The Wonder of Walls
by Raffi Arzoumanian
"Regardless of the specific wall, there is always a duality associated with it – inside versus outside – and there is typically a clear intent. Is the wall there to keep something in, or to keep something out?"
Recently, as I was approaching a house where I was to interview for the design of an addition and remodel, a particular architectural element at the site stood out to me: a large stone wall surrounded by brick masonry. To my pleasant surprise, when I entered the home, I discovered that the stone wall was also expressed on the interior, and that it housed a fireplace. I knew then that “the wall” would play a prominent role in the renovation design. Clearly, that was the original architect’s intention for the original home design, as well. I began thinking about the meaning of walls and their symbolism in architecture. Walls are boundaries and protectors. Historically, walls around cities were built for this purpose. They have symbolized fear, separation, and power: think of the Berlin wall, the wall between Mexico and the United States, or the Great Wall of China. The term “wall” commonly carries negative undertones in our everyday language. Think of “hit a wall,” “driving us up the wall,” “put a wall between us,” “staring at a blank wall,” and so on. Walls have also presented existential questions for observers on both sides. Throughout history, walls have symbolized an end, or a division; perhaps Sartre’s wall is a good example of this. Interestingly, people and cultures have sought out creative ways to diminish the impact of the walls we build. Think of walls covered with decorative patterns, frescoes, plant material, and so on. At the same time, walls have played positive roles in our existence. The great religious buildings have used walls to uplift spirits, inform, educate, and encourage transcendence from daily experiences. And most obvious of all, walls have made it possible to have shelter. Regardless of the specific wall, there is always a duality associated with it – inside versus outside – and there is typically a clear intent. Is the wall there to keep something in, or to keep something out? Having been selected to design this particular home remodel and expansion, the question became: what will this wall be? Certainly, it is a protector, to keep the people in the home safe and keep danger out. But it is more than that. It is an anchor, a definition – a symbol of stability. There are two large windows introduced in the wall that connect the inside with the outside. They bring in daylight, while also allowing for views out from within. The solidity of the wall is validated by the void carved out by the windows. Ultimately, it is a symbolic “wall.” This wall is not associated with fear, division, or power. Here, the wall becomes an extension of the feeling of “home.” When we see it, we are happy that we have arrived. It suggests warmth and safety and allows us to see the world from its protective stance. It permits light to shine through its void and it beckons occupants to engage, perhaps read a book, near its windows. It is certainly the anchor of the home; and its visibility from a distance signals comfort and belonging. In architecture, context and intent are extremely powerful. These are the elements that can free a structure from its common associations and give it new meaning, new purpose – allowing it to embody a philosophical concept and shape a truly unique experience for those it serves.