top of page

From my neighbour's

Windows: Part 6

The final chapter of this project aims to deeply understand how residents of Bolin Aiyue interpret their experiences with their windows. For that, I engaged four former francophone colleagues living in Bolin Aiyue to participate in this investigation, leveraging a convenience sampling approach on location and availability of foreign respondents. Further selection criteria included residency of more than six months and mutual trust between us as researcher and participant. Then, I conducted semi-structured interviews in the participants’ apartment in late February 2021, lasting approximately 30 minutes each, to gather detailed insights into their past and present window experiences.

In the data collection phase, with a tape recorder in hand, I recorded the interviews to capture nuances in participants’ responses, facilitating subsequent analysis. Photographs and videos of the discussed windows and their views were taken, enhancing the visual representation of participants’ narratives. In the data analysis phase, I listened to the interviews several times, then transcribed and analysed them using Adobe Audition, while post-it notes were employed to synthesise key points from each participant’s responses. Inductive clustering of these points was performed to identify overarching themes and structure the findings of the following paragraphs. Lastly, I made a video with Adobe After Effects to visualise parts of our discussions and let the viewer sense, to some extent, my neighbours’ thoughts, stories and ways of seeing their own window.

Profiles and interview structure

Participants are composed of three males and one female, one of which is Moroccan and the three others are French. Youssef resides on the seventh floor of a smaller building within the complex, having lived there for six months. Aube resides on the nineteenth floor of a twenty-floor building, having resided there for a year and a half. Clément and François reside as roommates on the sixteenth floor of Aube’s building, with Clément residing there for nearly two years and François for six months at the time of the interviews. Participants were encouraged to discuss their experiences with their preferred window; however, François chose to discuss the window he disliked the least. Selected windows were mainly situated in the living room, apart from Youssef who chose his bedroom window as it was for him the only one available with which to establish a real bond. Interviews were therefore structured to progress from descriptions of participants’ observations and opinions of their windows to reflections on their implications for living spaces, including their personal preferences. This approach facilitated a comprehensive understanding of participants’ relationships with their windows, encompassing their observational skills, understanding of urban environments, personal memories, and imaginative responses to hypothetical scenarios.

Sights and sounds

The four respondents, situated at different heights, mainly see buildings, streets, cars and pedestrians, indicative of the urban landscape. From their sixteenth floor with south orientation, Clément and François have a panoramic view towards a high school stadium and the cityscape with its huddled buildings. Aube, from her nineteenth floor with west orientation, has a front view on a building, but she can also see inner pathways of the residence by turning her head to the right. As for Youssef, he sees close enough the main pathway of the residence with its trees, cars and residents from his seventh floor with south orientation.

Beyond this objective description of what interviewees observe, their emotions soon appear when asked about their preferences and dislikes regarding their current view. For Clément and François, the high school stadium and adjacent kindergarten give vitality to the area when students are around, but François highlights that otherwise ‘there isn’t much to see as the view is a bit sad with these buildings all around’. Both agree that the view is rather static, lacking in variety, dynamism, greenery and colours that could arise their curiosity. While Clément says that ‘in ten years the view will still be the same’, he is rather happy with this large window as it gives ‘the feeling of having western style verandas’, offering abundant brightness and a wide perspective which, based on his experience, is quite unusual in China.

Aube appreciates the variety of her window’s view, which blends urban and natural elements, including the scenery and hum of the city, but also the moon, sunrises, sunsets, the movement of Venus and, most importantly to her, the presence of the mountains in the morning when the sky is clear. In Aube’s words, ‘at every moment, something will be missing as it’s the time of the day that reveals or hides what we see’. These variations are part of a routine that calms us all unconsciously by confirming that the Earth is still moving around the Sun and that life goes on outside despite one’s good or bad day. Aube compares her monitoring of these daily cycles to that of a concierge who would ensure that everything remains in order. In contrast, Youssef, deprived of these views and what happens beyond the residence, finds enjoyment in a nocturnal habit, counting the windows that, ‘like his’, are still lightened at one or two in the morning, when everyone is sleeping. He certainly appears more neutral compared to Aube and Clément’s evident enthusiasm or François’s discontentment with their respective views.

As we have seen, a window’s view can evoke both positive and negative experiences. When asked about urban sounds, Aube expresses being ‘relatively deprived from noises’ due to her apartment’s height. While she does perceive the city hum, it does not disrupt her calmness as it makes her feel ‘with other humans’. However, when asked about disliked sounds, Aube explains how she investigated for days to identify the source of recurrent shouting. She recounts being scared as she ‘couldn’t understand why these men were shouting that loud and that early’ and thought they were fighting, only to discover it was military exercise nearby. Aube acknowledges her difficulty in filtering out noises, recalling an afflicted dog bark for weeks as other example that she interprets as signs of distress.

As these sounds are repeatedly heard every day, they become familiar and one gets used to them, even detecting the times of the day they should be heard; late afternoon for the dog and early morning for the military salute. Aube also notes the sound of cats in heat resonating between buildings, concluding that she ‘would like to hear birds’ but she hears ‘cats, dogs and people shouting’. We could say that she generally perceives a sense of calm from her windows, although a series of sudden and distinct sounds are often felt unpleasant. Similarly, as François and Clément live in the same building, they have also heard these cats in heat. François laments that ‘we rarely hear nice things like music’ while Clément complains about the view of the residence’s landfill and the disruptive noise of dump trucks every week for three or four hours, breaking the ‘monotonous atmosphere’ that they usually have at home, ‘as if suddenly we were moving from one environment to another’.

Apart from the view it offers, a window can hold significant value for its inherent qualities. Youssef highlights several attributes from his double-glazed window as they form a closed balcony that is ‘like a heater’, comfortable but also practical in drying clothes. Additionally, he emphasises on natural lighting as the window helps him waking up earlier, and then, noise isolation, probably due to the double-glazing and for being located inside the residence rather than near the road. Ventilation is another essential aspect for Youssef, as he mentions the importance of a well-ventilated room and, lastly, he notes the overarching benefit of a window in reducing energy consumption. Natural light reduces the need for artificial lighting, and its heating or ventilation functions alleviates the necessity of using air conditioners or heaters. Youssef has truly become expert of his own window through these observations and, especially, when mentioning the occasional noises produced by the glass as it cools down at night after being all day warm, which turned to be true as I could hear a ‘toc’ every two minutes while interviewing him.

A window can also have the function to change our perceptions of life indoors and outdoors. Initially, the window that Aube discussed with me was not her favourite one as it proved to be too small for her liking during the first months in the apartment, but by finding it every time more interesting, it started to impact her mood positively. In contrast, Aube finds that the window’s emplacement can allow neighbours to see her and her daughter from the facing building, which incites them to draw the curtain when watching films in the living room. Aube reflects on this need for privacy, remarking ‘I do not want to be seen and I know it’s a way for people to see me’, contrasting this with the earlier sensation of the window as a portal to fly away to the outside world. In a final anecdote, Aube reveals that she has overcome her fear for heights with her nineteenth-floor window, whereas it is now her daughter who reminds her to be cautious when leaning out.

As Youssef earlier, François sees his window as a source of light and ventilation for the living room, also allowing him to wake up more easily in the morning. Interestingly, the window serves the function of distracting his cat, Robin, when opened, while the mosquito net protects him from falling. Clément even adds that Robin has his ‘own little corner to rest and enjoy the sun’ as they installed a cat window perch. Despite these practicalities, François ironically despise his window once more, claiming it has little effect on his own mood. In contrast, Clément insists on the virtues of his large windows, which flood the room with light, and are aesthetically pleasing, seamlessly blending with the apartment’s interior décor. He also notes the skyline’s utility as an indicator of pollution if buildings are covered, and wind intensity if trees are swaying. Further, there is a major divergence between Clément and François regarding the window bars, given that the former appreciates the sense of security they provide while the latter feels they deprive him of his sense of freedom. It is quite fascinating to see how the same window can be perceived differently by two individuals living in the same apartment.

Feeling in China

Participants bring contrasting perspectives when asked if they feel in China by looking through the window. Aube says that, at least, she knows not being in Paris as ‘it doesn’t smell like Paris’, and Clément confirms that he ‘doesn’t feel in France or Europe’. Interestingly, Aube is the only respondent who does not strongly associate her window view with China. She describes it as ‘a somewhat ugly suburb of Dijon or Brest’ while François suggests it could be mistaken for a Parisian suburb if not for certain details such as the façades, Chinese flags or red stickers on the windows, all characteristic of the Chinese urban landscape. Reflecting on cultural identifiers, François, Clément, and Youssef all have the Fu character adorning their windows, symbol of good fortune, which Youssef notes as emblematic of Chinese windows.

During the Chinese New Year, Youssef felt in China amidst the display of red lanterns, knots and door couplets, all decorative elements integral to the culture and visible from his window, while Clément and François had that same feeling by seeing fireworks from theirs. Further, Clément identifies huddled buildings and the absence of shutters as key indicators of being in China, wondering how his neighbours manage to sleep without complete darkness. Aube also acknowledges that when looking into people’s apartment, she found ‘people without curtains, who are not hiding, with sad and poorly lit interiors’. At the end, despite being curious to know more about how their Chinese neighbours live, all four participants concur on the importance of privacy, acknowledging the need to disconnect from the outside world, especially at the end of the day.

Past windows

In the realm of experiences, windows play a pivotal role in shaping our preferences and aversions when it comes to living spaces, influencing our room selection. During their quarantine stay in Shanghai, Aube and her daughter were allocated two rooms with only a few minutes given to visit them. Aube did not take the room with the walled-up window but the one with the bay-like window, around which she created her world. While her daughter did not notice any difference, Aube noticed it instantly and concludes saying that ‘a window is an eye, a tunnel to go away’. With just a few minutes to decide, windows become a reliable indicator in imagining life in a space.

While in Benin, François was allocated a room with small windows only for ventilation, preventing him from enjoying any view outside. Disappointed, he opted to spend his time in an office upstairs with a large bay window and a balcony, providing abundant natural light. Interestingly enough, here are examples of people who still had a choice in room selection, but what might occur in situations where options are unavailable? In his first years in Beijing, Clément had roommates who lived in narrow rooms resembling closets, ‘long enough to put a bed and a wardrobe’, and obviously lacking windows—a condition he deemed ‘unthinkable’. Similar to Aube’s experience, he once rent a room in a hotel with a window facing a wall, providing him a glimpse into what it might feel like to be deprived of a view. This is when Clément reinforces his appreciation for the windows in his apartment, particularly during the confinement period from February to May 2020. In this regard, all four participants emphasise the significance of windows during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Our encounters with windows weave together parts of our lives, capturing our fears, frustrations, joys, and aspirations—all sort of memories. François remembers his grandfather’s attic windows as they had bars that restricted his field of vision, contrasting sharply with the playful freedom he found in the skylight of his childhood bedroom. Similarly, Aube recalled her grandmother’s nineteenth century Balzacian house with their bull’s-eye windows, charming from outside but intimidating from inside. Reflecting on her own past, Aube expresses disappointment with the places she has lived in where windows failed to offer expansive views, often showing uninteresting things. Aube expects windows to satisfy her. Her current window now meets these requirements as she started to turn her head to the right, but this was not the case initially. Aube concludes by saying that before complaining she should better learn to look for what her windows hide; ‘we have to tame each other, I have to tame the sight.’ In her experience, windows have often frustrated her at the beginning but sparked intrigue later on, and it almost feels as if windows should provide the view we want without effort, much like when an audience complains of artworks that hide their deeper meanings.

Clément associates hopper windows, which tilt vertically to open, with his school days, finding them impractical and unsafe for his cat. Instead, he prefers windows that can be pulled horizontally as a way to open himself to the world. Additionally, he prefers windows crafted from noble materials like wood, recalling the handles and frames of his childhood home that were more visually and tactilely pleasing than cold metal ones. Lastly, Clément recounts an unusual experience in France where a colony of ladybugs invaded the joints of his sliding windows, preventing him from opening them despite having a pleasant view of a park, resulting in frustration. External factors, such as pollution or, in this case, ladybugs, can hinder a window’s daily usage in unexpected ways.

Ideal windows

Past experiences and future expectations regarding windows are deeply intertwined, as a positive or negative memory can shape our preferences. For example, growing up in a house with wooden windows might instil a desire to recover that same feeling of warmth. Further, our window preferences can be influenced by personal or collective imaginaries; when asked about their ideal window, most respondents express a desire for large bay windows. For instance, Youssef and François dream of a view overlooking the sea—a terrace with a beach view for Youssef, where he could listen to the sound of breaking waves, and a lighthouse hit by a storm for François. Youssef also yearns for a garden with trees, similar to Clément’s call for more greenery, highlighting the widespread desire for natural surroundings.

It is also fascinating to ask participants to explain how they would change their current window through practical examples rather than idealised ones. For example, if only asked to change the view, François would remove buildings to see what is behind, ‘if there is a park or something interesting, something other than buildings’ while having a closer glimpse into people’s daily lives. If asked to change the window’s features, François yearns for a larger window without bars and mosquito nets as well as replacing the dusty curtains into shutters. Clément agrees with that suggestion. He even mentions blinds that could be lowered. Additionally, François would like to enjoy his cigarette on a balcony, as he could do when he was living in Youssef’s room a year earlier, as it seems to be a calm ritual that he misses. Lastly, if asked to change a situation affecting their window’s current use, François lamented the inability to fully open them due to his cat, highlighting once more how everyday constraints can reshape one’s relationship with a window.

Participants were asked to envision their ideal windows, which naturally led to discussions about the ones they would avoid. Drawing from their past experiences, we learned that François would steer clear of small windows with bars, while Aube and Clément expressed disdain for walled-up windows. However, one’s aversion to certain window types might also stem from what has been observed rather than directly experienced. For example, Youssef expressed a dislike for windows that cannot be closed easily, when it should be their main function as well as windows directly facing his own, because ‘even if you just want to have a look, you may see other people’s private life’, which seems ethically wrong to him. Youssef then explained his disdain for ground-floor windows for privacy but also security reasons, as they could be easily accessible to intruders.

Life without a window

When asked about the possibility of living in a room without a window, François reflects on the significant role windows play in our daily lives, noting that they provide not just ventilation and natural light, but also a connection to the outside world and its weather: ‘In itself it is true that the window, through little things, we wouldn't say, but it can incite us to go out in the morning, it can make us want to... Looking out the window, not the window itself, but looking out the window. It will make us want to... It will give us the temperature, if the weather is nice or cold, if I'm putting on a coat, I'm putting on a scarf, or not. I want to go out, I don't want to go out. I see olala there is pollution, I don't go out. Whereas if you don't have a window, you have to look on the Internet, and then, I don't see myself in a room without a window’. It is worth noting that the only participant who continuously expressed dissatisfaction with his window ended up sharing such opinion in which its field of vision is valued.

François expresses discomfort at the idea of being physically and mentally confined without a window. Clément adds that ‘even for the mind, the morale, we need some sort of light, we need to see things outside in order to identify with this social, natural mixture’. By letting them imagine how a life without a window would be in such hypothetical situation, led them affirm how important windows actually are. François acknowledges that he cannot change his windows easily as he could do with curtains: ‘I’m here for an indefinite period, so I have no choice, I have to adopt them as they are, to accept them as they are, with their defects and qualities’. This pragmatic approach reinforces the necessity to accept the windows that we have, here and now, in our everyday reality rather than in our imaginary.

If you are in China, you may have to activate your VPN to watch this video.

Final reflections

Overall, through the insights shared by my four respondents, I have come to understand that windows, despite being physical objects, they can be personalised and shaped by an individual’s shared experiences with them. Windows are essential for indoors life while keeping us connected to the outside. Alongside doors, they are the shape that can be opened and closed or seen through, situated between what is private and what is public. The sight and sounds they offer are integral part of our daily routine, while our interactions with them and the stories they hold reveal how they fulfil our needs for light, air and activities, all the while showing us the weather and protecting us from polluted, dusty and stormy days. They remind us, above all, where we are in time and space, inviting contemplation and introspection. Therefore, reflecting on windows reveals a certain intimacy and lifestyle that varies from one person to another.

As researcher and visual practitioner, my approach has been inductive, piecing together fragments of information extracted from interviews and observations to inform broader theoretical frameworks. Further, as the windows of the residence Bolin Aiyue are our primary interest, interviewing Chinese neighbours could have come to complete the sociocultural interpretation of this project. By interviewing people about their windows, a designer or architect could rethink interiors and exteriors, while it only gives me, for this project, new perspectives that I could not have explored alone. With this final chapter, the project ends after five months of work, from January to June 2021, although it started unconsciously the moment I first arrived at my apartment on October 2nd, 2017.

With these anecdotes and stories, the Windows of Bolin Aiyue project offers endless perspectives to delve into, even more when counting the number of apartments in the residence as they show the even greater proportions that this project could take. While some people stay a lifetime looking from or at the same window, my few months of observation have only scratched the surface of understanding them. However, the project’s true value lies in its structured pattern of study, based on these six steps that can be used for future investigations into windows, to then produce a greater quality and quantity of experiments. Finally, much like my previous project ‘Details of a street’ (2020) was made before leaving my previous job, and hence the street I walked through during three years, this new project on windows was made knowing that we would have to move at the end of June 2021, after residing in this apartment for the past three years and a half. This predictable melancholy reappears under different angles in most of my recent visual projects in Beijing and increases my attachment to specific places of my direct environment while valuing their uninteresting mundanity that is not less than life itself.

bottom of page