You can do a lot with curtains. I was reminded of that when I experienced Petra Blaise’s project for the Dutch Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale this year. Blaise emptied out the building, designed in 1964 by Gerrit Rietveld, and installed a single curtain that ran along a motorized, ceiling-mounted track describing a complex path through the space. The curtains, sporting Blaise's signature geometric patterns and collages of materials, move at unpredictable intervals, creating first one space with an alcove, then a cross-shaped center, then three separate spaces, and finally a labyrinth.
What to me is especially powerful about this work is the way it references Rietveld’s Schroeder House (Utrecht, the Netherlands, 1923–1925). There, the furniture-maker-turned-architect used moving walls to much the same effect, letting the inhabitants live in variations of a loft or a cellular arrangement according to their choice or the time of day. Its mechanism was complex and fragile, and these days only museum staff members wearing white gloves perform the operation. With curtains, however, it is easy.
A few days later, I was in Room 606 in the Arne Jacobsen-design SAS Radisson Hotel in Copenhagen, a room divided by a sheer curtain that lets the management designate the single volume as a “suite.” Not only does that sheer divider create two zones, but the heavy, blue curtain that unfurls across the length of the eye-height slot of windows running from wall to wall turns a panorama of daytime Copenhagen and its sky into a solid plane that plays off the room’s other colors to enhance the sense that you are in a cocoon.
Sometimes curtains have less aesthetic purposes. In another recent post, I noted how the secret service cordoned off whole sections of the Cincinnati park in which I work, creating temporary zones of exclusion. There, curtains created safety, but by that same token, they had a sense of menace or danger about them.
In our fairly isolated house, situated in urban woods, we have no curtains, only blinds we use to shield the worst of the summer sun or, during the winter, to provide a little bit of privacy when our neighbors no longer have their views blocked by the leaves. Those leaves, now beginning to abandon their sylvan perches, are our curtains, nestling us in our glass-walled domicile.
In all these cases, it is a scrim or screen that creates a particular atmosphere within a space, gives character to an environment, or defines a territory. It does not take walls to do all that, nor a lot of decoration or detail. Scrims are often more effective than solid dividers at shaping space not only because they are easy to deploy, but also because their sensuality takes you out of being in a neutral frame or cell and into a particular place.
I would love to live in a world of nothing but curtains. I wish we could develop not only a technology, but also a sociality (because you can hear and see so much through fabric), that would let us do away with the hardness of walls and roofs. I know it is not practical (yet), but experiments such as Blaise’s, or moments such as when I see the radical difference a screen can make for safety or privacy, or just when I sit here and watch the leaves fall and open the curtains of nature, make me dream that some day it will be.