In her introduction to the excellent anthology of essays – Thinking on thresholds: the poetics of transitive spaces – Subha Mukerji refers to the ‘mesmeric quality of the threshold’ (Mukerji, p. xxi) and the ‘elusive but crucial experiences at a variety of boundaries’ (p. xix). Later in the book the theme is developed by Gillian Beer in her thoughtful analysis of windows and their uses and meanings in literature. They are a ‘liminal connection between inner and outer’ (Beer, p.3). Windows link and separate; provide access yet exclude; are both medium and barrier. Incidentally, they are also places of concealment and Beer evokes the image of a spy mounting surveillance on the world beyond. Or a voyeur perhaps – which suggests our flaneur, peering through the shop windows in a Parisian arcade: detached and distant, the spy without.
It made me think how office buildings often reflect rather than reveal. They are more looking glass than window. What you see is where you are rather than where you want to be. The organisation within is secluded and the story it might tell literally a closed book.
But more disturbing than the window as looking glass is the room deprived of windows. In reference to new office buildings, Beer notes how windows are often ‘done away with’ and how ‘rooms entirely without windows have been traditionally understood as sinister or subjected…the presence of windows brings the light of the outside world to bear on what is happening in the room’ (p.6). How many meetings have you sat through and how many training sessions endured in cell like chambers? How can ideas, imagination, creativity flourish if the light of the outside world (or rather, enlightenment) is denied. If we see the threshold as ‘mesmeric’, a place of liminal connection and transformation, then it is surely perverse to plasterboard it over. How ironic that in exhorting our colleagues to – and it’s a ghastly phrase I know – ‘think outside the box’, we encourage this by placing them in the very box their imaginations are required to escape from.
But office windows can be creative in other ways too. As you wander the corridors – an organisational flaneur perhaps? – you may peek through the windows of the offices you pass. The door is closed; figures gather around a table and a phone; their looks may tell of frustration, excitement, anxiety. What’s going on? If the combination of figures is puzzling – so why are x and y meeting up? – then our irresistible urge to spin a narrative takes hold once more. We formulate a plot, a causal and temporal chain of connection that explains these vexing stimuli. We are excluded yet involved and perhaps it is this ambiguous, liminal state that stimulates our imaginations.
In her analysis of Yeats’s poem ‘Ego Domimus Tuus’, Beer deconstructs the image of the poet Keats ‘with face and nose pressed to a sweet-shop window’. But it is this ‘gap between nose and the sweets, the cold glass between’ that stimulates ‘Luxuriant song’ (p. 8). It is the threshold that excites poetry.
And so too in our offices. We may view our windows as organisational prose – boring, formulaic, transparent (in more ways than one) – but are they also not coated with a thin film of poetry? Not just windows but Keats’s very own ‘Charm’d magic casements’ that open on our ‘faery lands forlorn’ (Gittings, p.126)?
Beer, G. (2011) ‘Windows: Looking In, Looking Out, Breaking Through’, in Mukerji, S. (ed.) Thinking on Thresholds: the Poetics of Transitive Spaces. Anthem Press.
Gittings, R. (ed.) (1966) Selected Poems and Letters of John Keats. Heinemann.
Mukerji, S. (2011) ‘Introduction: Thinking on Thresholds’, in Mukerji, S. (ed.) Thinking on Thresholds: the Poetics of Transitive Spaces. Anthem Press.