Doors: They Are What They Are

by Maurice Levitch, AIA

The first time I remember thinking of doors as something other than what you walk through is when I received a poster depicting “The Doors of Boston”. With so many variations, colors, materials, and elements, together the individual doors give a sense of place; these doors incorporate an entire architectural style in a single building element. Since then I have seen many other similar posters describing places by their doors. Doors are an important part of the first impression we receive of a building.

While the main function of a door may be to allow people or vehicles in and out of a defined space, doors throughout history have been much more than that. Some buildings such as the Baptistery in Florence, Italy with its bronze doors by architect/sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti are known almost solely for their doors. These doors, the result of a competition among sculptors, were executed between 1403 and 1424 at the beginning of the Renaissance when art was becoming as important as structure. Can you imagine your client waiting over 20 years to get their front door?

As with other building elements, there are certain physical requirements to consider in door design including structure and operation, and a whole lot more in the way of architectural expression such as shape, size, materials, and color. In many cases the detail around the door receives even more attention than the door itself.

Religious and public buildings in particular seem to have doors on steroids; doors larger than life. I have stepped through many doors within doors into churches where the main door is several stories high. I’m not sure if the man-size door was always there or if it was cut in at a later date after the hinges failed. The entry door at the City of Emeryville City Hall, in stainless steel and glass, is so heavy that I can hardly open it. These are doors that I remember. Harking back to earlier times, many doors have once again become more than what we use them for.

Today we have advanced door design with technology and new materials so we can have entire opening walls of doors that allow the integration of indoors and outdoors. We have fiberglass doors (with wood grain pressed into them that take wood stain) that stand up to harsh environments without warping. We have solid steel doors with multipoint latching systems for security. (The salesperson at the open house for a new urban condominium project commented, “Why put glass in the door, we want you to feel safe!”)

In most of our projects today we find a door in a catalogue, have it pre-hung, then install it in the opening and put trim around it. Is this because of the high cost of materials and labor, or because maybe first impressions are not always the most important part of a building? Sure we want our buildings to present themselves nicely, but let’s invest more in the building systems that work together to present a successful whole. This way, your client and others will remember more than just the door. And…don’t let it hit you on the way out.

This article was originally published in the October 2006 issue of Builder/Architect magazine.