THRESHOLDS: WALKING THROUGH LIFE CHANGES
"If you think you're meeting your destiny on the other side of a door you may not be interested in its design."
Ettore Sottsass, Design Metaphors
"The door you went through was the self that went through it."
R.D. Laing, Knots
As I reread the two quotations above-- the first, new to me, by the late Italian designer, Ettore Sottsass; the second, by the late British psychiatrist, R.D. Laing, a motto I have lived by since the age of thirteen, when I first discovered it--I am overwhelmed by both the architectural status and the spiritual symbolism of doors and doorways. Doors, as loci of transition, are laden with symbolic meaning. As functional objects, they express the taste of numberless generations of architects and eras of style.
Let us look first at architectural manifestations of doors, for, unlike our unseen psyches, they are visible, tangible elements of the real world which we can describe realistically. When did dwellings begin to have doors, as opposed to just openings? Wikipedia says “the earliest in records are those represented in the paintings of the Egyptian tombs, in which they are shown as single or double doors, each in a single piece of wood. Doors were once believed to be the literal doorway to the afterlife, and some doors leading to important places included designs of the afterlife.” (Already, in exploring the advent of doors as moving barriers, we enter a symbolic realm.) As early as the 6th century churches had massive, decorative bronze doors.
Fast forward to the late 20th century, when architecture’s relationship to the Classical order was thrown into question, not for the first time. Doors remained critical, for they are the only apertures through which we may walk into a building. Doors represent both entry and egress, the ability to get in, and, sometimes more importantly, the opportunity to get out!
As structural components, doors are eternally the focal point of any building, whether hut or high-rise, and as such they invite intense design attention, their surfaces, painted; or if they were of bronze, cast, as in Brunelleschi’s famous doors for the Baptistery in Florence, depicting, in relief, The Sacrifice of Isaac. Doors have, historically, often been flanked with sculptures of humans or animals who serve as guardians, sentinels determining who may pass into the interior. In Greek mythology, the gates of Hades, god of the underworld, were famously guarded by a vicious three-headed dog, Cerberus.
In their metaphorical function as portals, to use a grand word, doors summon not only visions of the afterworld, but our individual, often deeply personal hopes and fears about the future, about who or what shall greet us when we open the door. Think of that comforting cliche about doors we often hear, “When one door closes, another opens”. In other words, loss or failure may paradoxically trigger a fresh opportunity. Life is bountiful, the saying implies.
Then there is Aldous Huxley’s classic book, The Doors of Perception, detailing the author’s experiences while taking hallucinogenic drugs; the ‘60s rock group, the Doors, adopted their name from the title. In 1920, in his masterwork, The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud opined the following:
“We already know the room as a symbol. The representation may be extended in that the windows, entrances and exits of the room take on the meaning of the body openings. Whether the room is open or closed is a part of this symbolism, and the key that opens it is an unmistakable male symbol.”
Sottsass’ motto about doors and destiny has a slightly different emphasis. His sentence points to the sense of anticipation and hope, often of a romantic nature (“meeting your destiny”) we feel when we are about to open the door, perhaps to an exciting, attractive stranger. But, Sottsass, a most unusual designer, makes a point, too, about the place of design in our lives. When we are absorbed with momentous life events, design takes second place--we do not much care about the door when we are consumed with the person behind it. Sottsass nevertheless designed some highly ornamented, vivid doors. But his remark about doors, design and destiny reflects his primary concern: building for the human experience rather than for an exalted aesthetic posterity. He thought that the design of the built world, however beautiful and compelling, is, in the end, secondary to the fateful relationships which, if we are lucky, unfold within and without buildings, rooms and doors.
R.D. Laing’s (1927-1989) saying, “The door you went through was the self that went through it,” refers less to doors as architectural features or symbols of external fateful events than to doors as markers of transition in our innermost lives. The aphorism is a conundrum: how can self and doorway be one and the same? How is the person who crosses the threshold identical with the threshold itself? It is a deliberately mysterious statement, seeming to tell us that we have future selves lying in wait for us, waiting only to be activated and realized by our symbolic act of crossing a threshold--i.e., taking some important action-- rather as a bride is symbolically transformed into a wife by the groom carrying her across the threshold of their first house or apartment.
When we carry ourselves through some important change--earning a degree, embarking on a new profession, or getting married, for example--we ourselves are no longer the same. We take on a new identity, yet it is usually one we possessed, in embryo, already. It is no coincidence that R.D. Laing, a Scottish-born psychiatrist, was an avatar in the 1960s and ‘70s of the so-called “Human Potential Movement”.
Laing, unlike most of his peers, believed that even the farthest reaches of insanity--schizophrenia, for instance--could be reinterpreted as plausible responses to impossible life situations. “For Laing, mental illness could be a transformative episode whereby the process of undergoing mental distress was compared to a shamanic journey. The traveler could return from the journey with (supposedly) important insights, and may have become (in the views of Laing and his followers) a wiser and more grounded person as a result.” In other words, there is unsuspected wisdom buried in our psyches of which we may be unaware until we undergo some life-altering event which brings it to light and forces us to summon and use it.
Destiny is therefore not waiting for us on the other side of the door; rather, we are creatures permanently in transition, waiting for events to unlock what is in us already.
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