Home in the topography of life. Life stories of a house

Dace K. Bormane

Our movement in time is much more similar to movement in space than we are accustomed to imagine (Jaan Kross).

For all individuals, hearing the term 'house' conjures up a certain image. More importantly, this term evokes a feeling, feelings that all people have. I would like to begin a discussion on a specific house, but essentially this is a discussion about people 'here and now'.

The home is a substratum of culture. In the analysis of a functional space and place as a substratum of a semiotic system, certain characteristics of cultural development are found.

Historically - and logically - the house as a material and tangible entity is a central component of Latvian identity. 'Worries about the home' are worries about one's identity. The home acts as an emotional image that allows an individual to express him/herself even if the political situation limited verbal expression and freedom of speech. The individual is able to express his/her ethnic, regional, and other identities and community belonging and survival through his/her relationship to spatial structures. The 'spatial experience' is not a new phenomenon - surroundings, landscape, nature - all are indicators of an individual's relationship and perception of reality. 'Spatial experience' in this way becomes a means of structuring one's life. The attributes and modifications of a space are connected and shape the 'territorial imperative'.

The home has an existential nature not only in private, but also in social and public perception and conception. Furthermore, individuals who have lived in a totalitarian system are influenced by their 'fundamental existential experience'. Is one of the strategies of this experience in practice the construction and conception of a home? The home articulates the experience of an individual, reaching far beyond the physical aspects of the house. In Latvia, the symbolism of the house has been clearly established. An individual's interest in the home and the theme of 'home' are shaped not only by the basic goal (the house itself as a building) but also by his/her development of awareness and consciousness of the home ('awareness or thinking in the landscape'). "The image of the home becomes the topography of our intimate existence" (Bachelard 1957).


The conceptualisation of the idea of the house

The word 'house' is a word that has the capability to think and act by itself. It is a word with power, a word that protects an individual but at the same time may also become violent.

But nothing is ever one and the same for all people and in all times. It is similar to the case when two people are doing the same thing, but it will never be an identical action. And still, there will be a common base, root, core. This applies also to the house and its meaning.

For all of us, whether it is clear or intuitive, the existential condition we call a home plays a role in the course of our lives, as well as a central value in the essence of and meaning of our lives. The house is also socially archaeological. I am talking about this phenomenon: a person develops connections with a hearth, dwelling, fortress, apartment, where the house is manifested both as a livingplace as well the concept that 'my home is my palace', and even as a virtual home, a potential reality.

The home is integrated into a person's biographical situation (Schütz 1960). The term 'home' indicates the emotional connection to living. The terms 'father's house' and 'father's home' are not equal. Father's house evokes a strictly juridical concept, while father's home is linked to an emotional relationship and environment (milieu).

I will mention three 'shelves', where knowledge and understanding of the house may be organised.

The first shelf - the house as a roof over one's head. It is a definite necessary structure that a person needs, but it does not fulfil all an individual's needs in entirety. We will call it the empirically vital shelf in the understanding of the house. The house will be the subject of analysis.

Researchers, however, note: the most stable and the oldest structures the individuals used to understand the world surrounding them are based on their spatial understanding, both historically and logically.

Construction as a spatial art shaped individuals' abilities to touch and see. The building structures the logistics of living. The house is temporal but also (it seems) atemporal (as a function of perception, illusion, as a value). The nature of the house is duality.

The second shelf - the poetics of the house. These are the ideas about the maintenance and protection of the house, which also warn about elements that threaten the homeyens of the house. Then the households meaning in an individual's emotional life, his/her self-interpretation and physical memory. The significance and meaning of a space is not determined by time spent in it, but rather by the intensity of the individuals. Experience - the space develops meaning and becomes a milieu. The house as milieu is connected to several concepts. The home helps individuals negotiate their path in the world. The following phrases from several authors in Latvia and the other places in the world reveal the home's semiosis and episystems. Reading these excerpts, consider the sacred thesis - language reveals the truth.

His perceptions of all things were built along with the buildings (Edwards Virza, Latvian writer).

Latvians know what it means to hold on to the house keys even when the house itself is gone; The experience of home forbidden (observations of a Latvian living in the diaspora).

The nation is my home (Andrejs Eglitis, Latvian poet).

We preserved our home through our language (Astrîde Ivask, refugee poet).

The earth speaks in the language of home. To be home or to flee from home. To feel at home. House/home: Memories of the Past - Visions of the Future (Riga 1997 Conference Title).

After these excerpts, we could also say: These are things, which those who 'have nobody home' would not understand. This phrase describes a lack of mental reasoning and accountability.

Not only our memories, but also our forgetting is 'dispersed'. And, if we remember our 'home' and 'rooms', we also learn to 'live' within ourselves. The ability to live in oneself - identity. Identity is repetition. The home, for its part, is also a return to corresponding themes, and the home foresees reflection. "Real life takes place where the house has not only 'external verticality' - walls reaching for the skies - but where the urbanite feels the home's internal verticality in him/herself" (Teters 1998).

A discussion about the biography of an individual's home is essentially a discussion about the possible verticality's of an individual in him/herself and the horizontals that sociums determines even in politics in the context of acquisition of the home.

The observations above show that the house and declarations connected with the house have the aroma of documentation.

The third shelf in the history of thought on which the house could be placed is the discourse of the house (how the meaning of house can be constructed) as a methodological instrument. The house as a subject of thought, as a subject or objects of research, as a communication tool that enables a person to understand another through something. People understand each other through a meaningful object, understanding 'through a third'. This third could be a house. The house as a body and the house as perception in people's meetings with others, their attitudes, and the values they develop in building this understanding.

Architect Leborbizje wrote the house is an epochal problem. It is dependent on the balance of society.

The home is a milieu. It approximates the formation of a personality. The milieu overcomes the emotional feelings presented by the contrast of reality. The metaphor of the home is a unique metaphor that since Plato has served as a model for those present. The house has always been understood as the most basic division between the internal and external (Rubene 1998). Question: how does the 'external' enter the 'internal' and how does the 'internal' influence the 'external', if by that we mean political and economic events in the state, city, or region. I am talking about the border between the two, which influences an individual's emotional security in threatening situations or situations perceived as such. The question concerns the home as a key to orientation for social roles (landlord, renter and guest) and the meaning of this role.

In this study that focuses on a concrete house, fact of the home's existence itself depends on the perspective from which this fact is presented. This perspective shows that the house is:

  1. a definite social-territorial unit;
  2. the house as a place, where the individual establishes a household (as we know, that in Greek oikos - means 'home, place of birth'; oikonomikç- 'the management of a household, housekeeping'; ecology - 'teachings of the home or a home's logos'. This concerns the influence of social and economic structures, societies, the influence of an individual's subjective experience, as well as his/her attitude regarding reality/the world);
  3. that the events connected to the House through time help us understand what has happened in the past and what is currently happening, and makes the house the object of attention and analysis.


House number 5. A house in the center of town

In this study of a rental building in Riga (1995-1999) we recorded life stories of its owners and 20 inhabitants. We conducted repeated in depth interviews, family interviews, surveys, took pictures, researched families' personal archives, and also constructed the house's/building's biography from the 1930s. The interviewees were asked when their parents or grandparents arrived in Riga.
The initial aim of the study: to construct a portrait of the inhabitants of the Riga home, as well as the history of a home in a certain time period, focusing on the life story as a research source. The invitation to share one's life story comes from an individual's relationship to the house because the house is the milieu, but the milieu overcomes spiritual essence and the contrast presented by reality. In the Baltic region in the 1990s, strong political changes were taking place and the home in its way is a stable, restricted space where this situation is reflected.

The research group and residents of a house at the conference Home/house: memories of the past - visions of the future. April 1997, Riga. Author's collection.

The changes in the inhabitants reflect certain historical trends and principles beginning with the repatriation of the Baltic Germans to Germany in 1939. Since 1940 the inhabitants have included individuals from the Soviet Union. Several of the apartments are of a transitory nature. For example, there were times that members of the secret police stayed here. Anonymity becomes one of the characteristics of the house.

The House has 19 apartments. In the beginning of the study, five were communal apartments. Family members of the original owners and builders who began working on the building in 1936 still live in some apartments. Both of the original owners died because of persecution under the Soviet regime - now both of their daughters live there. One of the daughters returned from Siberia. In 1992, this was one of the first buildings in Riga to be denationalised.

One of the residents of a house in the city centre in her room. The Latvian Oral History Collection.

The environment of the House changes because with the change of political rule (occupation) in 1940, people with completely different value systems begin to live in the House together.A few questions that are considered in this study of the house as a specific social unit and which the life stories intentionally or unintentionally are intertwined.

  1. The owners of the house and their family's life stories (chronology, social structure, individual's story).
  2. The biography of the home (in a broad sense) reflects social change, relationships and value changes regarding one's livings pace, his/her relationships and sense of belonging to this place, the influence of the structure of one's living space and on one's living situation, value orientation, identity, 'history of beliefs'. We found that for fifty years, the course of an individual's life was determined not by his/her abilities, cultural and financial capital, but by external forces - violence not against one individual, but against the entire country as a whole. The trajectory of development was broken.
  3. Dialogues in the House - real and symbolic relationship networks where the House provides the background.

The dialogues in the Home include dialogs between neighbours. These dialogues reflect the structure of the communal apartment as a Soviet phenomenon. The nature of social communication is shown, that is, we see that the individual's behaviour, both in public and in private, is controlled and sanctioned by the nature and shape of the structure of one's living space.

Another feature of these dialogues is the relationships between neighbours as a form of solidarity. The informal political opposition some individual neighbours during the Soviet period expresses this. Neighbours from three apartments formed a separate group who spent leisure time together, celebrated holidays, played sports and so on together. This happened in the context of these families cultivated information and in their identity as citizens. These people's communication rituals, semiosis (in all its definitions) and multi-structured description become a source of 'alternative history'.

The home's dialogues include also dialogues between men and women. Maruta Pranka (1998) has written about this. The study shows that the woman's voice dominant in this dialogue is influenced by and constructed by history.

Yet another subject is the meaning of social contact in a person's life. This appears through observed trends toward communalism, as well as loneliness and social isolation that increasingly affects inhabitant of this house.

The House holds a special meaning in an individual understands of him/herself. In the House one discovers many questions, but fewer answers, yet a person's life can be seen not only in facts, but also in broader more spiritual dimensions.


The house as a lobbyist for practical history

In memories, the building becomes a home. Memories are creative. The space of the House is has a time characteristic (chronotope).

Discussion of the House is a discussion about personalised history. The House as a humane existential quality is for the individual foreseen to be in the present. "You can not allow either the past, nor what is to come, to be forgotten. Everything depends on whether you are in the present" (Jaspers 1949). This condition, especially in post-socialist countries, is not easy to fulfil.

Life stories place history in the present; life stories free history in the present and discuss the current past. Oral history may be considered a thing of the periphery, as peripheral in respect to history. However, the peripheral - 'observing from the sidelines' is essential in an individual's thinking when searching for 'historical truth' requires one owns opinion that shapes the individual him/herself.

History becomes important as practical history, which does not allow history to isolate itself and become extremely rational or mysticised. Understanding of history leads us beyond the borders of history. A unified history, if there is such a thing, exists in the contexts of our being. The thinking and historicism of lifestories provides insight outside of the existing historical measures.

The text of life stories provides, in its own manner, material for the reconstruction of reality. In this way history allows a person to 'inherit his/her fate', history become historical through the person's existence as a special type of experience.
History in a way is being deprofessionalised; when one reads a book, it is 'rewritten', and a new intertextual relationship is built. History is exposed to the influence of life stories.

The House lends itself as a good subject of analysis. The House is associated with the deconstruction of the historical. An individual inhabitant with the narrative of the House as a background deconstructs the image of his/her life. In addition, the life story is a condition of deconstruction in relation to history and stimulates criticism of history.

Deconstruction is not an end in itself, but is interconnected with a way of thinking that encourages a historical study on the level of language and culture, incorporating history in a larger cultural tradition. In short, it makes history what it is; otherwise it is only politics. As Karl Jaspers said: "History is there, where people live". This makes history humane, and history has no required structure.

Translated by Mâra Lazda



Nacionâlâs mutvârdu vçstures kolekcija (The Latvian Oral History Collection.) Institute of Philosophy and sociology, Latvian University. Riga.

Bachelard, Gaston 1957. La poetique de l'espace. Presses Universitaires de France.

Jaspers, Karl 1949. Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte. Zürich.

Pranka, Maruta 1998. Dialogi mâjâ. - Treile, Jolanta (red.). Mâja: pagâtnes atmiòas - nâkotnes vîzijas. Rîga, lpp. 82-85.

Rubene, Mâra 1998. Mâja: arhitektûra un estçtika. - Treile, Jolanta (red.). Mâja: pagâtnes atmiòas - nâkotnes vîzijas. Rîga, lpp. 129-136.

Schütz, Alfred. 1960. Der sinnhafte Aufbau der sozialen Welt. Vienna, Springer.

Teters, Daina 1998. Mâjas semiotizâcijas îpatnîbas. - Treile, Jolanta (red.). Mâja: pagâtnes atmiòas - nâkotnes vîzijas. Rîga, lpp. 26-31.