Durable Growth

Venice 2007: Front doors in a city without streets or sidewalks

San Silvestre front door

San Silvestre front door

For a holiday respite, I’m devoting some posts through December and into January to recounting a trip I took to Venice in 2007. Using photos and notes from the trip, I’m highlighting the urbanist issues of day-to-day life in what may be the most famous car-free city in the world.

My topic for today is Venetian front doors and entries.

In Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World, author Ross Chapin writes about the transition between sidewalks and front doors.  He argues that the change from public space to private space should be signaled using landscaping, variation in pavement types, and front porches.

I found his argument reasonable and insightful.  When my wife and I recently made adjustments to our frontyard, we incorporated some of his ideas and were pleased with the result.  We prefer how we sense the transition and we note that pedestrians react to the frontyard differently than before.  They’ve become more engaged with the fountain and the seasonal blooms, but not in a way that interferes with our privacy.

With that confirmation of Chapin’s thoughts about the public to private transition, it’s interesting to look back at the front doors of Venice, a subject that had begun to fascinate me seven years ago.

San Polo front door

San Polo front door

In the absence of the typical configuration of street and sidewalk, there is far less physical separation between public and private uses in Venice.  The first photo above is of a front door directly off the San Silvestre vaporetto stop.  There was sufficient room for passengers so that no one needed to stand too near the door, but it is still odd to contemplate the equivalent of an American front door exiting into a queue of passengers awaiting a bus.

And many, perhaps most, Venetian front doors directly adjoin narrow pedestrian ways.  One is likely, upon opening a front door, to find a stranger within a couple of feet.  That was certainly true for the front door of the building that contained apartment I rented.

Despite this adjacency of front door to public space, Venetians have found ways, using door materials, door behavior, architecture, and interior design to frame the transition from public to private.  The solutions may provide insights that can be used for in urbanist projects.

To begin, all Venetian front doors have solidness.  Not all are maintained as well as might be hoped, but all make a statement that what goes on behind them is strictly private.

Santa Croce front door

Santa Croce front door

Next, Venetians don’t linger in the front door.  They slip in and out quickly.  If they want to chat with a neighbor, the door remains closed until the conversation is complete.  Nor are doors ever left open for ventilation.

Last, even during the brief instant that a door is open, little can be seen of the interior of the home.  (It wasn’t that I was being creepy, but over two weeks of wandering the city I got a few lucky glances.)  Even when the front door of one of the grand houses is open, the view was typically an unadorned entry, painted in a neutral shade such as deep tan, and without any artwork in sight.  There was no hint of the life within.

So, how do I think these elements of Venetian front doors should be applied to front doors in American urbanism?

Heavy and solid front doors are always a fine concept.  They’re a good way to connote privacy and security.

The front door behavior of the Venetians seems cold and unwelcoming.  Even if we don’t choose to invite our neighbors inside, standing in an open door to chat seems more convivial than not unlocking the door until the conversation is complete.

Murano front door

Murano front door

I really like having the life of the apartment not quite visible from the front door.  There have been times in my life when a job forced me to knock on the doors of strangers.  From those experiences, I found it unpleasant to have the first view through an opening door be of a squalling infant in a high chair or an indolent youth watching MTV while popping M&Ms.  There are times when a little privacy can be a good thing.

But I find the neutral appearance of Venetian entries to be underwhelming.  I don’t need to see an original Picasso sketch hanging on the wall, but a touch of color or an interesting wall angle would show a little personality.  I’d like to know whether the inhabitants are pale green or burnt orange folks.

Venetians have adapted to a unique set of urban circumstances.  And in those adaptations there are concepts that can be applied to American urbanism.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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