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Outside in: the soft inside edge

Bergian three sisters outside in architectural review

Fluid and pliant, the threshold between inside and out is less solid than it might first appear

The poet Emily Dickinson rarely strayed beyond her garden hedge in Massachusetts, eventually confining herself to her bedroom. Instead, she found other ways to connect to the world beyond. ‘I cannot walk to the distant friends on nights piercing as these’, she wrote to a friend in 1859, ‘so I put both hands on the window-pane, and try to think how birds fly, and imitate, and fail.’

Caspar david friedrich outside in architectural review

Caspar david friedrich outside in architectural review

Caspar David Friedrich’s Woman at a Window from 1822 depicts his wife Caroline gazing out of a window across the River Elbe. The painting is described by Juhani Pallasmaa as ‘a supreme lesson for architects on the “windowness” of the window’

As around 2.6 billion people are largely confined indoors, many are searching for ways to bring the outside in. One of the many inequalities the coronavirus outbreak has laid bare is the distribution of private outdoor space – for many in cities, and in particular residents in small flats, some without adequately sized windows, let alone balconies or gardens, the walls separating inside and out unyieldingly solid. The virus may not discriminate between rich and poor, but the quality of life during quarantine certainly does.

The windows of the home, as for Emily Dickinson, have become a poignant portal to the forbidden outside world. ‘Windows are the fragile eyes of the house, which observe the world and inspect visitors’, Juhani Pallasmaa wrote in The Embodied Image. ‘Looking through the window, and thus connecting two realms, inside and outside, turns the image into an authentic architectural experience.’ For Pallasmaa, Caspar David Friedrich’s Woman at a Window (1822) is ‘a supreme lesson for architects on the “windowness” of the window’, its ‘thingness’ surpassed by the act of viewing. The window frame, shutters and sill amount to simply a ‘device of mediation’ between the room and the outside. We can imagine the harbour, the heavy slap of water against hulls and the damp air, just from the sliver of mast visible through the panes. 

Casa barragan outside in architectural review

Casa barragan outside in architectural review

Source: XOIO

Casa Barragán’s enormous window allows the garden to flood into the living room, unimpeded even by a window frame

Sometimes, the ‘thingness’ of the window recedes and evaporates, allowing the outside to rush forward and press inside. The lush garden of Luis Barragán’s home in Mexico City (1948) appears to infiltrate the double-height living room through its enormous window, more like a glass wall with no window frame to mark its edges. Lina Bo Bardi was frustrated that the trees she planted around her Casa de Vidro (1951) didn’t grow faster to fill its ribbon of windows. ‘This residence represents an attempt to arrive at a communion between nature and the natural order of things’, Bo Bardi wrote. ‘I look to respect this natural order, with clarity, and never liked the closed house that turns away from the thunderstorm and the rain, fearful of all men.’ 

Glass itself may be thin and brittle, but there is a thickness and soft elasticity to the depth the window inhabits: a ‘window place’, as Christopher Alexander describes it in A Pattern Language from 1977. The window makes malleable the boundary between inside and out. Bay and oriel windows widen and extrude the depth of the threshold outwards, while window seats carve a niche out of the wall itself to make their window place – a ubiquitous feature of the monumental windows of the Florentine palazzo, physically inhabiting the border between the home and the city. The living room window of Louis Kahn’s Fisher House (1967), a kind of oriel-window-seat, steps into the room either side of a built-in bench, incorporating a shelf and storage (opening to reveal a TV). The steel and polycarbonate ‘winter gardens’ built by Lacaton & Vassal since the early 2000s, provide an altogether more economical ‘window place’ for those in social housing, stretching the threshold between inside and out to fill a whole room, the boundary disintegrating entirely. 

Fisher house outside in architectural review

Fisher house outside in architectural review

Louis Kahn constructed a ‘window place’ at the Fisher House, the window frame integrating a bench, shelf and storage

Lacaton vassal outside in architectural review

Lacaton vassal outside in architectural review

Source: Philippe Ruault

Lacaton & Vassal, on the other hand, expand the threshold between inside and out to encompass an entire room, as in the winter gardens of their renovation of Tour Bois-le-Prêtre in Paris with Frédéric Druot from 2011

The window is not the only moment where the hard edge of inside softens, giving way to outside. Around 30 BCE, Livia Drusilla, wife of the Roman emperor Augustus, decorated the interior of her windowless triclinium (dining room), sunken to keep cool during the hot summer, with frescoes depicting a garden of flowers, fruit trees, cypresses and date palms.

While it may have been too hot to eat above ground, the imaginary garden painted below captured an impossible seasonless abundance: poppies, roses and daisies frozen in the bloom of spring; quince and pomegranate trees bearing their autumnal fruit. In its projection from landscape to interior, earthly nature was enhanced and outdone. Rather than through the glass of a window, a perfected nature was allowed in through the layer of paint on the wall, the painted and the real joyfully conflated and dextrously manipulated. ‘The view seems to be a painted scene of unusual beauty rather than a real landscape’, Pliny wrote in the second century of the view from his villa on the Tuscany-Umbria border. From the old Iranian word pairidaeza, translating as ‘walled enclosure’, paradise and its containment between earthly walls has been a preoccupation for centuries.

Alhambra outside in architectural review

Alhambra outside in architectural review

The Tower of the Captive at the Alhambra Palace built in the 14th century, drawn by William Harvey in 1915

In the Islamic world, evocations of paradise permeated not just the garden but inside too; palaces contained richly ornamented interiors inscribed with vegetal calligraphy and patterns, scooped into cave-like stalactite vaults, domes and niches. Vivid mosaics at the pleasure palace Khirbat al-Mafjar in Palestine from the eighth century, depict flowers, fruits, leaves, interlaced vines, trees, gazelles and lions, alongside faces and naked women (strictly forbidden in Islam) sculpted into stucco walls. The throne room at the Alhambra from the 14th century is encrusted in patterns and inscriptions, culminating in an elaborate domed wooden ceiling representing the seven heavens of Islam. Through calligraphy, geometric tiles and carved stucco, the garden of heaven is transmitted into the palatial interior.

From the medieval monastic cloister, encircling its own garden of Eden, monks could quietly, piously reflect on the wonder of God. The Italian villas of the Renaissance on the other hand faced firmly outwards. The relationship between inside and out was stretched and elaborately choreographed, the wild landscape mediated through carefully composed gardens before sweeping into the villa. The rugged wilderness surrounding Villa Lante (1566) is gradually combed and tamed, first into the unkempt bosco or woodland hemmed into the villa’s perimeter walls, then into the manicured garden (‘incorporating art with nature, makes of the two a third nature’ wrote Bartolomeo Taegio in La Villa, 1559), before finally being permitted into Vignola’s villa itself. The fresco by Raffaellino da Reggio, painted on an internal wall, depicts the Villa Lante as if from a bird, collapsing this expansive journey inside into a single moment at its triumphant interior apex. Visible through a nearby window, the grounds and countryside, captured in the painting, tumble away into the distance.

Villa livia outside in architectural review

Villa livia outside in architectural review

Source: DeAgostini / Getty Images

The Villa of Livia, 30 BCE

Reggio villa lante outside in architectural review

Reggio villa lante outside in architectural review

Source: AGTravel / Alamy

Raffaellino da Reggio’s fresco of Villa Lante

The line between real and illusory landscape blurs and dissolves further still at Palladio’s Villa Barbaro (1560), continuing where the Villa of Livia left off 1,600 years earlier. The Italian countryside visible through large arched windows is rivalled by Veronese’s dreamscapes, the walls themselves appearing to dematerialise to create a single, idealised outside. However, this outside, the imagined vastness of the landscape, is not allowed in unfettered but held back by a painted architecture of columns, doors and balconies. In the surreal Camera della Cariatide of Girolamo Genga’s Villa Imperiale in Pesaro (1530) on the other hand, the painted landscape floods directly into the room, uninterrupted by any illusion of a balcony or loggia, nor even a skirting board to assert the boundary between interior and the imagined exterior. Like Luis Barragán’s frameless windows, the threshold recedes: the imagination is all that divides the two.

Veronese maser crociera outside in architectural review

Veronese maser crociera outside in architectural review

Palladio’s Villa Barbaro, built in 1560, with frescoes by Veronese dissolving the walls into one ambiguous exterior

The Renaissance blossomed before going to seed in the overripe, verdant fleshiness of the Rococo. Nature outside was eclipsed by the crowded interior, dripping with acanthus leaves, gilded flowers and sugary fruits overflowing and tumbling down the walls. Nature’s bounty may have been brought inside, but here it sickened and spoiled. By the 19th century, oddities such as John Nash’s Royal Pavilion in Brighton (1822) materialised, a surreal confection of colonial orientalism which manifest the vegetal symbols of an Islamic earthly paradise into palm tree columns, faux bamboo staircases and garish petalled chandeliers. In the houses of the Art Nouveau, the garden was recreated in elegantly knotted balustrades, spindling vine-like columns and organic curves. ‘It is not the flower that I like to take as a decorative element’, Victor Horta wrote, ‘but the stem.’ Gaudí and Jujol smelted the interior into a viscous dreamlike grotto, as if the room itself was a breathing organism. The pliant line between inside and out was contorted into new exhilarating shapes, but the air grew stale.

Bonsai outside in architectural review

Bonsai outside in architectural review

The Japanese art of bonsai, translating as ‘tray planting’, has miniaturised vegetation for centuries

Perhaps the ultimate illusion, the intertwining of interior and nature, is the incorporation of living plants in home design. Aino Aalto softened the edges of houses by bringing plants physically inside its thresholds; the woods that surround the Villa Mairea (1939) are framed by large windows draped in vines, growing from planters built into the frames themselves. Frank Lloyd Wright lusciously planted the interiors of many of his houses, writing that, ‘We have no longer an outside and an inside as two separate things. Now the outside may come inside and the inside may and does go outside. They are of each other’. 

More recently, Junya Ishigami’s House with Plants (2012) literally continues the garden inside with slender white-barked trees, a curve of soil arcing around the kitchen. In Vo Trong Nghia’s houses in Vietnam, trees and vegetation infiltrate, cooling the humid interiors – a device imitated by the facile, greenwashed facades of Thomas Heatherwick and Stefano Boeri.

More accessible and affordable for many than a fresco-lined villa or a large architect-designed home with colossal windows, today’s house plant industry is burgeoning – in the UK, sales increased by half in 2018. Far from a new phenomenon (AR May 1952 was dedicated to ‘plants indoors), the pot plant is charged with a new 21st-century potency: as homes become smaller and darker, and both public and private outdoor space become scarcer, the popularity of the pot plant has soared.

Ishigami house with plants outside in architectural review

Ishigami house with plants outside in architectural review

Source: Junya Ishigami Associates

In Japan, Junya Ishigami brought trees into the House for Plants

Villa mairea noormarkku photo maija holma alvar aalto museo av 1983 1600x1000

Villa mairea noormarkku photo maija holma alvar aalto museo av 1983 1600x1000

Source: Alvar Aalto Foundation

The millennial house plant obsession was pre-empted by the Aaltos’ Villa Mairea from 1939

For the millennial generation, largely dependent on short-term lets, the pot plant is an easy way to personalise and improve the familiar magnolia-walled, brown-carpeted rented room. In many cases a remedial response to the shortcomings of contemporary housing, in which the outside is only visible through mean windows, house plants have been absorbed into architectural production.

A new wave of images and renders, often created by young architects, feature a liberal smattering of cheese plants and cacti. But the popular millennial house plant aesthetic, easy to dismiss (and imitate, as myriad hipster cafés, Instagram feeds and Airbnb rentals testify), has its roots in our failure to properly house an entire generation. Lacaton & Vassal prove that you do not have to live in a palace to bring the outside in. 

Winifred nicholson outside in architectural review

Winifred nicholson outside in architectural review

Source: Trustees of Winifred Nicholson

The plants in Winifred Nicholson’s Cyclamen and Primula, 1923, are viewed against the landscape through the window: ‘Behind was the azure blue, mountain, lake, sky, all there – and the tissue paper wrapper held the secret of the universe’

The current coronavirus crisis has thrown these inadequacies into sharp relief. A fever of home growing has gripped many; seeds are sold out (in most countries garden centres have been allowed to stay open) and window sills teem with seedlings. Many are desperately surrounding themselves with vegetation, to watch growth, to tend and nurture, to hold on to time. We grip onto evidence of the world beyond our four walls, outside the window frame.

This piece is featured in the AR June 2020 issue on Inside – click here to buy your copy today