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Vintilă Mihăilescu

I was in the army. From the garrison toilet’s window, I could see the string of communist blocks of flats

Vintilă Mihăilescu




«For the phenomenologist, the psychoanalyst, the psychologist (with these 3 points of view being placed in the descending order of conspicuousness), there is no question of describing some houses, to detail their picturesque aspects and to analyze their reasons of comfort. On the contrary, there is a need to overcome the challenges of description – whether it is objective or subjective, in other words, whether it tells facts or impressions – so that we can achieve the raw virtues, which reveal an adhesion, somehow, native to the primary function of living. The geographer, the ethnographer may very well describe the varied types of housing. Below this variety, the phenomenologist makes the necessary effort to catch the central happiness grains, which are secure and immediate. In any home, even in a castle, finding the original shell becomes the first task of phenomenology.» Any space lived authentically bears the essence of housing. (Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, [1958] 2003)



«The House is our slice of world. It is – is often said so – our primary Universe. A true and authentic cosmos. A cosmos in the complete acceptation of terms. (Gaston Bachelard, idem)



«Life starts well, it starts surrounded and protected in the cozy nest of the house.»

(Gaston Bachelard, idem)



«Beyond the memories, the birthplace is physically inscribed in us. It is a group of organic habits. In this dynamic community of man and house, in this dynamic rivalry between house and universe, we are far from any reference to the simple geometric shapes. The living home is not an inert box. The living space transcends geometrical space. Dreaming returns to live in the exact design.» (Gaston Bachelard, idem)



«Therefore, in the face of hostility, of animal forms of the storm and hurricane, the protection and resistance values of the house are translated into human values. The  house takes on the physical and moral energies of the human body. It bends its backs, and strengthens its loins. Under the gusts, it bends whenever needed, certain it can recover in time – always denying the temporary defeats. Such house calls a man to a cosmic heroism. It is a tool to confront the cosmos. The metaphysics of the man ‹thrown into the world› may actually reflect on the house thrown prey to the hurricane, braving the wrath of Heaven. Against everything and all, the house helps us to say: I am a citizen of the world, despite the world. The problem is not just a matter of being, it is one of energy and therefore counterpower.»

 (Gaston Bachelard, idem)



«In vain I touch the things sometimes, I always dream an element» (Gaston Bachelard, idem)



«I say Mother. And oh, I think of you, my house!» (Milosz, apud Bachelard, idem)



The house is seen as a vertical being. It rises. It is different in the sense of its verticality. It is one of our calls to our conscience for verticality. Verticality is conferred by the basement – bridge polarity. The distinctive signs of this polarity are so profound, that they open, in a certain way, two very different axes for a phenomenology of imagination. Indeed, almost with no comment at all, we could oppose the roof’s rationality to the basement’s irrationality. The roof states very clearly its raison d’étre: it shelters man in fear of rain and sun. All thoughts are clear onto the roof. (The basement) in mainly the obscure being of the house, taking part to all the underground powers. Dreaming of it, we connect to the profoundness’ irrationality.»

(Gaston Bachelard, idem)



«At the first glance, the house is an object with a strong geometry. We are tempted to analyze it rationally. Its raw reality is visible and tangible. It is made of solid elements well cut, and well-jointed beams. In it, the straight line is dominant. The plumb has laid its stamp of wisdom and balance upon it. Such a geometric object should withstand metaphors that greet the human body, the human soul. But human transposition is done immediately, as soon as we undertake home as a place of comfort and privacy, as an area that needs to condense and defend intimacy. It’s the exact moment when the delirium field is opened, without any rationality.» (Gaston Bachelard, idem)



«With the image of the house, we own a veritable principle of psychological integration. Examined under the most various theoretical horizons, it would seem that the image of the house becomes the topography of our intimate being. (…) … and so it makes sense to take home as a tool of analysis for the human soul.» (Gaston

Bachelard, idem)


I was in the army. From the garrison toilet’s window, I could see the string of communist blocks of flats across the street. Whenever I could, I would hide there with an instant coffee and a cigarette, and watched the windows of the blocks’ apartments. How much life was there, behind those windows, how much life I imagined in those unseen spaces! When, over a month, I came as a psychologist in an army laboratory tasked to develop batteries of screening tests for various weapons, I imagined a «sample» of an A4 sheet of paper, on which I drew a block façade with 4 rows of windows, some closed and empty, others with various persons or domestic scenes behind them. The future soldiers had to describe what happens behind each of those windows. In my head, someone incapable of such imagination would have been suspicious of psychiatric disorders: who does not imagine anything behind the closed windows has to be dead inside, because he dreams of Death. Anyway, what happened with this «test» has no importance now …

The House World


Cain kills Abel. The sedentary farmer replaces the nomad shepherd. And ever since, the wondering fire of Abel sits in Cain’s bed stone, with all our social life wrapping and evolving around it. The house replaces the shelter and shelters the human being: it became its world! If we were to represent this world, we should imagine it as unwrapping around the following axis:




DWELLING                             HOME                     DWELLER




Both mapping and mantra of the House, this semantical sketch reveals the house as a total social object, like Marcel Mauss would’ve probably said: none of the axis and none the perspectives would be complete without the others, and each of them bears all the others inside it.


«I’ve heard of space; but what is space? The book calls it space, but we know about place: this is how it’s called!» It is the first lesson about «space» that Ernest Bernea (1985) received following his Kantian questions addressed to some peasants in the ’50s. Learnings about the place followed, which were, in a way, a lesson about the quality of space, that is its manner of existence. «Spaces take their essence from places and not from the so-called space» – even Heidegger admits it. As «there is good space and there is bad space; all space has different qualities, just like people do». Therefore, from pointing an arrow to baking a bread, the place of the house has to be carefully chosen, as «there are places that wound you». And the house’s place, which means a house in its proper place, has to be good: «the house has its own place, like any other thing. The house’s place is a good place; anything you plant, will grow, anything you do, will be beautiful. It comes from somewhere far away, from the ancestors’ spirit.» The villages, likewise: «the village is just like that, in the middle of the world; because everywhere the world is the same. We say that here is the axis of Heaven and Earth; everything in the world has an order and this is the order!» We know this from Mircea Eliade, also (1949): «Every arctic house and every septentrional Yurt is conceived and placed in the center of the world: the central pillar or the smoke evacuation tower symbolize an axis mundi.» We may as well say that the man of archaic societies tries to live permanently in a space maintained open by the communication between cosmic layers.» Actually, the world being in order, everything has its place: «all the things and the entire world has a way and a place, where they come to life. There is something hidden dwelling inside, a spring brewing life»; «where there is no thing, there is no place; what kind of place is that without a thing on it? The place comes with the things.» It also comes with man’s work: «there is meaning in things and we see it, yet there is meaning in our hearts as well: a thought, a feeling. The world does not go around the things alone, but round the work as well.» In short, «the place is where you know that things are ordered in a certain way». And still, the place stands still, even if empty, even if vanished:

«yet the place remains a place if you take the things; it’s the same, but not really.» Many have tried to tell the story, to describe and analyze these ways of places; the places’ people, everywhere and always, have lived like this.


The word «habitude» is too worn out to describe this passionate connection between our body unable to forget and the memorable home – Bachelard adds immediately. And the Romanian term of obișnuință (habit) is the farthest from the sense of dwelling unit. This «habit» refers in fact to the act of habitation: habitat – habiter – habitude. And these «habitudes», these ritualized habits are «organic», like deeds of the body, they are so much in-bodied that we wonder (pointlessly…) if one lives or is actually lived.

We could also use instead the Romanian term of îngrijire (caring), by moving freely in the linguistic oecumene of the house’s reveries. For the caring our vernacular language speaks about is the very traditional fact of co-dwelling, a group of habits in-bodied, of worried gestures that enfold the care for our house, looking after and bringing it home continuously, that is … chez soi. «In this sense – notes the British anthropologist Adam Drazin (2001) after years of field research in the communist blocks of Suceava – caring bears in itself the seeds of its own raison d’être, especially in the domestic context, because caring is, by itself, a construction of cared domestic itself». Bachelard said it also, in his own way: «Objects so spoiled are truly born in an intimate light; they climb to a level of reality higher than the indifferent objects, and also the objects defined by geometric reality. They propagate a new reality of being. They not only take a certain place in an order, but a communion of orders. From one object to another, in the room, the household weaves links that join a very ancient past with the new day. The housewife awakens the dormant furniture.» These «housework» (soins ménagers, soins du ménage) are merely gestures of «caring».

Several years ago, I heard a touching story about caring in Paris. Paris authorities had demanded some social scientists to do some sort of training with the local officers to help them manage the increasingly strange problems they were facing in dealing with recent immigrants from Eastern Europe. A colleague of mine living in Paris was confronted with the following situation: We don’t know what to do! There’s a woman from Romania, otherwise very decent, which came here several months ago, and every Sunday morning, she takes the carpets out, lays them on the grass in front of the apartment and starts washing them with soap and water. What shall we do? – a proximity policeman asked and also an administrator of HLM. When I was told about this, I remembered my neighbor, a woman over 60 originating from the countryside, which periodically takes all the carpets out in the courtyard and washes them fiercely for hours, although her daughter in law has a modern laundry right around corner. Yet, as Adam Drazin concluded, «it’s only when they live the satisfaction of beating the carpets and suffer the inherent back pain, that men and women alike know they have really cleaned up. In other words, they removed the mess out of the house.»

Did they take the «filth» out of the house? Did they «clean up»? We are in full cosmic order: clean – dirty, pure – impure, profane – sacred… Caring is actually the trivial sacredness of living. Of dwelling the house, but also the world in which you live: «while the words ‹clean› and ‹care› are often used to describe the house, everything beyond the front door is perceived as dirty», and that includes everything from the streets to politics – the same Drazin concludes. At the other end of the inhabited house remain the danglers and the wild spaces, unkempt, abandoned wastelands and no man’s land sites. Caring, with its delineations between «clean» and «dirty», is also a symbolic geography of urban spaces.

The House in the World


Thrown in the world, the man takes shelter in his own home world – we might say. It’s not only the nature that storms on the human house, but also other people. Wars destroy the homes to definitively defeat the enemies. Dictatorships and ideologies destroy the homes to control and master the «class enemies»: «he died of block», often used to say the residents of Snagov to describe the death a «displaced» victim of Ceausescu’s urban systematization. And people resist by rebuilding their homes and taming the hostile world outside. Every individual, every group or community, each class or category status builds its own habitat, to impose its own identity in its fierce fight against the opposite otherness. «Nothing and no one can avoid the test of space» – exclaimed d’Henri Lefebvre. Much less in a group: a class or a fraction of a class does not constitute and shall not be recognized as «subjects» without generating (producing) a space. Ideas, representations, values that fail to enroll in space and generating (producing) an appropriate morphology are decomposed in signs, reabsorbed into abstract discourses, and transformed into ghosts. The space investment, and the production of space are not an incident to pass by, but a matter of life and death.» Beyond Bachelard’s «topophilia», Lefebvre’s activism reminds us that home is not only a place of rest, but one of confrontation, a place where the strong feeling of existential security is gained or lost and where an identity affiliation is also gained or lost: tell me where you live to tell you the social world you’re part of


Matter, Gender and Soul


Passionate by the reveries of matter from water to air, Bachelard did not go on to analyze, for example, the stone or wood’s dreaminess. We should expect, therefore, a Bachelard of «building materials», materials that, at least initially, are just as many elementary «materials». Until then, we’re free to rake in the memories of our body, eyes, nostrils and the tip of our fingers, to (re)find there the clay, the wood or the stone of an inaugural home. The smell of these elements is different, engaging the animal inside us through his primitive olfactory. Living the clay, wood or stone is not just an architecture or engineering option, but also distinct sympathies. Living in clay, wood or stone also implies distinctive temporality, for what is earth to earth will return, whilst the water flows and rocks remain. The three elements have their own life time and record differently the lives of their people in history.

«The Romanian domestic décor is ‹woody›», concluded Adam Drazin. A «civilization of wood» like the Romanians have is supported by the vegetal rebirth’s eternity, yet how could it gain a visible history, discoverable by archeologist and historian? The Romanian world has produced descendants, but was quite scarce with trails …



The house (or maybe just the home…) is a maternal space, a feminine space any soul’s archeology will discover in anyone’s heart. Bachelard explains this unconscious topography of feminine and masculine, by appealing to the rituals of caring we mentioned above: «If we go to the limit where the dream is over-dimensioned, we feel a sort of conscience to build the house through the caring we undertake to keep it alive, to confer it its clarity of being. The house lighted by caring seems rebuilt from the inside and new through the inside. In the intimate equilibrium of walls and furniture, we develop the conscience of a house built by women. Men can only build the house on the outside. They do not know the wax civilization.» And the author concludes: «Domestic caring confers not only originality to the house, but first of all its origin.» If not content with originality, but aiming also for the origin, the architect will therefore have to be an androgen!



In this regard, Bachelard opens his plea by appealing to Jung’s psychoanalytical stratigraphy. «We have to discover and explain – he says – a building: its floor was built in the nineteenth century, the ground floor dates from the sixteenth century and a closer look at the building shows that it was actually built on a tower from the 2nd century. In the basement, there is a covered cave, with some flint tools found on the ground in the upper layer and remnants of the glacial fauna in the deeper layers. Something similar to the structure of our own soul.»

Yet, où sont les maisons d’antan? «The skyscrapers do not have cellars (…) and home (chez soi) is no longer than a mere horizontality» – notes Bachelard. Paradoxically, multi-storey housing becomes the surfing of the «horizontal man» described by Alessandro Baricco (2009). And yet, the city does not lose depth, but only displays it on its huge horizontal space, full of streets, corners, wastelands and abandoned houses, all inhabited by our fantasies and eventually appropriated by our escape from the blocks without story. Brought to the surface, cellars are in sight, still you have to know where to look …



«We need to add a function of unreality just as positive to the civil reality, instructed by the past, as it results from classical psychology.» An «unreal» which is fulfilling and perhaps expresses best in its positivity, the nature and the social object meaning of the house. The shelter does not become house without this ability of Homo Imaginalis to imagine itself at home and thus becoming a being-in-its-place. The house is not (just) the work of homo sapiens, for it is not merely a competent design; and it is not (just) the creation of homo faber, for there is not only an artefact, a building, a construction. Not only architecture and neither engineering alone. Being a world, the world of man, the house is (also) a man’s dream in the world. A dream sometimes diffused or aborted, an unfulfilled meaning, but always a shelter of sense.



Tell me how you live to tell who you are … Every house has a story to tell, about it and thus about them. Any story turns a house into home, as any love – psychoanalyst Bruno Kumbeeck says (2015) – needs a love story to become a true love. Any house which is built, assumed or denied is a project itself, the shape of a revealing identity. So, you can read a house and you can imagine a story about home. But are these stories of the house really possible, is it possible for them to be true? «The real remembered houses, the houses in which our dreams take us back, the houses rich in faithful delirium, they cannot be described – Bachelard believes. Describing them would mean to open them for visitation.» The houses’ tourist could so much as describe the visited homes, to tell a story as real as possible. Yet what «reality”? What do we do then about that «function of unreality just as positive» as the «real function» and without which the house is not home? Narrating the house is therefore insufficient, the home needs stories

But even the simple narration of the house is difficult. If the road is line, the house is volume. The line, held straight in time, can be described by in-write, by linear writing and also through speech. Therefore, perhaps, the history of mankind is primarily a line, a discursive succession about the humanity time travelling. How to «describe» a volume, a space, a house? Moreover, how to reveal in linear discourse the space house, rather performed than thought, this area produced by the body and incorporated? How to translate the body language? Nonetheless, how to read the sui generis language of materiality and objects, usually unconscious and always different from the linguistic discourse. Lest the «volume» of the house should be re-produced, re-lived? Lest this embedded space should be «imagined», possibly through an imaginative-discursive «creation»? In short, a story of the house should see the man in space. Therefore, a «geography» of the house to complement its «history»? The simple «story» of the house addresses an essential epistemological problem: how could the space be described?

“The epistemological – philosophical reflection has not offered a vein of a science of space, in search for itself for a long time in many publications and various works – Lefebvre found more than 40 years ago. The many science disciplines studying the space, decomposing it, fragmenting it apart, according to simplified methodological postulates: geographical, sociological, historical. Their research end up either in descriptions or by fragmentation and cutouts of space, without ever touching the analytical moment, and even less the theoretical one. They establish the inventory of what exists in space, at best it is a speech about space, but never about the knowledge of space.» Not much later, however, in 1986, Foucault and Miskoviec had already launched the prophecy that «the current era will be, perhaps above all, an era of space (…) One could perhaps say that certain ideological conflicts animating current debates oppose the pious descendants of time to the resolute inhabitants of space.» It is what currently has become known as «the spatial turn» in human sciences. A paradigm shift that geographer Edward Soja (1993), one of its main theorists, describes as an attempt to address human in space, as a reaction to centuries of «historically over-sized contextualization of social life and theory, which has undermined and marginalized programmatically the geographical or spatial imagination», at least from evolutionism until the «end of history». The followers of this «spatial turn» actually say, in essence, that «space is a relevant social construct to understand the different histories of human subjects and to produce the cultural phenomena (…) In other words – as Warf and Santa explain (2009) – this spatial turn is more substantial, implying a rethinking of the very concept and significance of spatiality, to provide an insight where the space is point to point just as important as the time for the disclosure of the human problems, a vision in which geography is not reduced to a secondary review of social relations, but is intimately involved in their construction. Geography matters, but not due to the simplistic and outdated reason that everything happens in space, but as the place where all these things happen is fundamental to understand how and why they occur.»

In its discursive premises, the house’s story therefore needs this «spatial turn». In particular, it needs an observation of the corporal and incorporation practices, which builds the spatial intimacy of belonging. Beyond the actors’ discourse about the house, place, migration, status, emotional ties etc., beyond the specialists’ readings about all these, the description of the house should (re)consider the performative dimension of producing these experiences, by pointing out the quiet practice of building and living the space. The house’s story becomes therefore mainly a revelation of spatial gestures and practices of living, and not just a flat planimetric description of dwelling.

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