The “Window” section in Rem Koolhaas’ exhibition “Elements of Architecture” shows windows from several centuries of architectural history, collected by Brit Charles Brooking.
Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Charles Brooking’s world of windows
By Barbara Basting
The world’s best-selling operating system is called “Windows”. And just as omnipresent in everyday life as Microsoft’s “Windows” are windows in architecture. And even though we look through them every day, we rarely consciously think about them. Glass walls and façades are a topic in modern architecture: Mies van der Rohe’s “Seagram Building”, Philip Johnson’s “Glass House” and various designs by Sanaa all seek to create flowing transitions between inside and outside. Artists such as Dan Graham have long since critically explored the linkage of control systems in modern society and the reflective transparency of glass.
The “Windows” section in Rem Koolhaas’ exhibition on “Elements of Architecture” at the 14th Architecture Biennale in Venice brings this all to mind. In fact, the first thing you see and hear in this section dedicated to the window as architectural element is a machine used to test today’s standard windows – it involves a wind machine and a pneumatic suction device. Each window manufactured today is said to be opened and closed 25,000 times by way of quality assurance before it leaves the factory and then hopefully survives a few years of normal use.
Not far from the madding machine, modestly hung in a corner, visitors can admire a perforated structure made of bits of birch bark touchingly reminiscent of clumsy childhood building efforts. It is only a few square centimeters in size and the interstices are clad in oil paper. It dates from 1910 and originated among the Yakutians in Russia’s far eastern territories, where glass is few and far between, and unaffordable. This simple solution at least ensures a bit more light in the home.
Between the primitive and high-tech versions, there are all manner of windows on display here: the marvelous window wall by Charles Brooking. A kind of historical exhibition of building specimens, and one of the truly great discoveries in Rem Koolhaas’ walk-through catalog of basic elements. The diversity of windows in the Brookings Collection is stunning: small windows with hearts framed in lead, ancient versions with uneven glass panes from the late 17th century, elegant neo-Gothic windows in pointed arches, large windows with refined woven struts dating from the days of Charles Dickens, playful windows with flower garlands and colored glass. A cosmos that includes wooden frames, untreated or painted white, windows with ingenious shutters and all those countless different handles and closing mechanisms.
On the first few days of the biennale, collector Charles Brooking is present in the show, along with a few other English gentlemen from the Board of Trustees of the “Brooking Collection”. They explain to visitors how the collection came about and bang the drum for the foundation of a future museum. Brooking, in his late 50s, and whom one spontaneously considers a bit ‘quirky’, routinely describes what you can also read on the collection’s homepage. As a three-year-old he was already interested in special aesthetic shapes. Encountering them in the form of 1930s English Bakelite house numbers. He later developed a passion for old buildings and their windows and started systematically visiting sites where houses were being torn down and bagging the windows. That was of course only possible because England in the 1960s and 1970s was seized by a wave of modernization, and many historical buildings got torn down as a consequence.
Down through the years, a collection of almost 5,000 complete windows has arisen – covering four centuries. And since 1985 the “Brooking National Collection” is a research foundation, officially recognized and supported, for example by Britain’s “National Trust”. If you browse the Website, you’ll also find out that Charles Brooking by no means concentrates only on windows, as he has long since expanded his collection to include rain gutters and fireplaces, staircases and ironmongery, front doors and letter boxes. He himself has for decades masterminded the collection, and is a source of great knowledge on the subject.
It is telling how the team Rem Koolhaas assembled to research the “Elements of Architecture” came across the “Brooking Collection”: Parts of it were on show at the Sir John Soanes Museum in London. No more fitting venue! Sir John Soane with his enthusiasm for historical gems and bizarre one-offs would have loved Charles Brooking’s architectural elements. However, there is a shortcoming to the presentation, as Charles Brookings says he always kept a photographic record of the buildings whence the windows and other elements came. Sadly, none of this is on show in Venice. Which makes it clear that in his exhibition Koolhaas is not interested in the context of the elements on display. All the same, those of Charles Brooking’s windows on show heighten your feel for the element and you find yourself wanting to eliminate from your mind that world of standardized industrial windows pneumatically tested to determine their normed wear and tear.
Window laboratory: A machine in the middle of the exhibition is testing today's standard window on their quality and durability. Photo © Adeline Seidel, Stylepark
Another machine shows how window fittings are manufactured. Photo © Adeline Seidel, Stylepark
Lead frames, neo-Gothic windows in pointed arches and untreated wooden frames: A wide range of architectural element window can be seen in Brooking’s collection. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
Elementary particles: even fittings for windows are part of the exhibition of the window section.
Photo © Adeline Seidel, Stylepark
In addition to corridor, wall, roof, door, stair, windows are one of the most important elements of architecture.
Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
Plastic windows are not just beautiful, but durable: the machine of a Belgian window manufacturer demonstrates how standard windows are tested.
Photo © Francesco Galli, Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia