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Handles(s) by Jason Coleman

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry

When I first came to Europe I was easily surprised. I had no money, and was ever reliant on a worn ‘Let’s Go Europe’ to lead me to cheap lodgings. I was once looking for a small pension lost in the quieter streets of a town in southern France and finally found it, thanks to a small paint-flaked sign cantilevered from the wall. I searched for a buzzer or door-bell to ring. There was none. Only a large knocker in the middle of a heavy timber door. The knocker was obviously old and cast in the form of hand holding a ball, which rapped a strike plate below. It was rusty, except the sides and back of the fingers, polished smooth by the grasp of previous travelers. This iron hand was also exactly the size of my own. The last departee had most likely used the knocker to pull the door shut and, as the rocking pin was also stiff with age, the hand had not fallen to rest against the door, but remained extended outward towards me. It was as if the building was asking me to shake hands to welcome me to my temporary home.

I have never specified a door knocker, nor have I been asked to. I recently wondered why I had never had to specify one and, out of idle curiosity, googled ‘door knockers’ to see what my choice would be should such a request unexpectedly arise. Images came up of almost every type of worked metal and every imaginable form - geometric, pictorial, mechanical, animal, organic, as well as, an assortment of body parts - page after page, without repetition.

But I am asked to design modern houses. So I googled ‘contemporary door knocker’. The results were reduced to 5 constantly repeating images; in stainless steel.

Suspecting that the barren selection of door knockers available for modern Architecture is more significant than it first would appear, I made a quick inventory of encounters that my hand actually makes with a house; flicking or prodding switches and buttons, pinching and twisting dimmers, thermostats, and taps, yanking of handles, caressing of handrails and sliding bolts. But that is in my own home. When I imagined that I could afford my own services, this list changed dramatically. In this world the hand’s encounters with the material, services and utility of a building undergo a profound shift. The opportunity to handle Architecture disappears. Could it be that the greater the ambition to turn a house into Architecture 1, the greater the cultural will to eradicate all evidence of the engagement of the hand with the actual building? I have never heard anyone talk about this as a expressed aim, but then again we often do not understand what we are really up to. Perhaps this is a sub-conscious, unspoken desire of makers and patrons of Architecture and, as such, one which cannot therefore logically be admitted. The long lamented elimination of the hand of the craftsman in buildings is perhaps undergoing a subtle migration to the elimination of the hand of the inhabitant.

The market understands this repressed desire, and has provided practical assistance for our perverse project: Minimal knobs and handles, barely big enough and sometimes insufficient to open the door - Railings reduced to a pole, or further to square sections so we can forget revealing thumbs and fingers - Push catches for drawers and doors to rid us of the minimal door knobs - Electronic door releases, hold-opens and closers - Dishwashers with concealed controls - Switches and power sockets in clear perspex so that we can pretend that we can’t see them. If these are not enough, there are remote controls, key fobs and swipe cards that control everything from electric blinds, air conditioners, gates and doors, to media and temperature. But the market does not rest, so it has quickly moved beyond this to supply us with affordable means to create a world where almost everything can be controlled by simply poking and pinching an i-pad.

As from within a cultural paradigm it is always difficult to comprehend what is going on, I thought that maybe I should imagine myself as an anthropologist who has set out to understand my own world. These are notes I might make:

Observing people opening handleless cupboards. Overcoming initial confusion, they have learned that they must press the door in order for it to rebound open to them. What they don’t know is where on the door the maker intended them to press to achieve a serene opening. Most subjects, too impatient to gently explore the door to find the desired spot, end up giving it a good whack. It is as if the Opener has been provided with an intentional outlet to express his frustration at the lack of handles in the first place.

Architectural magazines are subject to periodic flair-ups of raucous letters-to-the-editor-writing over the fact that a photo has been published containing a stair without a handrail. Sparring partners have well-established roles to play. The prosecuting writer must express outrage at the flagrant violation of safety displayed. The defendant responds that the photo was taken before the railing had been attached, or that the client was happy with this situation and that the prosecutor should mind his own business. They do not discuss why the handrail will always remain absent. From the contents of these angry missives and ripostes, you could reach the conclusion that the only reason that the railing is missing is that some house owners had an active desire to fall over the edge of their stairs and that their Architects were more than happy to let them.

In the kitchen, the most utilitarian of spaces, it seems that maximum design energy is expended in removing evidence of the hand. J + K periodically spend time in G’s kitchen. It is a very modern and there are no handles, save on the concealed refrigerator and the oven. Doors and drawers are on push catches, dishwasher controls concealed, and the cooker is controlled by a magnetic disk that G removes from the glass plate when not in use. Surfaces are incredibly advanced so as to be not only easy to clean, but to not ever show fingerprints. J and K are adapting well and have learned to join G in a type of dance, opening doors not with their hands (which seems not to work) but with a soft bump of a hip or pressure with a nuanced bending of the knee. J + K are not learning so quickly on other fronts and forget that this is not a kitchen for talking in. They inevitably stop working, turn from and lean against the counter and engage in conversation. Their eventual return to the task at hand is always accompanied by the release of a cupboard door or drawer by the talkers, which pursues them away from the worktop, and has to be gently guided back to its place like an overexcited house pet. G is with experience much more accomplished in this kitchen and navigates though it making not only no hand contact but ensuring that no other part of her body comes in contact with it either.

Conjecture that perhaps an irrational fear of germs was responsible for the developments that J has brought to my attention confounded by at least two observations. First, the drive to remove the hand seems not so extreme in public buildings where it might be expected, but most prevalent in intimate and domestic Architecture where there would seem least need. Yet in domestic Architecture, precisely in the place where fear of the hand might be most expected, it is least removed. In these bathrooms, the automatic taps and flushes used in the most primitive of public conveniences, are rarely used and for the most part touch of these items is actively and expensively encouraged.

Over 10 weeks, J has been involved in extensive discussions with S on how he will open his front door. The door is timber and each time J presents a design for a custom handle, S says that he cannot imagine that handle. J then produces a 3D sketch of the handle to try and convince S of its’ merits. S responds again that he cannot imagine the handle. This process repeats itself 10 times, until J and S come to the revelation that it is not that S cannot imagine the handle, but cannot imagine a handle at all on the door.

I have now been in Europe over 20 years. The pension has almost certainly been renovated, probably with a lit sign displaying one or two earned stars above the entrance. Perhaps it now has a buzzer video camera and door release and its’ door too has become handleless, something to be touched only with the eye.

1. Architecture is used here in a very limited and willful sense to refer to recent buildings which some regard as having a higher cultural value than the average and which are the product of a specific author. In this writing, for convenience it is further restricted to domestic one-off houses.

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