Architects spend a lot of time thinking about the entries to the buildings they design. The main building entry will set the tone for the user’s experience and will communicate many of the intentions of the owner and architect. Sometimes the entry experience is planned to start well before a visitor arrives in the building. I think of entries in two distinct ways; the announced, or obvious, and the mysterious, or sensual. There are variants and gradations between the two extremes, but I find it easier to to think about the differences in those simple terms.
Obvious entries are often seen in examples of traditional architecture. The entries are pronounced on the front of the building and are often under a porch. They are focal points that lead a visitor to them. In an urban context it is easy for a visitor to identify the entry from a sidewalk or a roadway and they are led to the entry via a path. In a rural context, where a visitor’s first glimpse of the building may be from a car, Architects often design site plans that ensure there are clearly visible entry points so it is obvious how the visitor should proceed to the entry when they park. Porches are frequently used to give visitors some protection from the elements while they wait to be invited in. Porches also begin to tell the story of the character of the house in terms of the style and quality of the materials.
Typically, on a house with an obvious entry, the goal of the architect and client is to “wow” a visitor. The space that the visitor enters tends to have more elaborate details than many of the other spaces in the house. The entry space serves basic functional requirements giving a place for a visitor to leave a coat and possibly shoes. It is fairly common that the entry space will contain an interior stair that leads to the second floor. Stairs have many parts, so they create another opportunity to include details that are distinct to a client’s desires. Stairs also begin to add to a visitor’s understanding of the spatial configuration of the house. A center hall colonial is easy to understand. You step into the house, public spaces such as the living and dining rooms are downstairs and private spaces, such as bedrooms are upstairs. Houses such as these tend to lack spatial and sensual drama, so the design of the details and craftsmanship need to be elegant in order to make the house feel unique.
WHERE DO I GO?
Mysterious entries are less “in your face” and more about creating a spatial experience the stirs a visitor’s senses. Sometimes they appear to be forbidden, making a visitor feel on edge and question if they should be there or are going the right way. The Mrs. Thomas Gale House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in Oak Park, Illinois is one of my favorite small houses. Its main entrance is minimally noticeable from the sidewalk. Looking at the house from the sidewalk you wonder how to get to the balcony and terrace in the front.
Entrance to the house is gained via a confined stair, and one is guided to a small reception space. From there, the rest of the house unfolds. After wrapping around the fireplace mass, the doors to the terrace reveal themselves. A visitor proceeds down a couple of steps into the dining room and from there he/she may get a glimpse of the small, enclosed stair that leads to the second floor. The spaces in the house slowly unfurl in a series of surprises. Generating a mental map of plan of the house becomes more difficult. It is this uneasiness of understanding the place that keeps a visitor engaged with the architecture.
When designing a building or residence, careful consideration needs to be given to the entry. Whether obvious or mysterious, entries are one of the first spaces a visitor experiences and begin to communicate the intentions of the architect and client.