On Doorways, Introduction from my New Sidewalk Photography Book

[Introduction essay to "Notable Doorways", my latest book of sidewalk photography. You can purchase it today in the Sidewalk Store.]

We take few things more for granted than a doorway. The whole assemblage — knob, hinge, door, and frame — works together to dumb us to our material world, slammed, shut, automated, locked, we surround ourselves with these mute machines and rarely think twice. The very act of grabbing a doorknob was one of the early 20th century philosopher Martin Heidegger’s most well-worn examples of spatial embeddedness, the way that we always exist within a world that precedes us, the way that our cities shape us as much as we shape them. All this is found in a doorway.

With the simple act of passing through, the separation between inside and outside, the doorway is a metaphor for change. Inside is a new world, outside offers escape. And even when not passed through, simply passing by a doorway can be enough to provoke perspective. This is why doorways are a key to a great walk. The more doorways you pass by, the more possibilities exist before you, a whole city of potential entrance, encounter, and transformation. Famous Danish urban designer Jan Gehl offers what he calls the “Gehl Door Average,” defined as the number of doorways per 100 meters, a simple shorthand for walkability. The more doors, the merrier, as the city comes to life. A doorless street, a dead corpse; a dozen doors, and the sidewalk is alive with possible worlds.

Yet in these days of consolidation and growth, we too easily overlook the decline of the American doorway. In pre-Modernist days, architecture announced a doorways with a fanfare of stones and ornate decoration. But these days, by contrast, many doorways have become slight, functional, utilitarian rectangles. Form follows function, and a doorway is just a doorway.

American urbanist William Holly Whyte once called Saint Paul “the blank wall capital of America,” and the city, like many of today’s downtowns, is sadly bereft of doorways. Saint Paul is hardly unique. As buildings grow to geologic proportion and merciless parking lots expand, our walls seem to stretch to the horizon, concrete slabs unfenestrated and uninterrupted. Entire city blocks have solidified to become grey concrete, marred only by a sparsely framed utility exit. We have mirrored our downtowns, mothballed entrances creating DINOs (Doorways In Name Only), doorways blocked or locked or simply forgotten, dead doors like zombies.

And yet, old and interesting doorways remain accessible to the curious eye. Doorways are all around us, waiting to be discovered and found. This collection of noteworthy doorways reveals some of the creative potential of the entrance. Older doorways, often mounted by transoms, offer a careworn sense of the hand-made. Newer doorways display a wide range of abstraction. And every doorway in between is another potential entrance, a road not taken.

[Purchase "Notable Doorways" today in the Sidewalk Store!]

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