I stayed at the Hotel della Conciliazione in Rome for one night earlier this month, and after checking in and throwing open the windows and shutters looked out to take in the sights, sounds, and atmosphere of Borgo Pio, the little street below:
This is just two blocks from the Via della Conciliazione, which serves as a grand boulevard for St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican City state. The sorts of sounds you hear will vary by the hour: the bells of St. Peter’s, the wafting chatter of locals and tourists over a meal on the street, a motorcycle drawing near, late-night bar patrons leaving for home, and early-morning street sweepers and recyclers. I’m sharing this for two reasons: first, because I thought the way the light illuminates the room was beautiful, and an example of construction that makes artificial lighting during the day optional rather than required, and second, because this hotel and so much of old Rome is a physical embodiment of my conviction that “windows that open” really matter for giving a neighborhood life.
At the apartment where I lived in Old City at the time we had a wide glass window that provided a great view of the street, but that was a sealed, single pane of glass. Only thin slats near the top opened to let in some of the sound of the street, but none of its noise or breeze on a warm evening.
I think a lot of this has to do with America’s liability culture, and the fear from owners and developers that buildings with great windows like the one above that draw neighbors closer together are also risks for anything from basic falls to darker things like suicide. But making decisions like that makes the exception the rule, and the rule of daily life in apartments like ours is that you can see the street, but you can’t feel the neighborhood. You can’t drink it in.
It’s the same now with the windows in my Philadelphia office. They provide beautiful, 11th story views of Logan Circle, the Ben Franklin Parkway, etc., but they’re sealed shut. Not even small slats let in any of the air or sounds of the street.
We’re so conscious today of the ways that we sacrifice an experience of everyday life when we maintain a disordered relationship with our phones. But we should be as conscious of the ways that architecture can enhance or diminish the way we experience the places we live and visit.