Knockin’ on Heaven’s Doors

by Paolo Zuliani, architect and designer.

A pathway of discovery of an important element in our homes and buildings, part one.
Door, oh door, why don't you say, why don't you tell, you only close boundaries, protect, hide, conceal or reveal, intimidate and console.

PORTA (door): according to legend, the ancient Latins, when marking out the boundaries of a city would raise their ploughs to show where the city gates or portae would be built. They raised their ploughs so as not to break the continuum between the outside and inside, marked by the walls.
The verb portare means to lift, and we still find traces of this original meaning of lifting and carrying in words such as porter and portable.
Indeed, when we carry something, we must first lift it off the ground.
The origins of the word can be traced back to the Latin god Portunus or Portumnus, the numen of passages, represented with keys in his hand, the protector of doors. The word has Indo-European origins, and derives from “protu”, from which we also get “peretu”, meaning a place of passage, and particularly a bridge or ford, but also a reference to life in the stilt houses of the Latin ancestors, to a crossing of waters, to a port for vessels, or to the door or gate of a village. In English it has given us such words as port, portal and portcullis.

Doors and gates are a very powerful metaphor, rich in symbolic meanings. Some of these include: the gate to Purgatory, the seven gates of Thebes, the gates to the city, the gates of Hades, the stable door. They all have one thing in common: they mark a boundary, a situation, a moment, a distinction between two places, two physical or spiritual conditions.
The fact remains that now as ever, the door serves to ensure a "closed" continuity between two sections of wall or any other material; an extremely delicate alliance between materials with different degrees of resistance, the wall, and wood, the classic material used for doors.

Which is the reason for reinforced, armoured and metal-plated doors, with strong hinges, with struts and mechanisms to ensure their long-lasting durability. This is the reason for soundproof doors to keep out the noise, for glass doors that can close without concealing, but all hung, all lifted: doors, portae.

In early houses, the door was the only "hole", seen as a necessary break in the walls of the building. Its functions were for ventilation and illumination as well as being an entrance: so the concept of a door was solely an external one.

It should be added that, with the great building revolution of the Greeks and then the Romans, the introduction of the arch, the powerful architrave, of balanced elements set against one another, the dimensions of doors increased.

The history of the interior door, in today's stereotypical sense (what comes to mind when we think of an interior door?), is relatively recent. Only with the building revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was the division of rooms finally separated from the load-bearing function of the walls.

And above all, the door, freed from construction worries and strictly functional concerns, became an object worthy of decorative attention, and the opening itself was enriched with jambs and architraves, pilasters and tympana.
The mechanical parts, too, hinges, brackets, supports and handles became the objects of stylistic research.

Hence the door itself assumed an important role in the composition of facades, with precise rules, golden rules providing for precise guidelines.

And so the door became an end in itself, a decorative element.

Part two
Let's talk about interior doors, for the rooms in our homes, offices and so forth.

Clearly, the performance required of an interior door is minimal and simple compared to an external door (which must be strong and especially resistant all over), with some notable exceptions such as soundproof or fireproof doors.

In the homes of the early twentieth century, interior doors were mainly made of solid wood finished with a coat of paint, whilst, in more refined cases, "plating" techniques or an overlay of fine wood resulted in grand and unique pieces.
The most important part of the entire hand-crafted job was the treatment and preparation of the wood for the doors, selected, and above all dried, using sublime techniques to ensure that it would remain perfectly stable over time: in this day and age, the problems of solid wood are perfectly known and perfectly disregarded: "natural", solid wood is no longer used other than in very rare and exclusive cases, and production is often problematic, given the industrial scale of organisation seen today.
The workshop, the carpenter, the craftsman, and the joiner for doors and windows have all ceased to exist, for a number of reasons, which undoubtedly include the high cost of operation. Industrialisation has erased many gestures and notions, even though numerous companies have ensured the continuing evolution of knowledge and research, so that tradition and experience have not been completely lost.

Paradoxically, one might have thought that the industry, the production organisation, was none other than a kind of amassing of workshops, craftsmen and knowledge, but this is not the case: for the most part, a vocation for woodworking is not a prerequisite for production or for working on the machines.

And yet, even in the big firms, there is a corner, a room, a department where, despite all the controls, despite all the quality certification, people work with chisels, planes, natural glues and ancient knowledge to meet the growing demand for outsize pieces and other special requests: a clear sign of the desire for identification and distinction, for those who want an exclusive door, for their home only.

But above and beyond anything we can find to say, the problem remains the heart, the craftsman's soul, the finish, the love for things. And speaking of finish, the word should say it all: the finish is the finish. End of story.

But nowadays there are different degrees of finishing, proportionate to the level of grandness, of prestige, and above all, the cost. And of course, organising and carrying out the finishing work, once again, requires hand and heart.

The finishing that was once the norm has become the exception, a matter of sales and not of substance. “can't you see the level of finishing...”, “notice how it has been finished and honed...”, “look, they're machine-produced, industrial products, but they look like they've been hand-finished”.

Part three
Nowadays, producing doors means working like mad to fit around machines, when it should really be the other way around, with the machines working to suit us, since they are subordinate to humans. And yet, trade members often hear words such as: “I can't do that door, because the machine only goes up to such and such a width”, or, “I can't make just one leaf, because the press...” and so forth.

Building sites, too, have become a sore point: whilst building capacities have declined, and tolerance levels are increasingly pitiful, the same cannot be said for doors, leading to frequent heated discussions over walls out of plumb and doors with their components perfectly in true, causing considerable trouble, inconvenience and some impatience for the fitter.

Added to this is the merry jungle of mechanical parts, hinges, locking systems, accessories, handles, the evolution of the classic bolt or wooden crossbar that held the doors of antiquity shut.

This aspect of the door is fundamentally important, since the shape, type, system and degree of protection of the door leaf often depend on the mechanical components that have paradoxically determined its evolution.

It is in any case true that the exploration of form, the taste for decoration, for unique doors for the home, is focused mainly on external doors, the ones that are seen from the outside, whilst the preference for internal doors tends towards a single, neutral model that either complements and blends in with the walls, or stands out completely from them, but definitely all the same model. Almost as if the whole character of the building boiled down to its front door.

The interior door has been the focus of research and exploration in recent decades, often leading to products of the very highest level.

What still strikes me is the fact that, from the ancient doors of history to the present day, one concept has held strong: that of the door inserted in a wall, raised from the floor, and thus in some way "carried", so porta it is.