Defence mechanism

“Sam and Cliff used to be friends,” wrote Raymond Carver. “Then one night they got to drinking. They had words. The next thing, Sam had built a fence and then Cliff built one too.”

The fence, as it appears in Carver’s short story “I Could See the Smallest Things”, represents a kind of fall from paradise, the appearance of a symbol of division and tension, the manifestation of wariness and hostility. The word shares its origins, as you might expect, with defence; it is a mechanism for keeping the other out. But since in our era it is usually built from flimsy timber, perhaps only 18in tall – quite easy to just step over – it is also much more than that. The fence is a graphic device, a border, a boundary, a map of the land demarcating private property; it is as close as architecture gets to a pure sign.

It has also become an intriguing metaphor for suburbia, the idea of a visual marker dividing endless, seemingly identical plots in a sentimental gesture of possession. When David Lynch wants to introduce us to an archetype of the American dream suburb in his film Blue Velvet (1986), he begins with shots of flowers swaying gently in the breeze against the white canvas of a picket fence. But then, being David Lynch, it all goes wrong. Suburbia, as we now know, is a cipher for a seething hotbed of perversion and vice beneath a veneer of Sunday-best respectability. Dennis Hopper, incidentally, who played the psychotic Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, had his Venice, LA house designed by his friend Frank Gehry. Outside the windowless corrugated metal-clad house he put up a comically inappropriate white picket fence, a good gag which points out the odd symbolism of the fence as sign in a context of urban über-wealth.

The problem with fences is that they contain and constrict as much as they define. In Carver’s world the fence becomes a symbol of alienation, of a world gone bad, just as it does in films such as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and American Beauty (1999).

Why do we need fences? They are more to delineate than to defend. A world without barriers is also a world of the unknown and the fence is the primal gesture of defining a place, of establishing a private world within the bigger picture. In August Wilson’s 1983 play Fences, the main character Troy Maxson, a black former baseball player (and now garbage man) attempts to build a fence around his yard as a defence against the looming prospect of death, convinced its completion will keep him safe. He fails to complete it, and dies. The fence here refers also to the colour bar that stopped him from crossing over into the major league but it begins to illustrate the power of a pure symbol in contemporary culture.

In a very different world, the grimy industrial urbanity of Karel Reisz’s 1960 film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, the fence becomes a constrictive throttle against which Albert Finney’s rabble-rousing rebel Arthur Seaton pushes to escape. The fearsome neighbourhood gossips lean on fences as they talk, representing everything the sexually incontinent Seaton is set against. In the film’s funniest scene he shoots one of the over-the-fence gossips in the behind with an air gun. Just like the heroes of It’s a Wonderful Life and Fences, he fails to escape.

The fence then represents a paradoxical cocktail of security and fear. Its existence is an acknowledgement of the imperfection of the world around us. And as fear escalates, as the super-wealthy and the poor live increasingly side-by-side in contemporary cities, the fence is making the move from the suburban to the urban. But the new fenced settlements are referred to not by the barrier, the fence, but by the euphemism of its opening, the gate. The “gated community” is now a commonplace, an anti-urban compound that privatises streets and alienates the city.

Despite its debasement, though, the gate itself remains the most potent of architectural symbols. The ancients believed that the sun set through a gate at the edge of the world and, after a passage through darkness, re-emerged the following day through another. The great monuments and early temples, from Stonehenge to Tiwanaku, were all forms of sun gate and, as the house is always a manifestation of a mini-temple, the symbolism spread. Just as the sun appears above a door in the rising sun motif of the fanlight, it appears on the suburban art deco gate once ubiquitous in British suburbia, a fleeting reference to ancient myth.

On grander houses the piers to either side of the gate are a faint memory of the standing stones sun temple, just as the wrought iron, forged in fire, echoes in its making the heat of the sun. Just look at Buckingham Palace, whose gates are adorned with lions (their fiery manes a symbol of the sun) and highlighted in gold leaf, reflecting the sun’s shimmer. They stand between two stone piers and their swelling profile echoes the aura of a sun rising above the horizon. At Versailles, Sun King Louis XIV is depicted in the gates as the sun itself, his flowing locks emanating like rays from his head.

Of course, there are gates to heaven and there are gates to hell: every gate has two sides, just as the Roman god Janus, deity of beginnings and transitions, had two faces. Janus gave his name not only to January, the first month after the winter solstice and the beginning of a new year, but to janitors, who control the keys and the gates. Janus has passed down to us as St Peter (always pictured in art with a key), controlling heaven’s pearly gates, the image of which actually comes to us from a strange description of the New Jerusalem in The Book of Revelation (“And the 12 gates were 12 pearls”).

What illustrations of the pearly gates make clear is that this is a fence and not a wall. Paradise is visible. A fence can allow both transparency and security but it needs a language with which to convey that message. In the elegant, restrained squares of 18th-century London it achieved a subtle, sophisticated vocabulary that allowed it to stay light in weight yet say through a refined language what it needed to. An extraordinary array of finials and decorations emerged, a vocabulary of cast -iron elements. There were spears and arrowheads (passive/aggressive), urns (classical/tasteful/solemn), acorns (fertile), pineapples (exotic), thistles (Scots) and a huge selection of lights and lanterns for gateposts and corners – a return to the gates of the sun.

It’s not quite a lost language: designer Matthias Megyeri’s “Sweet Dreams Security” is a witty, unsettling take on the archetype. Finials of monstrous, sharp-eared bunnies and sinister penguins present a contemporary take on the fence as the enduring symbol of domestic security.

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