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Living Architecture: Making an Entrance - all about doors

Living Architecture: Making an Entrance - all about doors

If the windows are the eyes of a building then doors are the mouth – or is it the nose? Either way, over the years they’ve become a fascinating design opportunity.

Perigueux-door-architectureSince man emerged from the caves (and probably long before) he’s needed some way to protect himself and his family from unwelcome visitors. Not surprisingly, this basic human need was initially answered by using a roughly hewn plank or two, sized roughly to fit the entrance. The next advance was to add some form of locking device, starting with horizontal bars of timber – simple, but effective. Things could be scaled-up too, something which made them unwieldy. So to cope with the extra weight, the next step was to suspend the structure on hinges creating what we now think of as a door.

Hinges and locks improved considerably with the development of ironwork, which brought with it new ways of
assembling things (and gave us the phrase ‘dead as a door-nail...’). So successful was this approach that it was adopted universally, not only in châteaux and early ecclesiastical buildings, but in surviving townhouses and other medieval structures everywhere. In fact, with a few modest refinements like tongue-and-groove jointing for the planks, plus ledge-and-brace reinforcement, it’s be-come something of a design classic, and today you’ll still see it used for everything from country cottages to the humble garden shed.

To ensure a precise fit, these early doors closed against a carefully tooled rebate (in the case of some stone or troglodytic dwellings) or later into a timber frame incorporating a rebate. Suddenly doors were relatively draught proof, even if windows weren’t. However, one of the more obvious limitations of the design was revealed when doors were required to provide not only security but also to admit increasing amounts of daylight. In the middle ages it was common practice to incorporate small openings protected by a wrought ironwork grille, but this device served merely to discover who exactly was on the other side of the door, and hammering on the heurtoir (see our previous article on door-knockers and other architectural ironwork). Eventually with daily life, in towns medieval-tours-doorwayat least, becoming a little less lawless and glass becoming viable, it became increasingly desirable to add glazing to doors. The problem to be overcome was the need for timber bars nailed or bolted horizontally to brace the vertical planks and stop them sagging under their own weight. They simply got in the way, particularly where a diagonal bar was added in a Z-style form.

The answer was simple: make the door itself a self-supporting frame, then mount the vertical planks onto it, along with any glazing required. The faithful ledge-and-brace door thus became a framed-and-braced one, and so successful was it that it’s a safe bet that you’ll have at least one variant of this par-ticular design in your own home.

As for stylistic developments, throughout history those with wealth, power and education vied to express their culture and sophistication in great architectural works, initially by transforming existing structures, but eventually by creating entirely new ones. Nowhere was this more striking than when Renaissance fever gripped François I during the 16th century, brushing aside the Gothic style favoured by generations of the French Royal family. In future issues we’ll be looking in more detail at the great châteaux of the Loire Valley, but suffice it to say that the Renaissance was a breath of fresh air whose influence filtered down through the nobility to near-universal adoption. If this sounds far-fetched you only have to look at bourgeois townhouses (hôtels particulars) in towns and cities throughout France, not to mention country homes, whose elegant proportions include tall, narrow windows and doors whose verticality hints at generously proportioned interiors. Think of the ‘French doors’ (portes-fenêtres) and you’ll see what the new door joinery made possible, and how the end results were adopted far beyond the borders of France.

la-rochelle-doorwayCloser to home, the ‘front door’ provides an irresistible opportunity for home owners and their architects to express their personalities and tastes. The same goes for businesses, of course, who have the budgets to push the limits a little further than most individuals. France might have no obvious equivalent of the UK’s Arts & Crafts movement, but here the architectural spectrum embraces some of the greatest expressions of both Art Nouveau (which flowered during the Belle Epoque period, c1871-1914) and Art Déco you’ll find anywhere. Paris and Nancy have some of the most sensational examples of the former, but our own region has countless gems, not least numerous villas along the Atlantic Coast. Later they were joined by Art Déco, and both styles were adopted enthusiastically on a more monumental scale for landmark structures like the Bibliothèque Centrale and École Élémentaire Mario Roustan in Angoulême, l’Hôtel des Postes in Poitiers and many Caisse d’Epargne buildings.

Finishing touches include inscriptions on lintels above front doors recording a date, some initials or occasionally an indication of the profession of the owner (particularly if he happened to be a stone-mason). The most elegant, quintessentially French touch, though, has to be the wrought iron glazed canopy known as une marquise, more extravagant examples of which adorn hotels, railway termini, etc. Now that’s what I call making an entrance.