Pattern Language, the book that has inspired this series). Just as we are growing restless and beginning to look outward again after these months of grayness, wind & rain, these patterns relate to the edge that lies between the cozy indoors and the world that's about to awaken outside our windows. 

In a blog post last April, I explained that when rearranging furniture, "My primary consideration is always to take advantage of the windows and the path of the sun—to allow daytime activities to be as close to the source of natural light as possible." I also mentioned that I make sure the windows are fully accessible because, "I love to watch the goings-on in the street & the slice of piazza that's visible from the apartment." While the apartment has seen countless re-arrangings in the months since, the windows continue to serve as the starting point.

First this month is pattern 164: STREET WINDOWS. This pattern explores how windows are not only important to the people inside the buildings, but also to the people in the street, and explains why streets only truly come to life when there are people at the windows as well. Alexander says this creates "a unique kind of connection between life inside buildings and the street,"  with people "hanging out of windows, laughing, shouting, whistling." Paints quite a picture, doesn't it? For some reason this conjures up the image of people hanging from their windows in the fashion of monkeys!

Yet this scene—people laughing, shouting & whistling at one anotheris not unusual for the street that our main windows overlook. A lady in the palazzo next to ours seems to carry on her entire relationship with one neighbor via her window; sometimes he's in the street, other times out on his terrace across the way. It's part of my routine to go to the window to wave to my daughter as she passes below the apartment on her way to school or to meet friends—handy since I often remember to tell her something, or even toss down a forgotten permission slip, snack or coins for a gelato. When my daughter's friends pass our building, they like to ring the bell and ask her to go to the window for a quick helloAnd, taking a cue from the nonne (grandmas) I see doing this occasionally, one time I motioned to my daughter and her friends, who were enjoying a picnic in Piazza Pitti, to come get a basket of drinks & treats I lowered down for them.

Alexander believes this pattern works best for buildings that are just a few stories high, so that people in the street and at the windows are still able to communicate with each other through gestures, words or by reading the expression on someone's face. Ground-level apartments present some limitations, since people that near to the street are more inclined to protect their privacy with curtains or shutters, but he proposes a raised alcove-type of situation in the vicinity of the window. This is generally not an issue here, as the piano terra tends to be devoted to more public spaces, like shops & cafés.

Alexander quotes a short story from Kafka's Contemplation ("The Street Window") to illustrate the beauty of the pattern:

Whoever leads a solitary life and yet now and then wants to attach himself somewhere, whoever, according to changes in the time of day, the weather, the state of his business, and the like, suddenly wishes to see any arm at all to which he might cling—he will not be able to manage for long without a window looking on to the street. And if he is in the mood of not desiring anything and only goes to his window sill a tired man, with eyes turning from his public to heaven and back again, not wanting to look out and having thrown his head up a little, even then the horses below will draw him down into their train of wagons and tumult, and so at last into the human harmony. 

Though I am not quite as solitary as the hypothetical man described, I do go through phases of not leaving the apartment for days on end (during a deadline, for example), and can very much identify with the importance of being drawn into the city's activity through the frame of my window.

Maybe I am also able to appreciate STREET WINDOWS because I've seen what happens when this seemingly simple pattern that we may take for granted is lacking. The place we stayed when we first arrived in Florence had a lot going for ita spacious apartment at the top of the building, with plenty of light & air, it was centrally located just one block from the lovely Piazza della Signoria and had a generous terrace. Yet I remember feeling cut off from the city because the top floor was set back from the street, which therefore wasn’t visible from either the windows or the terrace. I found it so frustrating to hear, but not see, the action on the bustling Via Calzaiuoli that ran along one side of the apartment! Considering how often I am drawn to the window now, I realize that being able to see what's going on is even more important to me than having a terrace (as wonderful as one would be).



In examining other patterns that stem from 'STREET WINDOWS', we are led naturally to pattern 180: WINDOW PLACE. Again, this one appears quite basic, but Alexander qualifies it by putting a familiar desire into words and offering examples of the pattern in use, as well as providing guidance in creating such a space. Based on an 'organic intuition'that people want to sit/be comfortable, and that they are drawn to the lightthe introduction to WINDOW PLACE is very simple: "Everyone loves window seats, bay windows, and big windows with low sills and comfortable chairs drawn up."

As with last month's 'pools of light', I find there's a certain poetry to many of the pattern names. I'm drawn to any concept that involves the word 'place'; it implies somewhere I want to go, somewhere I want to be. Add a window to that place, and my imagination is immediately hooked. In the case of this pattern, Alexander defines a 'place' as being identifiable as a distinct area of the room and at least partly enclosed, even if simply by an armchair. Ideally, it will have a nicely-framed view and a low sill that lessens the separation between inside and out.

We could certainly do with more windows in our apartment; in part, this is because buildings in Florence are often designed with an eye toward maintaining a uniform pattern of windows on the street elevation. (The fact that floor height varies from one building to the nextas does the total height of each building, and in turn the roof lines—ensures that the streetscape still possesses a very appealing character despite the regularity of the windows' positioning.) Also, while we consider ourselves lucky to be on the top (i.e. brightest) floor, it is the piano nobile (American second floor) that typically has the tallest windowsand they become progressively shorter with each subsequent level. 

Still, we make the best of the windows we have. The main studio table gets the prime space in the room where I spend most of my time, with plenty of space around it so I can easily reach the window. In the living room, the armchairs are situated either side of the window, while, in her own room, my daughter has integrated the window with her bed 'place', where she does homework, reads & plays her guitar. (I love that you can see Santo Spirito's church bells flying back and forth in the bell tower through her window.) The kitchen window is probably the one that I appreciate the most; when this apartment was renovated a few years before we moved in, someone went to a lot of trouble to carve a small window from the extremely thick wall. Fortuitously positioned in front of the sink, it makes the tiny kitchen an infinitely more bearable place to spend time, and I love the view of the rooftops that recede toward the local hills (which are sprinkled with snow at the moment).



Yet a third pattern is intrinsically linked to the other two I've mentioned192: WINDOWS OVERLOOKING LIFE. If you have the luxury of designing a house or other building, this pattern will help you to plan the number of windows there should be, find the right positioning, and calculate their total area according to your geographical location. Like the other window-related patterns I've mentioned, its premise is very straightforward: if people are required to be in a space for any length of time, it must have windows. This seems obvious, but somehow rooms without windows do get built; bathrooms are a prime example. We've been lucky to have two bathrooms in most of the apartments we've stayed in locally, but it seems the bathtub is always in the one without a window (which means I nearly always choose a quick shower over a relaxing bath). I still remember how much I disliked college classrooms without windows. This may not be true for everyone, but I always found that windows made it easier for me to think, and test answers seemed to come more easily when my gaze could wander to the world beyond the four walls of a classroom. I still find my thinking to be freer in rooms with windows...




Some of the pleasures of living in a city apartment ended up working their way into a children's book manuscript I wrote a few years back, A House up in the Sky (which I have yet to find a home for). Here's an excerpt inspired by the life in the street below our own 'house up in the sky':
Caterina runs to the window whenever she hears something exciting going on outside. The narrow street below is full of life. Bells constantly ring out warnings as bicycles whiz past everyone: grown-ups rushing to work, students laughing and chatting on their walk to school, shopkeepers discussing the day’s news and exchanging the latest gossip. Caterina spots the owner of the little grocery store filling a basket attached to the end of a rope. Once the basket is ready, a woman hoists it up to her window and calls down her thanks. “Grazie, Mario!” she says, satisfied with the ingredients that she will turn into a tasty lunch for her family.

Plants and pretty handmade signs draw people’s attention to the many shops, and each morning the produce sellers set out the most tempting fruit and vegetables at their entrance, along with a little bench where they can sit during quiet moments.

Sadly, both the fruttivendolo (produce shop) and the alimentari (tiny grocery store) have closed since I wrote the manuscript. Though they have been replaced by other businesses, the street is not quite the same without these everyday shops.



I'm looking forward to the sunshiny days and warmer temperatures that spring will soon bring, and expect that next month's pattern(s) will start looking beyond the home, and out in the city.

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