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13 Things 2009

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Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology

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Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Brown University
Box 1837 / 60 George Street
Providence, RI 02912
Telephone: (401) 863-3188
Fax: (401) 863-9423
Jouko[email protected]

See: A Visual Theory of Door Knockers

In 1990, an architecture critic named Stanley Abercrombie wrote that “our first encounter of any interior is the result of our entrance into it, a movement from outside to inside” (Abercrombie 5). He is wrong of course. By the time we actually enter a building, we have encountered it extensively from the exterior, and that exterior cannot be divorced for the experience, expectations and organizations of the interior it feigns to mask. To the contrary, the exterior of a building is as a much a site for the transmission of a building’s interior as it might also be a covering up or a misdirection. Window panes on the exterior, for instance, give away the locations of light sources on the interior, and the positions of exterior door ways can be said to convey understandings of how one might move into and through interior spaces.

So the doorway thus becomes an important clue to the contents of the interior of a building. It also, perhaps more importantly, acts a space of demarcation, separating the interior from the exterior, but not without imparting a sense of both into the other. “An entrance is a physical transition point, obviously, and also a mental one,” wrote Abercrombie in his Philosophy of Interior Design, “the entrant bringing into the interior memories of the exterior and expectations based on those memories” (Abercrombie 7).

If we could amend Abercrombie’s understanding of the door, it would critical that one add the fact that a doorway is more than a physical and a mental transition point, it is also a visual transition point. While this paper cannot possibly engage the theoretical and historical understandings of the door needed to draw out this point, suffice it to say that a doorway is generally made to visually distinct from the façade it is embedded within, and in this visual differentiation achieves a somewhat symbolic value. Its otherness, represented visually as well as physically, articulates its purpose and importance. If a wall might be said to express a stand-fastness, then the doorway speaks to a pliability, an opportunity of entrance and exit.

So let us stop then, before we follow Abercrombie into the interior, and stand on the street or corridor, staring at the door. Our visual engagement is generally our first engagement with a thing, and it is all to quickly over-looked by Abercrombie’s argument that the entrance is the experience, not the visual recognition of the opportunity to enter. And more. As Mary Harrod Northend wrote in 1921, the door can be a visual symbol of wealth, class, occupation, experience, history and identity. She asked, “Is (a door) merely an entrance or does it represent a decorative feature?” and wondered “could it but speak, what wonderful tales it might relate, for is it not symbolic of the most dramatic scenes in life?” (Northend 1). These are certainly things to think about before we push the door aside and enter.

It is with this grounding in the idea of the door as a physical, mental and now visual transition point, that we might first come see the door knocker. Alongside her claims for the door as a central mediation of personal identity, class, and history, Mary Northend also believed that the door represented “the focal center of the façade of a home” and if this is true, then the door knocker is the focal center of a door (Northend 1). This certainly came out in my own fieldwork, as in over 60 door knockers documenter on Benefit Street in Providence, Rhode Island, only one was located off the center vertical axis of its door. Additionally, all of these centrally aligned door knockers had been hung on the door between four and five and half feet from the their bases, a height which roughly corresponds to the idea of ‘eye level.’ So what emerges, in this study of the door, is that the door knocker is firstly (but not necessarily primarily) a visual object.

The impetus to engage the door knocker as a visual object does not only derive from its placement on a door, but also in terms of its design and construction. According to Mary Northend, American colonial knockers began as pragmatic objects, whose design was simple and utilitarian, but quickly gave way to “the hammer type and late on to human figures and animal heads” (Northend 9). “The knocker” as Northend explains, “was the chief outlet of the metal designer’s ingenuity for there were no bells in those days and the knocker symbolized welcome” (Northend). Here, we see two traces of the knocker as a visual object. The first trace is the fact that the knocker was an object crafted by a “metal designer” (my italics) suggesting that a knocker’s shape and form were considered alongside functional values. The second trace is Northend’s use of the word “symbolized,” which emphasizes the fact that in Colonial America, the knocker possessed a visual and symbolic value in addition to its practical purpose.

These critical arguments and explanations for the door knocker as a visual object were further manifested in fieldwork on Providence’s Benefit Street. In several interviews with residents whose homes had door knockers, I was told that the door knocker gave the home a certain “historical” characteristic. When I followed up on this suggestion, many residents told me that the knocker meant the home was old or original, and thus acted as a symbol of authenticity. This was all the more interesting when I discovered that many of these same door knockers were not original, but had been hung, ‘with historical consideration’ to suggest the originals. Even more shocking is that this historical retrofitting of door knockers is something that has been going on for almost a century, as Mary Northend wrote about “knockers… being replaced, not for use as in olden times, but for ornament” in the 1920’s. (Northend 10). In any case, the impulse for Benefit Street home owners to apply the door knocker to their doors to create a sense of authenticity certainly points once again to the immense value of the knocker as a visual object.

Even without talking to owners and residents, it was clear that the door knockers had rich visual qualities and implications. One experience of the power of the knocker as a visual object, came from that one exceptional door knocker that was not placed along a vertical axis of its door. This knocker was found on a split doorway, which by and large, lacked knockers because they did not have any adequate structural support. Benefit Street has many split doorways, and yet only this one had knockers attached. On either side of the doorway’s central split, at about waist height, a knocker had been attached to the door. As only one was necessary, it appears that two were placed on the door to give it a harmonized visual symmetry. Observing this door, it became clear to me that only the right hand knocker had been used extensively, because it was well worn to a polish, while the knocker on the left has long since oxidized over.

A series of two pineapple door knockers on the streets led me to consider the knocker as a symbolic form in its own right. The pineapple has traditionally been associated with hospitality and prosperity in the state of Rhode Island, and thus these door knockers became brass articulations of that same spirit, by means of a local visual semiotics. Some other exceptional knockers included a revolver attached to a door, whose military implications may have once symbolized the occupation of the resident there (a soldier, or member of the armed forces) or the building’s own history (as an arsenal, or military office). One woman also told me that she had picked a specific lionhead knocker for her home because it was the same knocker as the one at 10 Downing Street in London, the home of the United Kingdom’s prime minister. This example is a fascinating counter to the local symbolic value of the pineapple, as it posits the door knocker as a site for visual links with distant geographic and political entities, a door knocker as a global visual symbol.

When we look at door knockers, we engage them as symbols and visual objects as much as we consider the ways in which they are more than things to be seen. The visual meanings of these objects, as exemplified by my fieldwork and research, reveals the mulitiplicity of meanings that can be associated with these knockers. Because the ephemerality of meaning in symbolic systems, the meaning of the knockers as visual objects is constantly shifting. Where the pineapple knockers may have once meant welcome, today they may just be symbols of authenticity for their residents and visitors. It would be unfortunate if these symbolic, ornamental, and visual values were taken to be superficial. This is because the door knocker has been a visual object since it’s invention and popularization. What is more important then, is to judge the shifting of these visual meanings, and wonder how relate to the value of the knocker as a whole. For instance, while we might be tempted to see the development of the electric door bell as the ultimate end for the knocker as a practical object, and the beginning of it being developed into simply a visual object, we might just as soon see that inflection point as a the rebirth of the door knocker as a visual symbol because of the choice to include it with or in place of the door bell.