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Window shopping

Brian Toward

I love to look out of windows, an innocent habit that I probably share with most of the human race. If I see a window I gravitate to it, no matter what dreary scene may be outside.

In a windowless room I feel slightly trapped. It’s a mild form of claustrophobia, I suppose, but perfectly natural. A window connects us to the rest of the world. On the other side of the glass, other people are living other lives, and we can see them doing it.

David Bouchier
/
WSHU

Glass was invented 5,000 years ago in Egypt, but flat window glass clear enough to see through was created much later by the Romans, who badly needed to keep an eye on each other. Glass, for all its fragility, became a symbol of money and power. The peasant’s cottage might have one or two tiny windows, or none. The rich man’s mansion had vast windows on all sides. Modern architecture follows the same economic rule.

The Vanderbilt Tower in New York, for example, has 73 floors of sheer glass, the Shard in London one floor less. Glass tower architects are very competitive. But these walls are transparent the way the government is transparent, namely not at all. You can’t see into those windows without a helicopter, and the monumental glass facades hide hundreds of windowless boxes inside where the real work happens. It seems to me inhuman to expect people to work like that, condemned like moles to a sunless, viewless life. Windows are for the elite, so they can look out and feel free.

Looking into someone else’s window is, I suppose, less innocent than gazing out of one’s own. But who can resist it? We all have a natural curiosity to see what’s really going on in the world behind those walls, where so much is hidden. Some houses are as good as a picture show, and apartment buildings at night can be a veritable multiplex of domestic dramas. The Tate Modern viewing gallery in London is famous for providing a kind of living theater with its view into the luxury apartments in nearby tower blocks. The residents have complained, but they could buy some curtains, or move, or simply conduct their lives in a more discreet and respectable way as if they were on a stage, which they are.

Some homes have windows as bright and beautiful as shop window displays, and they are clearly designed to be peered into by curious outsiders. Like shop windows they allow us to observe the vanities of the world without participating in them. Others are closed and dark, providing a tantalizing mystery: what are they doing in there, and why are they hiding it? I want to know.

There’s a Sherlock Holmes story in which he lectures Watson about the secrets that may be concealed even in picturesque country cottages. Holmes was right. I once lived in a classic English village. My living room window was, like most others, exactly at eye level right on the sidewalk. The tourists could not resist it — they peered in quite shamelessly. The locals were more discreet, but they always took a quick look to see what might be going on inside, and I did the same when I passed their houses, which may be where I picked up the habit. It may not be entirely polite, but I learned a lot.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.