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Clerestory Window in Architecture: Definition & Design

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There are many kinds of windows, and each has its own unique impact on both the interior and exterior of the structure. In this lesson, we'll check out clerestory windows and see how they're used in architecture and design.

The Clerestory Window

They say that windows are the eyes of the building, and eyes are the windows to the soul. So, windows are windows to the soul of the building? It's not exactly eloquent, but it works. Windows, which are extremely important features of a structure, allow natural light into the interior and let people visually connect between interior and exterior spaces. So, it's important to make sure that your building has the right kind of windows.

One option for those whose souls are perhaps a bit more private (but still prefer to be well-lit) is the clerestory window. Rather than being placed in the center of a wall, clerestory windows are up high, near the top of the wall. It's a different way to give eyes to your building, but we think you'll like what you see.

Clerestory windows in the parliament building of Budapest
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History

The concept behind the clerestory window is simple and ancient: if we had some openings at the top of the wall, we could get some natural light inside a big, enclosed room. Efforts to place slits or openings in the wall can be found in the Temple of Karnak in ancient Egypt. The ancient Romans built arched openings on multi-level public buildings to let light and air flow more freely. The true clerestory window, however, appeared in the medieval era.

Architects of medieval Gothic churches found ways to build larger structures using external supports called flying buttresses. This eliminated the need for as many internal supports, and as a result, their interior sanctuaries were vast, open, and airy. To highlight this, they became obsessed with adding windows into their walls (now strong enough to allow for numerous openings), bathing the interiors in natural light. From this obsession came a tradition of filling the upper level of the cathedral with a row of large glass windows. In essence, they created a ''clear story'' of glass, which is where the name (and proper pronunciation) of clerestory comes from.

Clerestory in a Gothic cathedral in France, where this feature first became popular
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The inclusion of a clerestory became ubiquitous in large structures with thick walls and lots of interior space. However, it took longer to adapt into smaller-scale domestic architecture. The person to really define our modern use of clerestory windows was American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

In the early twentieth century, Wright championed something called the Prairie School architectural form, which emulated the expansive feeling of the Great Plains through the use of low ceilings as well as flat surfaces, which culminated in solid walls. Rather than break up the solid center of the wall, Wright added rows of small, rectangular windows near the top. It was enough to bathe the rooms in natural light, while leaving the walls solid and unbroken. Much of our modern use of clerestory windows in domestic architecture stems from this innovation.

Frank Lloyd Wright learned how to incorporate clerestory windows into domestic spaces, seen here in the Pope-Leighy House in Virginia
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When and How to Use Clerestory Windows

Since clerestory windows are defined by their placement on the wall, and not a specific size or shape, they're actually pretty versatile. There are many appropriate ways to use them. Today, large spaces like gymnasiums, libraries, and concert halls often use clerestory windows to provide light and airflow.

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