Habitat Book Review: “Portals” by Philippa Lewis


One of my favorite Christmas presents this past year is a book from my dear friend, Carol Parlett, which she discovered at a book fair in Philadelphia. I was immediately enchanted by this diminutive book with its black and white cover of a stone bridge surrounded by a rural English scene. The book’s author, Philippa Lewis, is an architectural historian and was intrigued by “gates, stiles, windows, bridges & other crossings” described in these and twenty-four other categories that are the subjects of this delightful book.

Each category is briefly described in two pages, with one page divided between the text and the featured picture(s) along with other illustrations on the opposite page. The exquisite black and white miniature illustrations are either historical references or original drawings by the British artist Miles Thistlewaite.

Like the author, I also had four years of Latin so I was not surprised by her selection of “portals” for her book’s title. She explains “portal” derives from the Latin “carry” (portare) and in her view we are transported elsewhere though harbors, airplanes and railway stations and other means of transport that are the subjects of the book. In the age of the Internet, “portal” now means a gateway to other websites where one has instant access to an infinite amount of information from diverse resources.

The “portals” category includes airports, harbors, and railway stations that the author considers to be “gateways” for travel. Illustrations includes the Berlin Friedrichstrasse station and the Swedish port of Stockholm.

In contrast to man-made portals, the category of “natural portals” includes canyons, gorges and valleys that are natural geographic passes by which we cross mountain ranges. One of the illustrations was the waterfall between rock walls in Snowdonia, Wales. Being an ardent fan of the Sherlock Holmes series, I thought of the famous final confrontation between Holmes and Moriarty at the edge of the Reichenbach Falls, over the Reichenbach, a tributary of the river Aare.

As an architect, her categories of “thresholds” and “doors” were familiar so I was interested in the illustrations she chose. The striking ancient gateway in the wall surrounding Beijing is all that remains of this remarkable edifice. The beautifully drafted sketch of a design for a Parisian ornamented and studded door probably opened onto an interior courtyard. I was intrigued by her reference to the metal “snuffers” for extinguishing a torch before one entered a building in the days before streetlamps and I was charmed by sketches of door handles and knockers.

Perhaps my favorite of her categories was “stairs” since they include such diverse examples as modern treads with open risers, steep steps of the step-form Mayan temple of Teotihuacan which I climbed once, or the illustration of the plan and perspective of the wooden staircase with two graceful turns.

What would a room be without windows? The author devotes one category to “large windows” which were made possible by the development of techniques in glass-making. Sizes and shapes of windows changed forever by this technical breakthrough and made possible the penetration of even more daylight into interiors. I was mesmerized by the exhibit at the National Gallery of “Vermeer and his Contemporaries” where the subjects of the paintings looked out through the frames of large open windows that broadened their view of the world outside as the sunlight filtered in. Two famous houses in the US, Philip Johnson’s Glass house and Mies van der Rohe’s design for the Farnsworth House, windows become full exterior walls entirely of glass.

Several categories dealt with rural life and I was intrigued by the “fences for animals” category. The illustration for a “ha ha” showed a masonry wall next to a wide ditch at the bottom of an embankment that was a clever way to separate the house’s garden and landscape from the grazing areas for livestock.

Several categories were devoted to various “styles”. “Styles Over” were breaks in a fence with protruding stone steps or wooden cross steps that allowed people to cross over but animals could not. “Styles Through” again allowed people to cross over via a bridge style with horizontal planks at each end to deter animals. Another option in metal was the “squeezer style” that resembled an open arced tweezer attached by horizontal iron bars to a masonry or stone fence. The category “Kissing Gate” certainly caught my attention. It was a variation of a turnstile which flapped back and forth in a fence that maintained a barrier to animals but allowed humans through.

Bridges were another category that appealed to me as an architect. The cover of the book shows the 19th century Eltham Bridge at Eltham Palace in Kent, England, with its Gothic styled arches and thick piers. The author noted that the Romans invented stone arches which made it possible to join multiple spans of arches for the aqueducts that delivered water to an empire. The Incas invented the suspension bridge hand woven from natural fibers that had to be renewed or replaced annually for safety.

“Magical Portals” have enchanted children of all ages and I still treasure my childhood copies of “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass” with their original illustrations. When I first read these books as a child, I was entranced by Alice’s ability to follow the White Rabbit down the rabbit-hole and pass through the looking glass to meet live chess queens and endure a most unusual tea party.

The last category is “The Rainbow”, a bridge or portal in many myths and religions worldwide. It a symbol of the pact of peace between heaven and earth to Christians and Jews. My Scotch-Irish ancestors believed that leprechauns hid pots of gold at a rainbow’s end. The author believes rainbows “remind us of journeys yet to be made”. Great books expand one’s horizons and I am so grateful to the author for my journey through this enlightening and charming book.

“Portals” is a book in “ The Wooden Books Series” and was published by Bloomsbury USA, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. “Portals” first US edition was in 2018..

Jennifer Martella has pursued her dual careers in architecture and real estate since she moved to the Eastern Shore in 2004. Her award winning work has ranged from revitalization projects to a collaboration with the Maya Lin Studio for the Children’s Defense Fund’s corporate retreat in her home state of Tennessee.

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