Windows of Transition
Text: Olga Zharkova, Elena Lozhnikova
Photos: Anton Klimov, Olga Zharkova, Pavel Zharkov
Tourists and photographers love taking pictures of wooden houses in Irkutsk’s center. Shutters and casings are in focus of course. But windows are special parts of houses. They connect living residences with streets and at the same time serve as borders between these two worlds. At one time that mediatory function of windows had a sacred meaning, and tradition prohibited throwing garbage out of a window for example or even entering or leaving a house through one. Nowadays probably only folklorists remember the meanings of these taboos, but have windows’ functions changed? We tried to organize our impressions from observations of the life of wooden houses’ windows in the town center.
Windows as display
How do house windows participate in the inhabitants’ interaction with town spaces and people?
Even when you are in a hurry you manage to catch some unusual elements on windows or behind them. At a closer look, vivid details can tell you about the owners of the windows and some of the details can be addressed to you – the passerby. For example, Christmas decorations impress when you see them in the midst of summer carefully laid out between the window frames above some material that represents snow. Besides Christmas-tree decorations and tinsel, you can see paper snowflakes, moss, and dried berries, pine cones, plastic toys and bunches of mountain ash berries. Knowing traditional Irkutsk practices of preparing the home for a change of seasons you understand that utility precedes ornamentation.
Before the cold weather season wooden house residents install second, inner frames to their windows. Newly formed cracks are filled with cotton wool and glued over with pieces of paper or fabric (you can make the glue for this yourself – you just need to add cold water to flour, slowly pour in boiling water and then cool it down). The space between the frames is insulated with cotton wool and decorated. In spring the inner frames are taken out, cleaned and put in the storeroom. The process is labor-intensive and perhaps that is why double frames with Christmas ornaments can be seen more and more frequently in summer too. Usually it is temporary residents who put aside labor-intensive practices (in recent years flats in wooden houses are being rented by families of migrant workers from warm countries). No one changes the frames in neglected houses either.
With the installation of double-glass unit windows instead of frames the width of the windowsills became noticeably larger. Big and often exotic plants appeared on them as they began to be sold in the town then. Rare ones especially show (intentionally or unconsciously) the status of the owner. Now there are lots of plants on sale and it seems that window gardening is an obligatory hobby of all who live on the first floor.
It is hard to explain it only by practical function: flowers can be a barrier to the view, but to a greater extent they block the daylight that is already scarce on the lower floors. The inhabitants themselves talk about decorative functions:
“What is it for? Only for esthetics. When we moved here I started to buy flowers right away and take them from friends and people started to give them to us. While we lived in a “Khrushchev-era” apartment on the fourth floor we didn’t have a single flower at home. And here almost everyone has them. It’s like a tradition. A neighbor used to live nearby – a poor drunkard; she had lived there from time immemorial. She had all her windowsills covered with flower pots. But with time I started to take all the tall plants away from the window as they were blocking the light”
The woman didn’t point out for whom the “esthetics” was – for family or passersby, and it is hard to tell. And if there is a set tradition it means that window plants impress those who see the window from the outside.
Windows can be decorated with other objects too, for example with toys, figurines, unique things or fruits and vegetables. In these cases the marker “for us” or “for passersby” can be quite definite.
If toys and figurines are turned away from us, it means that the windowsill for the owners is a continuation of the room, an additional shelf and sometimes even storage space. Thus you can often see nicely piled or just scattered folders and books on the windowsills of offices. But if toys face you, china ballerinas bow toward the street and souvenir plates are shown in detail it means that the window is an opportunity for the owners to welcome the street, to pronounce the distinctness of their family and flat.
This is clear, even if the owners explain such a presentation with practical reasons. Thus on a windowsill of a flat in Irkutsk’s center you can see souvenir plates “Prague”, “Sochi”, “Crimea” and a figurine of a Chinese dragon. On our comment “You seem to travel a lot” the owner got a little bit embarrassed:
“No, it’s my wife’s friend, she is a sportswoman, and she brings them to us as gifts from different countries. There is not enough space in the cupboard; we have no other place to put them”.
Office owners can attract attention to their business and atmosphere intentionally. Then a window serves as an advertising showcase, granted that it is still a norm only for the first floors on busy streets. On quieter streets it is not a rule even for cafés and shops.
Windows as protection
Shutters protect wooden houses from outside threats – wind, snow-storms, thieves and robbers. Walking along streets with continuous wooden houses, you can observe daily morning and evening procedures: no matter the time of year, people living on the first floor go outside twice a day. In the morning to open the shutters, fixing them to the façades by hooks. In the evening, to close the shutters, pressing them inwards with a metal bar. This ritual, unknown to the inhabitants of high-rise buildings, sets the pace of the daily life of those who live on the first floor of “wooden blocks”.
In the case of the long absence of flat owners there are two main practices: shutters are held shut by a special metal device that is fixed on the inside and doesn’t let shutters be opened from outside – this is called to close with a “bolt” or a “chikuschka”. The technical name of this metal rod is “hinge pivot”, but it seems that no one who uses it knows this name. The second way is to ask neighbors to open and close the shutters so people outside think that the house is not empty. It is safe to say that in this case the symbolic function of shutters is being practiced: they act like a sign of security.
In the wild nineties people started to protect the windows with grills. In windows where there are double frames, grills (if they are present) are fixed between the frames. In windows with double-glass panes the grills are sometimess located on the inside.
Electrically controlled metal shutters are used for protection in the offices that appeared in the “wooden blocks” in the center. Shutters became optional as additional heat and sound insulation (a windscreen) after the wide-scale installation of double-glass unit windows.
Walking after dark along the former Soldatsky Streets (Lapina, Gryaznova, Kievskaya, Khmelnitsky), you can find out that the number of windows closed with shutters almost equals the number of those that are not protected by shutters. In some houses on the same streets the windows are closed with shutters even during the day. It means that the space waits for a new owner or tenant or that the destiny of the house is decided in some other way. Shutters become less and less useful functionally and it seems that even in inhabited houses they will soon remain just as an architectural element.
Windows as borders
In wooden houses the windows of the first floor are often located at the level of human height, and the floor there can be lower than the pavement outside: a “cultural layer” built up over a century and sinking of the building foundations have made rooms highly exposed to outside examination. A glance (even flashed in passing) involuntary catches interior details that the residents hardly wanted to show. That is why the rules of courtesy dictate that passersby have a quick, ideally imperceptible glance at someone else’s home.
When you observe or even take pictures of someone else’s windows as part of your “work”, discomfort becomes conscious and tangible. A person taking a peep into a stranger’s life is in the situation of visual dominance. Naturally the discomfort is also felt by the person whose life has suddenly become an object of interest of people who he or she doesn’t even know. The residents of “wooden blocks” usually don’t like it when somebody takes pictures of their windows. On directing a camera lens at windowsills we often encountered the unwelcoming reaction of the owners who suddenly appeared behind the window or even at the door.
The indignation transformed into more or less lively conversation and even fostering (sometimes in the form of specialist consultation), if we introduced ourselves as tourists or historians interested in the house itself or if we just talked about an interest in an exotic plant on the windowsill.
Such a change in response is evident proof that the residents feel the border between the house and the street both as a boundary of their private space and as a public space. When the attention of the street crosses that boundary there arises a feeling of a threat of invasion (even if it is of only a visual one), but an active interest in “wooden Irkutsk” is accepted as a norm at least in the town center.
The border is pretty vulnerable and the owners strengthen it with thick curtains, several layers of net curtains, not so often with the help of blinds. Here is an example of “work” with that border from a young woman living on the first floor and complaining that when she turns on the light, the room is seen from the outside all the way through, up to “the opposite wall”:
“I don’t want to turn my room into a cinema for passersby. I buy beautiful curtains, they are pretty thick. From time to time I walk outside to see what my window looks like from the outside. It is my window onto the world so it should be beautiful“(
Some new owners of “wooden blocks” psychologically try to adapt to the conditionality of the border:
“I moved into this house when it was still a dormitory, I occupied one room. Gradually I bought the whole house, I did it up, and I made an annex. I don’t worry about people walking by my windows. The house is an architectural monument, people especially foreigners often take picturesof it. All that I do – paint the shutters, choose the curtains – I do for myself. Who cares? I‘m not interested in other people’s opinions. I have lots of flowers on the windowsills. So what if they have some yellow leaves? I will take them off when I have time”
In that comment you can see that the border between private and public means more to this woman than she would like it to. And this is the testimonial of a person who grew up in a wooden house and experiences acutely the conditionality of the borders (that we are talking about) as an unavoidable part of life in “wooden blocks”:
” I have lived in a flat on the first floor of a wooden house in Irkutsk’s center since I was born. I remember that I was always ashamed when I approached my house with my classmates because when you show the windows of a high-rise building saying. “This is my house”, it is not the same degree of your privacy as when you approach an old wooden house and point to its windows: “This is my house”. I always dreamed of moving, of living in a high-rise building only because of that. But it is easier to breathe in a wooden house”
Window as a check point
Besides protecting from outside examination, curtains on windows can be of other service to the owners: they allow one to secretly follow what is happening outside. A window becomes a filter. Semi-translucent net curtains that are probably on most windows in Irkutsk serve best for this. Guests knock on the window so the owners know for whom they are about to open the door. Through the windows they help strangers to find a house they are looking for. Through the windows they sort things out with the drivers of buses and “marshrutkas” (minibuses) that park for “lunch” in front of their windows. In other cases owners avoid direct visual contact, only children, studying the street from the windowsill, play visual games with passersby. In houses where there are no grills children use windows to get out of or into the house.
“I used to lose my keys quite often and of course I climbed through the window to get home. My girlfriend-classmates visited me climbing through the windows too; my parents probably still have no idea about it. Now I have a seven year old son. Once I left him home alone for a short time, I locked the door but when I was back I found him playing football with friends outside”.
Esthetics and pragmatics
Wooden houses of Irkutsk after the great fire, that is the ones that were built at the end of the 19th – beginning of the 20th century, usually have high windows. Light in the house and architectural “hipness” were clearly more important than the wood consumption. And esthetics was a part of a pragmatic consideration: the attractiveness of a house had a commercial value no matter what function it served. Now pragmatics is in conflict with esthetics. As a commentator on one of Irkutsk websites noted: “this old wooden house looks like a mammoth with a set of false teeth of double-glass windows”.
“When we moved here we installed double-glass windows right away. Noise, petrol, exhaust gases have to be blocked somehow. There were enough other noises too – scenes on the streets, drunken shouts at nights, fifteen to twenty years ago the atmosphere was quite aggressive here”
Now double glass panes are in the majority of houses. First of all they are in the houses that look like well-preserved ones. Quite often it offends the eye being in discord with shutters and casings. Though new windows were not a caprice but a practical necessity for those who was setting up a flat or an office in “wooden blocks”:
“When we looked for a flat we wanted to live in a beautiful house of course. Our house is a monument. But we had to isolate ourselves somehow. Cars are always going by or are left in front of our windows – it isn’t the beginning of the twentieth century anymore”.
Windows with outside metal blinds seem to be out of place to the same extent as double-glass windows. It is likely that some time should pass before pragmatics and esthetics will fit in together.
“The grill is from the former residents, I have a security alarm system in place. As soon as I can afford it I will order another grill with a curve for flower pots”
Observations of the life of Irkutsk’s first floor windows that began in the summer and were finished in winter proved to us that the windows play various roles (display, protection, border, space for decoration, check point), and, for our work, always have a key function – they are mediators in the communication between the street and the house residents. Usually windows “act” in the interests of their owners but sometimes they become independent subjects of communication by telling more than their owners would like them to.
Being participants in social communication, windows also reflect the changes that happen in the world of people. One example is the fundamental change in the modern dweller’s attitude to time or, to be exact, the gradual fading of traditional cycles and seasons of life. It can be seen in the example of the spaces between window frames: it is quite rare now that there are any changes here from June to December. This tradition has started to disappear because of the speeding up (frequent moving, lack of time for labor-intensive practices) and complexity (individual schedules, migration rates, etc.) of time.
Is there a change in the other practices too? Yes, there is. But in the process of observation it became clear that to follow up and analyze that process is much harder than we thought before. Possibly our attempts were premature: former practices are gone or disappearing, but new ones haven’t become perceptible trends yet. The changes are connected with the change in the owners that means the function of the houses changes too. The circle of those who live now in ‘wooden blocks’ in the town’s center is socially patchy, the owners of non-residential property often change, also changing the function of the place. The modern group that would define new functions and rules of window usage seems to be at the stage of taking shape.