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About Thresholds Between “Here” and “There”

Urban Design

Thresholds are implied when discussing territorial markers between public and private settings, or when considering the hard and/or soft limits of settings in relation to facilitation of informal sociability, but we usually talk about doors, doorstep, porch, etc. i.e. about the material elements of the threshold and not about its social experience.
We do not mention “threshold” by name because we might, then, have to discuss them in terms of the shapes they take, of the particular emotions they evoke, or of their role in the presentation of occupants and their attitude to sociability … all are generally subsumed and may become explicit when comparing thresholds … check the one above and the one below and attempt to identify what response each elicits: positive, negative or neutral.
Now try to explain the difference in affective impact: is it a matter of associations with past experiences … a curiosity about the rituals involved in crossing them … or all the vicarious anticipation of the crossing itself and of the human contacts waiting for us after their crossing?
Comparative observations
What is exactly a threshold that observations may allow us to compare?
A threshold is the dedicated area of passage across a limit and, given the stakes involved in terms of security that the passage of unwelcome people implies, societies have developed spatial strategies and rituals that will insure only welcome people are admitted across it.
The ability to recognize these strategies, and to behave accordingly, is the response part of sociability, which is devolved onto the visitor.
           Security and sociability
As attitude toward sociability goes, the criteria of security is rather critical and may be assumed to constitute some kind of base line for guiding one’s treatment of the threshold and of the approach toward it.
The simplest spatial strategy to insure sociable security in residential treatment is placing the building threshold at some distance from the sidewalk access point to it; the longest is the distance the more time the occupant has to examine the person moving toward the threshold and the more aware that person may be of being examined and therefore adopt some ritual gestures or calling to sociably identify herself/himself… as shown above.
Note that the shorter is the distance from sidewalk to threshold the more elaborate is the treatment of the threshold…as shown below.
When the area between threshold and public zone is occupied by people of fragile nature, such as the elderly, the main threshold of the house is given a pre-threshold, and a secondary physical limit, around that area.
I observed, above, an elderly lady seated on a porch by the door, on an almost permanent way this summer. Her presence has been very effective in making me hesitate to photograph, which I did from a distance when I thought that she might have been sleeping. Note the gated threshold controlling access to the site.
The seated old man in the garden, above, is a resident of what appears to be an old age home. I have watched him come out for his smoking ritual, for some fresh air and for a change of scenery I suppose! Note the low landscaped wall with a well-defined passage point.
            Appropriation, anonymity and sociability
A threshold area that is shared by three units may suffer from the “if it belongs to all then it belongs to no one” syndrome, and will not be maintained in a welcoming way but, curiously, its disorderly appropriation can be a positive security and sociability insuring sign, as shown above.
On the other hand, the same type of threshold area may fall into a basic, anonymous, non-appropriated maintenance mode which, although clean in a civil way, does not really communicate a sociable “neighbour is watching” security insurance mode, as shown above.
            Status and sociability
A threshold being the threshold to somewhere, it stands to logic that, security issues apart, the status of that somewhere will qualify the treatment of the threshold. Social status needs to be discretely expressed in differences that retain tactful sociability.
The threshold area of two side by side upscale duplexes uses the symbol laden pitch roof to make a porch out of a landing; it also uses a double width marble monumental stair to make the two party-walled duplexes appear to be one large villa, as shown above.
The threshold of a medium rise apartment building is limited, in its formal treatment, to a symbolic applied and ornamental use of the Greek temple triangular tympanum and engaged columns for status elevating effect, as shown above.
Similarly, the frontal access stair to the basement unit of a duplex will borrow the shape and ornament of the curving access stair to the nobler upper floor unit in order to match its status, as shown above.
In comparison, the side located basement-level main entrance to a mid-rise apartment building will use a snappy marquise over its door and a depressed formal paved yard area in front of its door as signs of its own status, compensating for the fact that it is a basement-level entry, as shown below.
A personal memory
The threshold to the door of my favorite aunt’s apartment building had a marble doorstep that was well worn by the coming and going of its tenants. What made it so special for me as a young boy, when recognizing it, was the anticipation of seeing that dear aunt and my cousins.
Whenever I come across such a well-trodden threshold today, I feel the spark of recognition and the accompanying sentiment of entering a trustworthy place … not a negligible component of sociability!
All in all, a threshold is not something to look at the same way one does a roofline or a window; it is the sensed critical locus of the act of passage between zones of differing social, emotional and instrumental value.
It is to be expected therefore that such a psychologically and socially salient part of a building, as is its entrance threshold, be subjected to studied formal and ornamental treatment in response to security, social status and presentation of self issues … and be eventually associated with memorable spatial, social and emotional experiences.
The differences in treatment will thereafter furnish our collective memory and imagination with recognizable shapes and ornaments to be used and interpreted for the sake of getting along sociably in the city.
Credit all photographs: Maurice Amiel


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