Have you ever thought about a window when you thought of home?
I don’t mean the metaphorical window, but the very real thing that is not meant to be looked at, but rather looked through to see something else. Or to be seen (if you’re that kind of person). We don’t really notice it when it’s there, our attention always goes towards the object that we see through that hole in the wall. But the window is there, it’s both opening up our gaze to the space outside our four walls, and shaping it for us from a very particular perspective. It serves like a viewfinder of a camera, delivering a specific angle and width, composing and focusing the picture… It gives us a certain point-of-view shot, either of the outside world or into the intimacy of a home. It can serve voyeuristic or protective purposes.
Windows are a very human part of house design. Animals usually don’t built them into their burrows, holes and hives. For the modern human windows serve a very specific purpose of connecting to the outside world, to feel part of particular rural environment or urban infrastructure.
I have always been an avid window gazer, and I still remember every single view that unfolded in front of me from the safety of my numerous homes. However, I could not reproduce the features of any of the windows I was looking through – neither their shape nor colour, material of the frame or, least of all, the curtains that adorned them.
But I remember the construction site of a light-blue concrete panel house on the other side of the road, which I, being a very romantic child and deeply steeped in the theatrical world of my parents, regarded as some sort of urban manifestation of Maeterlinck’s Blue Bird of Happiness.
I remember later having a panoramic view of Moscow from my nursery, including a lot of sky regularly covered with objects that could not be identified by neither of my family members. Interestingly, the kilometre-wide open space was not enough for my inner eye, so I regularly pinned more drawings of windows to our wall paper.
Our move to Berlin in my early teens brought a shift in my window-gazing behaviour and I became quite a Peeping Tom for a while. Having moved a few times within just a couple of years, I most vividly remember the content of all the windows that were accessible to my eye. It was certainly a time where the private behaviour of other human beings became more interesting than birds and trees. My curiosity about what lies behind the German curtains tickled my imagination, and paired with the lack of own experience I had to rely on what the window frame could offer. Here again my romantic inclinations transformed every other home into a site of most cinematic nature.
The Dutch, I quickly discovered after having moved to Amsterdam, have a thing with windows. I think everyone who has ever visited the city has been impressed by the beauty of its centre at night, with all the windows lit-up and uncovered, seemingly welcoming your gaze into yet such a well-guarded privacy of a Dutch home. Both, the size of the windows and to a great extent the lack of visual cover are deeply rooted in Dutch history, and by now are rather more representative of a certain national character trait than architectural preference. So I keep wondering how expat tenants, who increasingly inhabit the city centre, approach such distinct cultural features.
For me, window gazing became part of the discovery of the world. It’s the discovery of limits and limitations of my own perspective, no matter whether my gaze explores the outside or the inside space. It’s the strangeness of places passing by behind the car or the train window, or the awe-inspiring view from an airplane. It’s the view from a hotel room that always leaves you with a sense of alienness, no matter how often you’ve been to that city. It’s the snapshot-gaze into someone else’s life when you were just passing by, by foot, by bike, or by car. Deep in the night, in a place you will never return to… Only for some strange reason you will remember that yellow-lit kitchen with two people sitting at the table. And it leaves you nostalgic, this tick of a second when the dim kitchen light meets your retina, before it dissolves in the greater picture. That swift passing of sadness. Or tenderness. Or whatever feeling you can fit into a blink of an eye.
Amsterdam windows - a historical note
Originally, Amsterdam houses were made of wood and typically had one big space centred around the fireplace, with high ceilings needed to divert the unhealthy smoke.
With the increasing use of stone, the home space began to change. The building of a chimney made it possible to create a second storey and create a smaller private space at the back of the house.
While the front part of the house was traditionally used as a shop with its doors and windows always opened to the visitors, the warm and cosy back room was exclusively reserved for the small family circle.
This duality of constant openness to the bigger public and yet well-protected privacy of home became a distinctive part of the Dutch social culture and can be claimed to have established the idea of home as we know it today.
Cover image cred: Xenia Bordukowa Pattberg