“When I walk past the tiny houses on our street, I wonder about the stories inside them. I wonder hard, because houses must have walls and rooftops for a reason. My only query is the windows. Why do they have windows? Is it to let a glimpse of the world in? Or for us to see out?”
This is the simple question that Markus Zusak , the author best known for The Book Thief, asks in his novel Fighting for Ruben Wolfe. Windows are such a fundamental part of our existence, yet we rarely stop to think about them. On the most practical level, they bring light into our homes and provide a view onto the world. But they also perform a more subtle function that helps make living in towns and cities that bit better.
When you visit a city such as Paris or Florence, what’s the first thing you do once you’ve found your hotel, changed and freshened up? If you’re like me, you’ll make a beeline for the old quarter, take a stroll and enjoy getting lost in the mazes of the narrow, winding streets. And the narrower the better. Part of the fun of those old city streets is peeking into houses and bars and restaurants and seeing life in all its glory, both outside and in.
Think of those moments when you get a passing glimpse into a beautifully tended courtyard garden, or into a warmly lit living room. There’s a peculiar thrill when you’re treated to a tiny vignette of people simply living their lives, doing the same things that you do when you’re in your own home. It’s the sight of someone fixing their hair in a bedroom mirror, or sitting down for dinner with a friend, talking on the phone or simply pausing for thought in a hallway. Mundane they might be, but those moments are magical.
We humans are curious creatures. We long to peer into other people’s worlds and while the word ‘nosy’ might not be a compliment, being offered a brief peak is a wonderful thing. It’s a fundamental part of being a social animal. We like to see whether others behave like us, and to learn about other people’s lives. It helps us to feel that we belong.
It also makes us feel safe. We like to walk down a street that has a sense of warmth and life and a narrow road lined with windows is comforting in a way that wide, featureless streets are not.
In terms of urban design, how a city makes us feel has not always been a major consideration. City planners in history have not been too concerned with the senses. And, while the way a city looks has often been given much thought, it’s the grand squares, elegant buildings and well-ordered street plans that made the leap from drawing board to bricks and mortar. These are all good things, of course, and so are parks and trees and open spaces. But when the cramped streets of medieval times were demolished to make way for the modern city, something important, but less tangible, was demolished too.
Visible life is a crucial part of a good city, and that means being able to see what’s going on indoors as well as people-watching on city squares. Watching domesticity and life in all its ordinariness can be just as uplifting as a cathedral dome or a splendid vista.
We don’t like it when people close themselves off. Gated communities, smoked-glass and industrial parks full of windowless buildings feel cold and soulless. And they feel impolite. Opening ourselves up to the eyes of the world is a friendly welcoming gesture that says you’re a willing part of society.
There’s another reason we like to “see inside”: there’s nothing like the sight of a warm light through a window to remind us of home. The very concept of home is as a sanctuary from the outside world, a place to retreat from the chaos and noise of the city. And to recognise that contrast, you need to be standing outside and looking in.
Presenting your living space to the world outside as a welcoming space is partly about its exterior appearance – the front garden, the neatly painted fence, the window boxes in bloom. But the view through the windows onto life inside is what gives true meaning to the word “homely”. Warm lighting in the evening, signs of lives being lived – books, flowers, pictures, family photographs – these are the things that give a house a personality.
With that in mind, next time you’re cleaning the windows, stop and think about the wonder of this incredibly simple thing – a pane of glass that allows the light in and keeps the cold out, but also represents the soul of communal society. They invite us, just for a moment, to wonder about the stories behind those walls, and briefly remind us how good it feels to be “at home”.
Markus Zusak, 2010, Fighting for Ruben Wolfe (Link to Amazon)
Photography by Pia Ulin, piaulin.com