It is surprising that so few Japanese architects have attempted to translate these mobile powers inherited from the past into a language suited to current materials, technologies and tastes. One of the few exceptions is Shigeru Ban, most simply and theatrically in his Curtain Wall House in Tokyo, a cube whose open corner is protected by a huge curtain. The two-storey membrane of white fabric, which Ban acknowledges ‘takes the place of sho/i and sudare screens’,59 can be pulled closed for privacy or drawn back to open the house up to the city and aerate its interior in summer.
In a series of subsequent houses with transformative themes, from the 2/5 House in Hyogo to the Wall-less House in Nagano, Ban installed a range of mutations. Especially changeable is his Nine-Square Grid House in Hadano, its entire volume sandwiched between roof and floor planes, and two facing side walls, allowing the interior to be opened or closed according to seasonal and functional demands. Sliding partitions, stored in the hollow side walls, can be easily inserted and guided along a grid of tracks. Completing this fluctuating network are removable sliding-glass doors on the north and south sides, allowing the entire house to be subdivided into rooms or opened into a single pavilion, fused with nature – a sleek white abstraction of the traditional house.
Paralleling, if never quite reaching, the subtlety, diversity and scope of their Japanese counterparts are a number of ingenious kinetic elements developed in the vernacular decorating of the West. Each is cleverly devised and suited to its purpose, while transcending productive use through its range of control and kinesthetic rewards. Something beyond work occurs when the simple opening of a door or window stimulates our creative faculties, with pleasing but uncertain effects that infuse labour with playful delight.
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Magnifying the significance of these modest actions woven through air is the reality that a door or window is never merely a physical threshold, but also forms, as Bachelard has stressed, a ‘psychological threshold’ where complex fears and desires mingle. The dual hinged panels of a traditional Dutch door, combining the behaviours of a door, window and gate, to take a simple example, may have been invented to keep animals out and children in, while allowing the passage of light and air. But it also governs a primeval balance of security and adventure, feelings of shelter from external threat and of being in touch with the world. Control over this great rhythm of retreat and outlook, which resonates deep in the human psyche, allows the mutations to far exceed their more obvious physical and practical benefits. Furthermore, the operator’s body is drawn into a highly resourceful and supple action as it manipulates dual latches and, in some cases, bolts that retract and slide back in place, or a door-wide bar to be lifted out and later returned.
Similarly, the opening of a well-crafted door from the past is rarely a bland or bodiless manoeuvre. The operator becomes intimately involved with the door’s own weight and inertia, the sensory meeting of knob or handle with the skin and joints of the hand, the momentum of its mass and the unpredictable muscular tension needed to finally slow the door and bring it to rest. Often giving the eye and mind an extra dimension of enterprise is an array of devices used for security – the handling of multiple locks and keys, gripping and then sliding or twisting heavy bolts, manipulating clamps or levers and, for the visitor, grasping and raising a metal knocker whose impact when released produces a loud, often distinctive acoustic event.
Analogously the operation of a doorbell need not be reduced to a small button with a preset sound, as demonstrated in the Bavarian town of Rothenburg (p. 82), where arrival is announced by manipulating a marvellous doorbell unique to that building, and in some cases choosing among multiple doorbells that ring at various levels inside. Smooth brass or wrought-iron handles cast into sensuous shapes appeal to human flesh, inviting fingers to wrap around them, fitting the hand – a wonder of human evolution, with some of the densest nerve endings on the body and the richest source of tactile feedback – about a plainly voluptuous object, and then pulling down on a thin metal cable attached to bells that ring above, inside or out. The muscular act of gripping and tugging, and precise degree to which one pulls or repeats the motion, sets off a slightly different intensity, rhythm and duration of chime. Compared to the sterile and programmed sound of an electric doorbell, triggered by the meagrest touch, Rothenburg’s doorbells exalt the human deeds they foster, while rewarding them with sensory pleasure.