Why We Watch Windows

Written by Jakob Straub

"Look, a house all built of windows!" my younger sister once exclaimed when she saw her first glasshouse. From my own childhood, I remember a TV cartoon series with a talking house that blinked its window-eyes. The windows are the eyes of a building. Ever since man has started building houses, he puts in windows. Why? A house without looks unnatural and unfamiliar from the outside, and its rooms on the inside are bleak and dismal. A room with a view is equal to an increase in value, a view of the sea, the valley or the lake a distinction. "What a view!" is a common exclamation of appraisal, as if the room had anything to do with it, or the window allowing for the view.

However, a window generally allows for two lines of sight, so wherever you have a view of the outside, you can possibly look in - if you don't look out (forgive me the pun). So man blocks the view with curtains and drapes to gain control over the sighting and the possibilities of observing, because now those inside can lift the drapes and spy out, or pull them closed to shut out the outside world and any stranger's glances. There is a persistent myth about an unreasonably high taxation on curtains in the Netherlands which would make the people abstain from the 'luxury' of hanging curtains in their windows. Truth is, the Dutch are simply open-minded who build their homes with the living room facing the street and who have a tradition of curtain-less windows.

A window is the point of contact between two worlds, like an optical membrane; it separates the inside and the outside. From the safety of his own home, man can let his gaze wander over the outside world, and if he opens the window, the world will come pay him a visit, will bring fresh air, wind, warmth or cold. On the outside, you may hear what is going on inside this home through its open windows: maybe there is music drifting from it, muffled voices, or laughter.

Man needs windows, that's why he does not only put them in his houses alone but also in his cars and vehicles as well; he employs them in his figures of speech when he talks about a 'window of time' or a 'window of opportunity', and the concept of windows has long ago been adopted to man's computers. And isn't every screen itself a window to another world, the silver screen to the make-believe of movies, the television to the network news and the computer to the world of data? Someone once jokingly told me 'Windows' was native American dialect for "white man staring through plate glass at iconographic representation of immobile hourglass."

We are attached to our windows, either because we are fond of what we see outside or inside, because we lose ourselves in the view or find something while looking. If man is put in a cell behind bars, he might draw a window of four simple chalk lines on the wall out of desperation, like Roberto Benigni in Jim Jarmusch's 1986 movie 'Down by Law.' Like a camera's view finder, a window implies a search, and if we cannot find what we seek in this world, in reality, if the window doesn't satisfy what meets the eye, then maybe it gives hope to our souls, provides inspiration and makes our fantasy run wild.

When we go window shopping, we don't shop for new frames and panes, but we wander from store front to store front to wonder and marvel at what is on display, often buying much more than needed simply because it all looked so enchanting in the window. And those who can't afford anything have to make do with the memories of the window's display to warm their hearts.

A window says, here's one world, watching another. I'm in one world, watching another. A window can intimidate you with the thought that you're being watched from it, rational (someone behind it) and irrational (the building watching you out of its eyes).

The eyes are called the windows to the soul - or the window to the soul, depending on how you look at it, or which way. A man's eyes will tell you a lot about his inner state; they indicate whether the emotions he displays are genuine or false. They're one of the few only hunches we can have of that other world inside someone else, and it takes effort and skill to veil them so they betray nothing of ours.

Jim Carroll wrote in his poem 'Blood Bridge:' "I love this mansion, though it's too many windows to open halfway each morning, to close halfway each night." Just how long does it take to open a window halfway in the morning and close halfway at night? No time at all, you would think. So what if the mansion he is referring to is the altered state of mind under the influence of drugs - being high. The windows are opportunities, possibilities: behind each lies a different world. Maybe the windows in the morning could lead away from the drugs to another kind of life, while the windows at night lead to further inebriation and excess, yet they offer worlds the sober mind will never see. No matter if a window is half closed or half open, it's never quite out of reach or shut, half-inviting, half-declining. And although it should be no work at all to open them halfway each morning and the other way round at night, each window has its appeal, and its torment. The mansion provides the windows and their view, yet at the same time it's the reason why he is pondering the windows at all. Quitting the drugs would mean losing the mansion's way of seeing and thinking.

Do we have a need for other worlds? As much as man has a want for home and need to root himself, as much is he straining for a glimpse of 'that other side.' William Blake wrote in 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:' "If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern." Often enough have "the doors of perception" been associated with consciousness expansion, Albert Hofmann's LSD research, Timothy Leary's trip and the psychedelic movement.

A window, ideally, is transparent, clear, completely see-through. The glass only becomes apparent when its surface is smeared, stained with dirt and dust, reminding us of the seal, the slight separation. A window's essentiality is in not being there, merely providing the frame for whatever you see through it, whereas a door requires opening to reveal where it leads, what it closes off, what it promises. You need to take action, to actually do something: open it, take that first step. The window is for the passive watcher, looking, seeing, hoping, dreaming - at times pressing his nose flat in wonder, at times assuring himself that what happens there beyond the glass is none of his concern.