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From my neighbour's

Windows: Part 6

The purpose of this project’s last chapter is to achieve a depth understanding of how my neighbours may interpret and make sense of their experiences with their windows while living in Bolin Aiyue. Although most of my neighbours are Chinese, which makes interactions harder, I asked four former francophone colleagues of work, who also live in the residence, to take part in this project. It thus worked with a convenience sampling first based on location and then availability of foreign respondents with which communication would be easier for me. Further selection criteria would be to live in the residence for more than six months and to trust each other as researcher and researched, as the context would require it. In my half an hour semi-structured interview at their apartment, I asked my respondents open-ended questions to obtain detailed and descriptive data on their past and present window experience, as well as hypothetical and ideal position questions, to speculate and deepen their own opinion. Therefore, after obtaining their permission, I recorded their voices and took some photographs and videos of the window we talked about and what could be seen from there. The video that collects these informations illustrates their thoughts, their stories, their ways of seeing their own window.

All four respondents were interviewed different days in the last week of February 2021. Youssef, the first participant, has been living at the top of a seventh-floor building for the past six months, which is part of a series of smaller buildings at the middle of the residence. Aube, the second participant, has been living in a twenty-floor building at the 19th floor for one year and a half. At last, Clément and François, the last two participants, have been living together as roommates, at the 16th floor of the same building as Aube, the former for almost two years and the latter for six months at the time of the interviews. They both chose the same window in their living room, which makes us analyse it from two perspectives. Therefore, by using a tape recorder, I could later listen to the interviews several times and extract insights with post-it while editing the audio tracks with Adobe Audition. The device allowed me to avoid extensive note taking and to recreate the atmosphere of the interviews through two videos where images would accompany sound and not the other way around. To do these videos, the post-it were used to synthetise what was said by the four respondents. As for any inductive exercise, they were first interpreted and clustered into groups to then give rise to overarching themes. In design, we know this method as affinity diagramming for contextual inquiry. In psychology, it would rather be a longitudinal and then cross-sectional analysis. As shown in the pictures, they were first put together in relation to each respondent and then grouped by topic treated to facilitate the analysis exposed in the following paragraphs. Further, transcribing and translating the complete interviews for the video’s subtitles was helpful to read more attentively what was said beyond the post-its.

All respondents chose their living room’s window while Youssef chose his bedroom’s, because it was the only window available with which to establish a real bond. Similarly, while all chose to talk about their experience with their favourite window, François chose the window he dislikes the least in his appartement, sharing his frustrations in his first minutes of interview, in contrast with Clément who talks positively about the exact same window. As François has lived in Youssef’s apartment before him, he mentions how he liked that window as he had a better view and he could smoke in the terrace without having to go outside. Another interesting detail is that Clément and François perceive differently the black bars at their window, giving protection to the former while depriving the latter of freedom. However, their window is also a place to be enjoyed by their cat, Robin, who rests and plays there. With these few bits of interview analysis, we see that portraying experiences on the same window can reveal how people perceive their life inside and outside the apartment in different ways.

During the interviews, all participants unveiled their observer qualities when describing what they usually see and hear from their windows, to then give their opinion on what they like and dislike of their view. They also showed their expertise when defining the windows qualities and disadvantages as a product to be used; their understanding of Chinese and foreign urban environments by figuring out the elements seen outside that might remind them they are in China; their intimacy when calling back memories or recent experiences with windows; and at last their imagination when asked to tell what windows they would and wouldn’t like to have, from realistic to unrealistic demands, to even speculate how they would react if they had to live in an apartment without windows. The questions were structured in such order to obtain a progressive understanding of these four windows and their owners.

Therefore, from their window at different heights, the four respondents mainly see buildings, streets, cars and people, 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 wider city with its huddled buildings. From her nineteenth floor with west orientation, Aube has a front view on the opposite building, but she can also see the inner pathways of the residence by turning her head to the right, and other buildings far beyond. As for Youssef, he sees close enough the main pathway of the residence with its trees, cars and passers-by from his seventh floor with south orientation. Besides this objective description of what interviewees may see, emotions quickly appear when they are asked what they like and dislike from this current view. For Clément and François, the high school stadium and the kindergarten in front at the bottom of their building give life to the area when students are around, although François highlights that otherwise ‘there isn’t much to see and that the view is a bit sad’ as there are buildings all around. Both agree that the view is rather static, that there is not enough movement, changes or colours that could arise their curiosity, as Clément says, ‘in ten years it will be the same’. However, they both mentioned it was a great spectacle to see fireworks from their window during the Chinese New Year festivities. Although the view is usually static, Clément highlights that he is very happy with this window as it is large and give ‘the feeling of having western style verandas’, while its exposure gives them brightness and overlooks everything at almost 180º which, based on his experience, is quite unusual in China. He repeats several times to be grateful not having buildings just in front hiding the view. Clément further claims that the skyline is a useful indicator to know whether there is pollution by not seeing the buildings in the distance, whether there is wind by seeing the trees swaying. On the other side, Aube appreciates the variety that her new favourite window may offer by merging urban and natural, the scenery and hum of the city, but also the moon, the sunrise, the sunset, the movement of Venus, and most importantly the mountains to refer to in the morning when there is no fog or pollution. 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’, however, staring at the mountains in the morning, the sunset in late afternoon and the illuminated Soho buildings at night are all part of a daily cycle, a routine to enjoy, but that also calms us unconsciously by confirming that the Earth is still moving around the Sun and that life goes on outdoors despite one’s good or bad day. Aube describes her understanding of these cycles that repeat themselves every day at the same time as a concierge would do her prospection to be sure that everything is in order. In the meantime, being deprived of these views and what happens beyond the residence, Youssef has developed a habit at night of enjoying counting the windows that, ‘like his’, are still lightened at one or two in the morning, when everyone is sleeping. Otherwise, he has not more to say about his view and shows himself more or less neutral in comparison to Aube and Clément’s clear enthusiasm or François’s dissatisfaction towards their respective views.

As we have seen, windows may bring positive experiences but also negative ones, as when Aube talks about the military shouting as well as dogs and cats making noises. At one point, she claims being ‘relatively deprived from noises’ because of her apartment’s height, except the city hum that does not bother her as that makes her feel ‘with other humans’. Aube even says that she doesn’t ‘hear much actually’ and that ‘calm’ would be the answer to what she likes to hear from her window. Nonetheless, when she is asked what she doesn’t like to hear, she speaks further on her personal investigation by seeking to know where repeated clamors, of people shouting, would come from. For a moment, Aube was scared as she ‘couldn’t understand why these men were shouting that loud and that early’ and thought they were being mistreated, but it then appeared to be a military salute from a close barrack. She makes an analogy with a dog that has cried for more than a month by claiming that she doesn’t protect herself in interpreting everything that is a bit insignificant as someone’s suffering. As these sounds are repeatedly heard every day, one gets used to them and even detects the time of the day at which they should be heard; at the end of the day for the dog, early in the morning for the military salute. Aube also heard cats in heat through a loud sound that resonated between her building and the other in front, concluding that she ‘would like to hear birds’ but she hears ‘cats, dogs, people shouting’. It seems that she hears calm on a general basis and those sounds that are suddenly distinctive are mainly unpleasant. As François and Clément live in the same building, they have also mentioned hearing cats in heat. François adds that ‘we rarely hear nice things like music’. Clément complains about the view on one of the residence’s landfill and the noise that the dump truck does every week for three or four hours, as it breaks with the ‘monotonous atmosphere’ that they usually have, ‘as if suddenly we were moving from one environment to another’. Although it is quite ephemeral, they both complain, as mentioned before, of the general lack of movement, colour and greenery. Clément observes that the trees on the back were removed to enlarge the sidewalk and, as it is still winter, the greyish scenery dominates even more on what remains of nature.

Besides the view seen from a window, the window itself can also be highly valued for its qualities. Youssef explains that his double-glazing window form a closed balcony that is ‘like a heater’ where temperatures rise, which is comfortable but also practical to dry his clothes. The second quality he defines is natural lighting as the window helps him to wake up earlier; the third one is noise isolation, probably due to the double-glazing; the fourth one is ventilation as a room that cannot be ventilated is not suitable; and the last quality summarises most of the precedents as having a window may avoid the consumption of energy as natural light avoids us to turn on the lamps as well as natural heater and ventilation avoid to turn on the air conditioner. After the interview, Youssef, expert of his own window, mentioned that the glass would make constant noises as it cools down at night after being all day warm, and it turned out to be true as I could hear a ‘toc’ every two minutes while taking pictures of his window. For Aube, the window she chose to describe was not her favourite in her first months in the apartment has it turned out to be too small as she ‘only likes large windows’, but by looking through it every day she considered there was more variety and it then became more interesting. As it is a window from which Aube and her daughter can be seen by the neighbours in front, they draw the curtain when watching films in the living room to get more privacy. She compares this need for protection of the window by saying ‘I do not want to be seen and I know it’s a way for people to see me’, with the opposite feeling described earlier when the window is a way to fly away and see the world. As a last anecdote, Aube has lost her vertigo by using this window on the nineteenth floor, and it is now her daughter who reminds her to be careful when leaning out. For François, the window’s function is to light up and ventilate the living room while waking him up in the morning. It also brings a new element not mentioned earlier by the others, which is to distract his cat when opened while the mosquito net protects him from falling. Clément even adds that the cat has his ‘own little corner to rest and enjoy the sun’ as they installed a cat window perch. Otherwise, once more, François ironically despise his window by saying that it doesn’t have much effect on his own mood. For Clément, the windows are large and wide which is ‘very advantageous in terms of brightness’ and they can be opened in the middle which is practical to ventilate the room. They also bend very well with the interior of the apartment in terms of colour. Further, the outside black bars make him feel protected. All four participants believe that it is important to cut themselves off from the world at some point of the day and have privacy, as they do not want to be seen by their neighbours.

At times, they all reflect by opposition when for example asked if they feel to be in China by looking at other windows from theirs, Aube says that she at least knows not to be in Paris by looking out the windows, as ‘it doesn’t smell like Paris’ she notes, and Clément not to be in France or Europe. Aube is the only respondent that does not really feel in China from her window. She says ‘it could be a somewhat ugly suburb of Dijon or Brest’ and François adds ‘it could be a suburb in Paris’ if one doesn’t pay attention to details as the façades, the Chinese flag or the red stickers on the windows, all being for him specific of Chinese urban landscape. As most of Chinese households, François, Clément and Youssef have the Fu character pasted at their window, a red sticker that helps us to identify easily ‘that these are Chinese windows’ says Youssef. Further, during the Chinese New Year, Youssef could tell he is in China by seeing red lanterns, knots and door couplets outside as all these decorative elements are part of the culture, which he says to like. For Clément, huddled buildings that all look the same are a first indicator of being in China, and also the lack of shutters at people’s windows, which makes him wonder how the Chinese may sleep without being totally in the dark. He concludes saying that he can guess in which country he is by looking at the façades of a building.

When they start looking at their neighbour’s windows, Aube puts it clearly, ‘if I can see them, they can see me’. This incite her to enter their apartment with the eyes and ‘to find people without curtains, who are not hiding. I see sad interiors, poorly lit’. All four respondents mention at some point of the interview, in their own way, that they like or would like to look more at their neighbours, while at the same time calling for their own privacy. However, Aube is the only one who has a close view on her neighbours, while the others do not have buildings in front to really bother their view or to bother them in their life in the apartment as they could be seen by others.

It is important to note that in more places we live, the more experiences we acquire in what we seek and would avoid in an apartment. For instance, Aube and François mentioned past experiences that illustrate how windows come to influence people in choosing a room. When Aube and her daughter did their two weeks quarantine in a hotel room in Shanghai, when coming back from Paris in August 2020, they were allocated two rooms and they had not much time to visit them. Aube didn’t take the room with the walled-up window but the one with two windows that looked like a bay window side by side, around which she created her world by moving everything around them. Aube says that while her daughter didn’t notice any difference in what the windows would show, that’s the first thing she noticed. With this experience, Aube concludes by saying that ‘a window is an eye, a tunnel to go away’. She had a choice to make in few minutes and thus windows became a reliable indicator to imagine what life could be in a certain space. Aube mentions a similar experience when she bought her Parisian apartment in Montmartre more than ten years ago, which being at the first floor was the main reason to buy it, but she only had fifteen minutes to visit it and take a decision. That casual situation also reminds me when I lived with twenty roommates in a house in London between 2016 and 2017, and there was a girl who hesitated whether to stay in a noisy but warm room near New Cross Road, a well-known rowdy road with trucks and cars driving all day and night, or a cold but calm room on the other side, noiseless but exposed to the wind. Both windows were old and badly insulated, but the student accommodation gave her a couple of days to make a choice. She finally chose the noisy room for fear of getting sick from London’s winter cold, but could barely sleep at night, even with ear plugs. Windows influence us as they are important in the disposition of a room and we should train ourselves in being able to imagine how our life would look like in a certain place; not an easy speculative exercise, but a useful one.

Back to my respondents past experiences, when François was in Benin, they gave him a room with small windows which only function was to ventilate the place as the glass wouldn’t allow him to look outside. He avoided his room and rather went to spend his time upstairs in an office with a large bay window, a balcony, and a large amount of natural light. Interestingly enough, here are examples of people who still had the choice to change their room, but what would happen if they had no choice. In his first years in Beijing, Clément had roommates who, for a very small fee, lived in a sort of closet, a very narrow room ‘long enough to put a bed and a wardrobe’, without any window. He adds that he could not live without a window, that would be ‘unthinkable’. Similar to the experience of Aube, he once rent a room in a hotel with a window facing a wall, which was probably his closest experience of not having a window. That’s when Clément reminds that they were lucky to have his apartment’s windows during last year’s confinement in Beijing, from February to May 2020. All four mention how windows were important when stuck at home during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Past experiences with windows are fragments of our lives with them; our fears, our frustrations, our joys, our aspirations; all sort of memories. François remembers his grandfather’s small windows at the attic with bars behind that used to restrict him in his field of vision, and depriving him of his freedom, ‘and what I want is freedom.’ An opposite experience would be his old room’s window when he was a child in his parents’ house, where he had a large skylight that he used to go through and walk on the roof to get into his sister’s bedroom. For François, that window turned to be playful and mainly used for a kid’s game. Aube’s grandmother had very big Balzacian houses of the nineteenth century with bull’s-eye window, that she considered ‘pretty from outside’ but scary from inside. Overall, Aube claims to have been disappointed of the places where she has lived in the past as windows weren’t large or looked onto uninteresting things and she always had to turn her head to find a nicer view. Aube expects windows to satisfy her. The actual window of her apartment meets these requirements now but wasn’t satisfying in her first months as the first thing to see was the building in front. She then started to turn more often her head to the right to start seeing lively scenes, which makes her conclude by saying that before complaining she’d better learn to look for what her windows hide; ‘we have to tame each other, I have to tame the sight.’ As she summarizes it, ‘windows have often frustrated me at the beginning and intrigued me afterwards’. It’s a bit as if windows should offer us the view we want, making it easy for us, to avoid making the effort alone, as when an artwork hides details of its content to the audience by choice of the artist.

For Clément, hopper windows that open by tilting vertically remind him his time at school and they are the kind of window he would avoid as he doesn’t find them functional and they wouldn’t be safe for the cat. Further, he prefers windows that can be pulled horizontally a way to open oneself to the world. He would also prefer windows made with noble materials as wood rather than colds ones as metal as he grew up in a house with handles and frames that were probably more detailed, visually and tactilely more pleasant. It may also happen that windows are or were fine but an external factor came to negate their use, as constant pollution may prevent us from opening the windows. For Clément, a quite unusual experience was to have a colony of ladybugs in the joints of his sliding windows, when living in France. He had a nice view on a park but because of this invasion he couldn’t open his windows, which was naturally frustrating.

Past experiences and future expectations with windows are closely related to one another as a positive or negative memory may influence what we seek for, per similarity or opposition, as when one grew up in a house with windows made of wood and would like to recover that same feeling. It can also be linked to a personal or collective imaginary as when discussing what kind of window my respondents would like to have, most of them describe large bay windows. For instance, Youssef and François would dream of a view on the sea; a terrace with a view on the beach for Youssef, where he could listen to the sound of breaking waves; a lighthouse that would be hit by a storm for François. Youssef would also like to have a garden with trees, which reminds Clément’s call for more greenery, which makes nature a popular demand.

In this final part of the interview, respondents could imagine changing the view of their current window, changing their current window in its shape or functions, and changing a situation that currently does not allow them to use their window as they would like to; from the most unrealistic to the most probable demands. Firstly, if respondents had to change the view of their current window, François would remove certain buildings in the back to see what is behind, ‘if there is a park or something interesting, something other than buildings’. He would also like to see people’s routine more in detail as their apartment is far from other buildings. Secondly, if respondents had to change their current window, François would prefer a large window without bars and mosquito nets. He would also turn his curtains into shutters as they are lying on the ground gathering dust while shutters would be practical and would give him more space inside. At last, he would smoke his cigarette on a balcony without stinking in the apartment, as he could do when living in Youssef’s room a year earlier, as it seems to be a calm routine that he misses. Clément agrees with the shutters or even blinds that could be lowered. Thirdly, if respondents had to change the use of a current window, François would like to open both of his windows or even take off the mosquito net, but he can’t because of his cat. One does not use windows as desired because of an everyday constraint that changes the relation to the window.

Therefore, based on their past experiences, we know that François would avoid small windows with bars, walled-up windows for Aube and Clément, but their wish to avoid certain windows might also come from what they have seen but not necessarily experienced, and therefore imagine that it could happen to them. For instance, Youssef would not like to have windows that are always opened and cannot close has it is their main function and one should be able to use them easily. Also, he would not like to have other windows in front of 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. Further, Youssef explains why he ‘hates’ windows on the ground floor as it is even easier to see what happens inside and it is not very secure, as people can enter and steal. In the last questions of the interview, when respondents are asked if they could imagine living in a room without a window, François realises that it would mean no ventilation and artificial light, but also to be disconnected from the world by living in a bubble; ‘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, the weather is nice or it's cold, 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’. For François, not having a window is a way to be confined physically and mentally. Clément adds that ‘even for the mind, the morale, we need any kind of light, we need to see things outside in order to identify with this social, natural mixture’. By letting my respondents imagine how a life without a window would be like in such hypothetical situation, that led them to affirm how important windows actually are. This simple exercise also turns us back to reality, as when François concludes by saying that he cannot change his windows easily as he could do with curtains, and he has to deal with them; ‘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’, a rather pragmatic approach that could also be an answer to the type of window one would or would not like to have, which are the ones that are 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.

Overall, by listening to my four respondents, I observe that although windows are part of the material world, they can be personalised, humanised, by the person who has shared experiences with them. Windows are essential for indoors life while keeping us connected to the outside. Together with 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 that we have from them are both part of our daily routine. Then, the use we make of windows, the stories we had with them, the changes we would wish; it is clear that they satisfy our needs of light, air, activity, while showing us the weather and protecting us from its poor conditions in polluted or stormy days. They remind us where we are in time and space, which is not only a contemplative exercise but also an introspective one. Then, asking about windows, talking about them, reveals a certain intimacy, a certain lifestyle and opinion towards it which may diverge from one person to another. As researcher and visual practitioner, I have worked in an inductive process, trying to build from bits of information extracted from interviews and observations towards theory, from the particular to the general. Further, as the windows of the residence Bolin Aiyue are the primary interest of this project, 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, a new point of view that I couldn’t have explored alone. It is thus with this last chapter that the project ends after five months working on it, from January to June 2021, although it started unconsciously since the first day that I arrived at my apartment in October 2nd, 2017. I remember being impressed by the panoramic view on northern Beijing. I also remember my first month without VPN, hence without internet, and then the first day I had access to YouTube and watched videos for many hours, I felt to be back to the Western world and that’s only when I looked at the window and open the door that I suddenly realised that I was in China. That is with these anecdotes and stories that Windows of Bolin Aiyue could still be studied from endless perspectives and the number of apartments in the residence shows the even greater proportions that this project could take, but let’s stay with what one man can do, with his camera, sound recorder and writing skills. Some people stay a lifetime looking from or at the same window, and that can’t be compared to these few months I spent starting to understand them. However, what the project brings above all is a pattern of study based on six steps that can be reproduced in future apartments to give a greater quality and quantity of experiments to this individual and common reflection about windows. That is the great value of this project. Finally, as for my previous project ‘Details of a street’ (2020), made before leaving my previous job and therefore the street in which I walked by during three years, this new project on windows in the apartment and residence in which I have lived for the past three years and a half, was made knowing that I’ll have to move at the end of this month of June 2021. 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 mundanity, their reality as it is and as I experience it.

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