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If the horizontal sliding window was relatively little used in Western architecture up to then, sliding elements are a constant of Traditional Japanese Architecture. In fact, the Japanese timber post-and-beam system provides great freedom for the organisation and relationship of spaces, enhanced by the use of partitions made up of removable sliding panels. As a consequence the various interior compartments easily become a large undifferentiated and fluid space. Their application in the outer perimeter, on the other hand, allows the façade to open promoting a fusion between interior and exterior. The use of sliding panels composed of a wooden structure – shōji and fusuma³⁴ – whose filling was made of rice paper or cloth – allowing people to see out when open and only to admit light when closed – became therefore very popular. Glass panes only began to be introduced at the end of the 19th century³⁵.

Frank Lloyd Wright, deeply influenced by Japanese architecture³⁶, became interested in these elements, which he described in his Autobiography.³⁷ In his work he adopted the use of long ribbons of
windows, as early as the Prairie Houses in Chicago (1893-1910), since this layout allowed a great relationship between interior spaces and nature outside. This architectural approach, then uncommon in Europe, was especially well received in Southern California because of its particularly temperate weather. In fact, glazing was still a long way from providing a suitable thermal response, so it was mild climate that opened the way to the “picture windows” and “glass walls” of ranch houses.³⁸

It was also in California that, from 1919, Wright designed and built a series of houses with courtyards, large glazed surfaces and mitred glass windows. Although Wright did not favour sliding solutions –
preferring the coplanarity of casement windows – the same was not true for his Viennese collaborator Rudolph M. Schindler. Indeed, since his very first works, Schindler made an extensive use of sliding
glass doors.³⁹ At Kings Road House in West Hollywood (California, 1921-22), he adopted a single-story structure with a direct relationship with the exterior through sliding patio doors composed of a timber frame filled with glass or canvas.

Sliding doors at Schindler’s residence in West Hollywood (1921-22).
Originally the sliding frames were filled with canvas.
Above: Photo by Julius Shulman, 1953.
Below: Photo by Julius Shulman, 1991.

© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10).

 

34. Shōji are translucent panels of sliding or, later, folding screens. Fusuma are opaque sliding panels, sometimes decorated with paintings.
35. See on this subject “Absorbing Modernity: Japan’s Glassmaking Tradition” in Rem Koolhaas, AMO, Harvard Graduate School of Design, James Westcott (ed.), Elements, Marsilio, 2014, pp. 682-683.
36. Frank Lloyd Wright had contact with Japanese architecture at the age of 26, through the Pavilion Ho-o-den (Phoenix) Pavilion at the World’s Fair Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. He later visited Japan in 1905, became a collector and dealer of Japanese art and built the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo (1919-23). All these encounters led him to revolutionise domestic architecture according to Japanese principles, not only in the adoption of naturalistic motifs and in the use of screens, but also in the organisation of open plan interior spaces and, particularly, in the promotion of an intense internal-external relationship in his architecture. 
37. “The sliding paper shoji, or outside screens that serve in place of windows and enclose the interior room spaces (they are actually the outside walls), all slide back into a recess in the walls. They too are removable.” Frank Lloyd Wright, An Autobiography, Pomegranate Communications, p. 196 (first published in 1943 by Duel, Sloan and Pearce).

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