Peering through curtainless windows

Amsterdam is a city of beautiful windows. Centuries-old canal houses - tall, narrow, and high-gabled - feature up to a dozen windows in front. As silvery light pours through the shiny panes, residents enjoy close-up views of water, houseboats, canal traffic, and pedestrians passing by.

The view for pedestrians looking in can be equally rewarding. For Amsterdam is also a city of bare windows. Passersby strolling along cobblestoned walks by day, or gliding through canals on an evening boat tour, find that uncurtained windows offer a discreet, friendly view of life behind front doors.

In one window last week, a Delft-blue pitcher filled with daffodils graced a richly polished table. In another, a family gathered for a meal. In a third house, a young man relaxed in front of a television. Elsewhere, a black and white cat dozed on a windowsill. It is a tableau of daily life, a glimpse of home decor, that rewards any observant visitor.

One Amsterdam native traces the bare-window custom to Lutheran traditions after the Reformation. "If you had your windows closed, people thought something was going on that you were ashamed of," she says. "If windows are open, everybody can look in and see that you're not doing anything wrong."

Still, an unwritten code of etiquette prevails: It's OK to look in someone's window, but it's not OK to cup your hands against the glass and stare.

Even a taxi driver mentions the frequent lack of curtains. "It is the Dutch way," he says with a measure of pride.

Now a less-curtained look may become the American way as well. Last week The New York Times reported that heavy draperies are out. Gossamer silks and translucent linen panels are in. But some New Yorkers don't bother to draw even the sheerest curtains, preferring to give neighbors unobstructed views of their activities.

One interior designer speculates that the trend toward bare windows reflects changing attitudes about privacy. With people talking on cellphones everywhere and eating on the street, he told the Times, a new openness prevails.

In the 1950s, Americans first flirted with more openness when the suburban picture window came into vogue. Like a giant TV screen, the front window offered a constant view of a family's life and furnishings. In houses where curtains remained open at night, anyone passing by could enjoy a view of the whole family settled in front of the blue glow of a black-and-white TV screen. What innocent voyeurism!

Do today's uncurtained windows signal a new American longing for connection, an antidote to loneliness? In suburbs, where isolation has become a well-documented reality, front porches are also making a comeback, although no one ever seems to sit on them and actually chat with neighbors.

Even Martha Stewart, the doyenne of suburban living, is considering leaving the seclusion of her Westport, Conn., house for the crowds of Manhattan. "I don't want to be a single person in a big house on a street with lots of other underoccupied homes separated by stone walls and locked gates," she has said. Will she too embrace the bare-window look?

Definitions of privacy change. On both sides of the Atlantic, what people worry about exposing today is not always what Grandmother worried about as she drew her velvet draperies tightly shut every evening. For some, pulling down the window shades may seem less important than hiding ATM numbers and guarding privacy on the Internet.

Even so, traditional privacy still has its place. In time, the no-views-barred approach of curtainless New Yorkers will probably shift again as a new generation discovers the old-fashioned pleasures of box pleats and valances. When that happens, there will still be the lovely canal houses of Amsterdam to offer travelers vignettes of 21st-century domesticity.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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