Space for the Unseen
Many years ago, I was at my grandparents’ house when the thought occurred to me that they only had a front door and not a back. When I asked my grandmother about this, she said the back door had been sealed closed and showed me the spot off the kitchen where it used to be. I later learned that my grandfather held many superstitious beliefs, one of which was that he believed it to be bad luck to exit through a door he did not enter. While this may have not been the primary reason for sealing the door, it seemed rational to me as a child (if someone hated back doors then why have one in your own house?). The built environment has a unique connection to our beliefs and stories we tell about ourselves. From creaky floorboards inspiring ghost stories to attics being the location of lost treasures, our homes and buildings have always inspired beliefs in the magical.
In Hong Kong, many tall buildings have what have been called “dragon gates.” These holes are said to be a feng shui practice which allow dragons to pass through as they fly between the mountains to the sea. It is believed that blocking this path will bring the building and its residents bad fortune (a dragon crashing straight into the facade would definitely not be great). Proponents of this ideology cite Norman Foster’s HSBC Building for following feng shui principles and promoting successful business, while I.M. Pei’s Bank of China Tower ignores feng shui and has caused neighboring businesses to fail.
Concurrent to this, however, is the fact that the increasing density of Hong Kong was blocking air and sunlight. Building codes and governmental recommendations called for breaks in massive tower blocks and challenged the wall to wall building typology. The Repulse Bay Hotel built in the 80’s was the first building in Hong Kong to feature a prominent hole in its building mass. One theory is that to reconcile such an architectural oddity, the mythos of a passageway for dragons was fueled. Whether or not the pragmatic concerns or the mythical stories came first is difficult to say, because the two seem to have an inextricable relationship. After all, a dragon flying by could easily be mistaken as a breeze coming from the ocean.
On the other side of the world, an architectural quirk is meant to keep spirits out rather than let them pass through. Witch windows (also called coffin windows) are diagonal windows that can be found in New England farmhouses. Local legend says that witches cannot fly through diagonal windows on their broomsticks, so these windows help keep out the unwelcome guests. It’s unclear why this prevented witches from flying through a neighboring upright window, but then again Puritan superstition is not a science. Another explanation behind these windows is that they were used to move caskets out of the upper floor of these houses as the stairs were very narrow. If you look at an image of one of these windows and ask how they could get a casket down from there, I’ll reiterate … they weren’t exactly scientists. Likely, these windows are probably the result of extensions to these houses on the first floor whose dormer covered up an existing window. The need for light and air forced the owners to relocate that window in the residual space along that wall. But witches make for a better bedtime story.
Isn’t this really what lies at the heart of architectural theory itself? A belief in the magical powers embedded in architecture? That harmonic proportions align us with the stars or that the placement of a column can be equated with human subjectivity are examples which have driven our thinking for centuries. A simple mirror in an Adolf Loos building has enough metaphorical power to fuel an entire Thursday night lecture. While there is a deep cultural value in these stories we tell, there is a reason that architects don’t bring them up in client meetings. Architects now much prefer the pseudo-science of data analysis and anything that can vaguely be described as “sustainable.” There’s still a need for storytelling, but it seems that our stories are becoming less magical and more real.
In all reality, my grandparents’ back door was probably filled in for practical reasons. They lived on a hillside and the house used to have a back staircase which at some point had become structurally unstable. Instead of rebuilding the stairs, they decided to tear down the stairs and close off the doorway. Even so, I can’t help but draw a connection between the physical oddities of my grandparents’ house and my grandfather’s superstition, because our buildings shape (and are shaped by) our belief systems and cultural values, in a constant feedback loop. Even if a diagonal window is simply meant to let in some sunlight, the stories it can tell are just as powerful.
Abramovich, Chad. “The Vermont Character: Coffin Windows.” Obscure Vermont (June 2016): https://obscurevermont.com/the-vermont-character-coffin-windows/.
Lo, Andrea. “The Truth Behind the Mysterious Holes in Hong Kong’s High-Rises.” CNN (March, 2018): https://www.cnn.com/style/article/hong-kong-skyscrapers-with-holes/index.html.
Sanchez-Cascado, Mar. “Dragon Gates and More: How Feng Shui Affects Hong Kong’s Architecture.” EFE (May 2019): https://www.efe.com/efe/english/destacada/dragon-gates-and-more-how-feng-shui-affects-hong-kong-s-architecture/50000261-3977763.