As someone who loves looking out the window, I was excited to learn about how 50 of the world’s prominent writers relate to their own window views in Matteo Pericoli’s WINDOWS ON THE WORLD, published by Penguin Press. While reading through various profiles, from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to T.C. Boyle, I got to experience a small slice of the daily lives of writers through their own eyes. In the interview below, Matteo Pericoli shares the inspiration behind WINDOWS ON THE WORLD and the insights he gained from working on this project.
Q: You are an architect, teacher, and, of course, the author and illustrator of many books. How did you form the idea for WINDOWS ON THE WORLD?
Matteo Pericoli: In 2004 I paused in front of the window at my Upper West Side apartment and felt an urge to take the view with me. I had looked out that window for seven years, day after day, taking in that particular arrangement of buildings, and, now, I was about to move out. Without knowing it, this view had become my most familiar image of the city. So, on that day, I finally paid attention. I drew it, frame and all, on a large sheet of brown paper noticing for the first time the quantity of things I didn’t know I had been looking at for so long. Since then, I’ve spent years drawing window views.
During my research for a book on New York City window views, I found that writers often had a similar relationship with their windows as I did to mine. For example, Tom Wolfe told me he had chosen his apartment because of the view from one window. That particular view mattered to him even more than the space inside. For anyone stuck working indoors, a window is either a way to connect with the world or a source of distraction to be avoided. This was the simple premise of the “Windows on the World” series, which started in 2010 in the New York Times and continued in the Paris Review Daily: drawings of writers’ window views from around the world accompanied by their texts.
Q: What was revealed to you after drawing your own window? What did you notice, or come to understand, as a result?
MP: Most obviously, it’s really hard to truly pay attention to what is right in front of us, to what is part of our daily routines. I kind of knew the overall arrangement of the buildings and that there were several trees, but many of the details—the third, fourth and fifth water towers (I had always sensed that there were only two) or a cluster of six or seven chimneys protruding from the roof of a nearby brownstone—were new to me. Before putting lines on paper it was all very fuzzy, but at the same time it was all deeply mine.
Now, window views have become a more complex matter to me. Since then, there have been four more homes, two in New York City and two in Turin, Italy, where I currently live. In my first home in Turin—an attic apartment right underneath a century-old roof, with huge wood beams and dormers—I recall looking out the window one evening (the large courtyard with an immense horse chestnut tree, a series of stone rooftops with chimneys, a distant hill) and having the sensation that the view didn’t exist before we occupied that apartment, like we kind of invented it. Since that moment, I’ve come to feel that windows are not only for gazing out of but also for reflecting back—at your decisions, your moves, and the choices you have made either by yourself or with someone else.
Q: What insights can you share about the views in this book? Do you feel more connected to these people or places?
MP: It was exciting to inhabit another world, or even someone else’s brain, and perceive what the writer perceives daily. Drawing what someone else observes is almost like teleportation, since you practically place yourself and your senses into a remote place. I’ve immensely enjoyed this way of virtual traveling, as it has lead me to see places as if I’d been there, places I may never see in person. I certainly feel very connected to all of the views. I spent days analyzing the dozens of photos taken from various angles trying to extract the details. I was particularly thrilled to receive Mr. Al Aswany’s photographs. The quantity of visual stories that I could draw was overwhelming: the train line, the densely inhabited buildings, the antennas, the clothesline, the strangely meandering wires.
It was always an emotional moment when the writer shared his or her text. It was when everything came together. Several of our contributors have even thanked me for revealing their views to them, isn’t it funny?
Q: What did you learn about creativity and the meaning of home by working on this project?
MP: If imagination is the ability to create new ideas, a window view is a platform for imagination. The simplicity of the project (what’s outside your window? I draw it, and you write about it) was an opportunity for the lines and words to coexist. As in Ms. Adichie’s beautiful text: “The metal bars on the window — burglaryproof, as we call it — sometimes give the street the air of a puzzle, jagged pieces waiting to be fit together and form a whole.”
When the series ran in the New York Times, it inspired several schools to carry out the project with their students. The drawings and essays were all incredibly intense and so telling about the lives of children. I’d love to expand on this with kids from around the globe to learn how children see the world so maybe we’d also learn more about how we design their environments.
Q: This book takes readers all over the world, from Cairo to Miami, and even to places some of us may have never heard of, like Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, or Skopje, Macedonia. Why make this project on a global scale?
MP: Seeing places though someone else’s mind’s eye offers incredible insight. Having writers’ views from around the world allows us to focus on how each of us perceives the place we live in (rather than, say, what a particular city looks like), to reflect on the meaning of home and on our routines and habits. I hope this book will make people wonder about their own context as well as their place within that context. As I’ve discovered, a window view allows for introspection.
About Matteo Pericoli
MATTEO PERICOLI was born in Milan, where he graduated from the Polytechnic School of Architecture. He moved to New York in 1995, where he has worked as an architect, illustrator, author, journalist, and teacher. He currently lives with his wife and daughter in Turin, Italy, where he teaches, among other places, at his Laboratory of Literary Architecture. His books include MANHATTAN UNFURLED and THE CITY OUT MY WINDOW.