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Shaping the City

Household Shutters Should Be More Than Just Another Pretty Facade

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, January 8, 2005; Page F04

Like many architects who design homes, when clients ask for windows flanked by shutters, I shudder.

Shutters have long challenged the modernist aesthetic sensibility of American architects, primarily because architects view most shutters as fakery.

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Shutters seem especially alien to contemporary façade compositions because non-traditional window and door patterns, state-of-the-art construction materials and details, and sometimes complex exterior wall "topographies" do not lend themselves to shutters.

So why are shutters so ubiquitous?

Chalk it up to popular taste. Most Americans prefer traditionally styled homes, no matter how historically incorrect. And shutters are among the enduring hallmarks of traditional residential architecture. Once, shutters served a function. Today, most are inoperative, a kind of non-functional, referential emblem whose purpose is solely decorative.

Take away the shutters, though, and most homeowners are likely to feel that their houses appear naked, cheap and deprived of style.

Shutters on today's houses often share common characteristics.

They are usually too narrow in relation to window size. Even if they could be closed, they would not fit over the windows properly. Often shutters are placed only on front facades facing streets, not on visible side facades, and rarely on rear facades. This saves money but serves to underscore the role of shutters as pure ornament. And most are made of vinyl or aluminum, not wood, the material from which shutters historically have been fabricated.

Thus the modernist critique of ersatz shutters is partly about authenticity. If you want to live in a dwelling that aspires to look as if it were built 200 years ago, why not correctly replicate shutters installed 200 years ago?

But the architectural critique also relates to the original function of louvered shutters: to simultaneously provide privacy and natural ventilation; to filter daylight; and to help insulate against summer heat and winter cold.

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