The placement of windows or other apertures in a building—what the wonks generally call fenestration—can and should respond powerfully to the environment. In an urban setting, a well-designed older building on a commercial main street will nearly always have bigger and bolder windows on the first floor, to showcase the retail or merchandise-oriented businesses, especially to pedestrians passing by. Conversely, the upper floors (typically offices or residences) benefit less from such a design, so the windows tend to be smaller. By the 1960s, the distinction between downtown retail and commercial/residential fenestration had evolved, largely because of improvements in climate control. Just imagine the glassy high-rises of the early modern and international styles. Windows increasingly offered a chance for bold views and copious natural light, which in many respects counter-balanced the escalated costs for heating and cooling. And, half a century later, placement of windows has grown even more strategic, with solar orientation serving as a fundamental to green design. Environment-sensitive window treatments can optimize a building across seasonal temperature change, while natural light helps reduce dependency on artificial lighting, eliciting a multipronged approach to energy conservation.
But as much as the architects and engineers themselves might seek to configure buildings according to the outside influences, the behavior of the indoor occupants is an entirely different story. These days, people often don’t know what to do with all those windows. Take my Pennsylvania main street example from a little over a year ago: a law firm took what could have been a charming storefront view and oriented the office so that passers-by saw nothing in the windows but plaques—the backsides of them. If a retail tenant had occupied that storefront (as it was intended), the proprietor would make every effort to capitalize on those windows, turning the interior into a promotional display for pedestrians. But a service-oriented establishment such as an attorney does not need to do such a thing; the windows offer nothing more than natural light, and all that glare can be distracting to people working at computers. As the bricks-and-mortar retail sector continues to implode, the demand for conventional storefront fenestration diminishes, leaving other kinds of tenants to take their place: accounting, insurance, engineering firms, even churches. I suspect we will see many more law firms in main street storefronts in the years ahead.
But what about when a tenant occupies a building designed for it—and still blunders those windows?The photo above comes from a car dealership in northern Virginia, but I won’t provide any further details. I’m not here to shame any businesses, but it’s remarkable witnessing how, for many proprietors, the windows serve more as an impediment to spatial interior spatial organization.In some respects, this arrangement seems worse than the law firm: instead of using the window as a wall for mounting plaques, the car dealership here treats it like the back of the house. Files, cleaning supplies, random storage. And continues across the entire uninterrupted glassy façade.
It’s a pretty disconcerting first view for passers-by, and hardly the sort of display that is likely to leave a good first impression. But, then again, this is the suburbs: the only real passers-by would be individuals parking in the lot and patronizing the establishment. Meanwhile, the dealership itself decided to reserve most of its interior to showroom space; windows are just part of the periphery. No one driving past the business (most likely at least 35 miles per hour) is going to be able to peer through the glare to see all that clutter, and a garish display isn’t going to convince someone to purchase a car. No matter how much our consumption patterns morph in the Age of Internet, cars are unlikely to rise to an impulse purchase for most Americans. And fenestration doesn’t have the same impact in car-oriented environments.
The glassed commercial building, though all the rage in the 50s up to the mid 1960s, suffered a retreat in popularity up to and including the 1970s, particularly in walkable urban centers. A time of rapidly rising crime and escalating social unrest prompted architects of the era to approach building design with fortification in mind. The need to defend against the threats of urbanism—coupled while rapidly fluctuating energy costs—diminished the appeal of huge windows. Thus, many prominent civic structures of the era depend on thick, concrete walls and narrow slits for all its fenestration. The austere concrete behemoths of that era kept people safe, but they hardly provided much to engage the eyes; today, the 1970s-era commercial construction is among the most maligned. Two generations later, many downtowns are safe again, the century-old buildings are among the most fashionable, people enjoy recreational engagement with historic commercial centers…but we lack enough retail establishments to fill all those storefronts.
Ultimately, both time and location exert a profound, subtle influence on the prevailing cultural attitude toward windows. And we’ll never achieve a perfect calibration between the various approaches to building fenestration and the tenants that most suitably occupy the, since our buildings (and their architects) continuously adapt to those cultural shifts. I have a feeling, in the years ahead, as conventional retail continues to retreat from bricks-and-mortar in favor of the digital marketplace, we’ll see more “mismatches”: more unconventional tenants in conventional retail, as well as more tenants using windows negligently, like our law firms and car dealerships. Maybe at some point it’ll get so bad that people really start to notice—people beyond just me.