I always encourage members of study trips I lead to speak up and share their knowledge. I tell them "I don't learn anything when I'm speaking. I only learn when one of you speaks." In that way I've learned many things. Last month Ning Tang from Hunan, China spoke up and set me to thinking about windows -- a marvel of architecture.
It all started when visiting Teotihuacan in the company of a group from the School of Social Work at the University of Alabama which included Ms. Tang, who is working on her masters degree. I was pointing out a characteristic of Teotihuacan's housing complexes -- they have no windows. In fact, ancient Mesoamerican architecture in general does not make use of windows. As soon as I said "Windows are a European idea, introduced to Mesoamerica by the Spaniards after the conquest," I realized what an ethnocentric gaffe I had committed. I wondered if it would slip by without notice. But no, Ning immediately spoke up, politely but succinctly stating "Ancient Chinese architecture had windows."
I apologized -- hoping I'd done so profusely -- and quickly rephrased my statement. "Spaniards introduced windows to Mesoamerican architecture."
The closest thing to a window in ancient Mesoamerican buildings are ventilation holes. They are not even big enough for a person to rest elbows on the windowsill and lean out to see what is going on outside – a favorite activity in the tropics. In Spanish there is a marvelous word for this activity--“asomarse.” This involves not just looking out the window, but being seen too. In English there is no comparable word.
Without windows in ancient Mesoamerican buildings sunlight entered only through doorways facing the outdoors or opening onto patios. Though doorway really isn’t the correct term because Mesoamerican buildings had no doors either. Entryways were closed by tying curtains across them. In the rare cases of one room behind another both facing the same source of light, the entryway to the first room was extra wide allowing for more light to enter.
Anyone who’s driven to the Maya ruins in northern Yucatan will remember passing thatch-roofed houses with no windows and no corners. The traditional Mayan house has an oval floor plan with front and back doors lining up on the long 'side' of the house. One can look right through the house from the front yard to the back yard. That age-old style of house with its steep-peaked roof was probably the model for the corbelled arched ceilings we see in Maya ruins.
When speaking to Mexicans about windows the subject of taxes invariably arises. Likewise, when new types of taxes are the topic of discussion, windows are talked about. It all goes back to Antonio López de Santa Anna (1794-1876), who was president of Mexico eleven times between 1833 and 1855. Santa Anna, copying several countries in Europe, taxed windows.
The wealthy had more windows than the poor and thus paid more taxes. Taxes were higher on main avenues than on back streets. Indeed, taxes were higher in Mexico City than in state capitals which in turn had a higher tax rate than in municipal seats. Though ridiculed, Santa Anna's taxes on windows and doors was a progressive taxation policy. In Europe and Mexico the very richest families used the tax to show off their wealth; the window tax encouraged ostentation.
In contemporary society, windows are a harbinger of prestige. The college dean has a corner office with windows on two walls. Tenured professors have windows on one of their office walls. The recently hired professor may have a vent to a stairwell. It is similar, if more cutthroat, in the corporate world.
Travelers from the United States frequently comment on the bars on the windows in Mexican homes and buildings. Since most buildings in Mexico are made of brick and concrete there is little concern for fire. In the United States where many houses are built with flammable materials, windows need to double as emergency exits. A bedroom window must be big enough for a firefighter with a tank on his or her back to crawl in. If windows have bars they can only be decorative and must be able to be easily opened without the need for tools. I don’t think people in the United States and Mexico often consider that if others are locked out they are locked in.
I enjoy evening drives through villages in low-lying coastal and southeastern Mexico. Residents frequently put rocking chairs out on the sidewalks and sit and chat with their neighbors leaving their windows and doors open. During those opportunities I always ask our bus driver to slow down and allow us to peer in to the illuminated interiors of the homes.
I wished I’d ask my new friend if there is a word in Chinese that is similar to "asomarse." Since they’ve had windows for thousands of years perhaps they have refined techniques for sitting by the window and being seen, conversing with the passing world.