Dwelling at home

Vennes Cheng


In the life of a man, the house thrusts aside contingencies, its councils of continuity are unceasing.  Without it, man would be a dispersed being.   It maintains him through the storms of the heavens and through those of life.  It is body and soul.  It is the human being’ s first world.

  -Gaston Bachelard

Bachelard’s concept of house proposes a space that does not merely comprise physical characters of shelter; rather, it is a refuge shelters and settles psyche of human. (Bachelard 1969) It offers a sense of stability and security, and prevents man from falling into pieces. Bachelard’s notion of house, in this sense, shares the same implication of dwelling that accentuates the attainment of belongingness and fulfilment. Life comes into being, according to Bachelard, in a space that provides both physical shelter and psyche solace. Dwelling in a space that maintains one’s strength in getting through nuisances transforms the space into a home. A space, which is built as physical shelter for people is a house; with assurance of providing both physical and emotional security for people to dwell, the space is a home. Thus, in the light of Bachelard’s assertion, dwelling means staying in a space wherein sentimental sense of security and contentment can be accomplished. The notion of home has its antecedent in the East; in the poem Calming the Winds and Waves of Su Shi, the poet of Song Dynasty lamented about the vicissitude of his life and versed ‘Home is where the soul resides’ to conclude. The notion of home of Bachelard and Su register in the cultivation of wellbeing in private space; and without the potency of providing emotional attachment and security for its dweller, the space is merely a physical structure of residence, but not home. Thus, home is not at all a physical inertia; rather, it is the psychological contentment in a dwelling that transforms a space into home.

In the project ‘Home and Nonhome’, Leung Chi Wo examines the immaterial and vacillating notion of home and proposes reflection on and counter-schema to the inertia material structure of home. The artist transforms the non-home space, namely hotel rooms and lobby, into a space of reverberation and mediation. One of two hotel rooms situates set of sound installations that comprises audio documentations of Hong Kong people on the idea of home in 2007; a new set of installation concerning the same notion of the younger generations is lodged in another room. The two-nonhome-hotel-room setting, insofar as ruminations of the two generations, renders dimension of oscillation between different views on the idea of intimate attachment at home. In the hotel lobby, an old phone booth signifies a bygone way of communication between home and sojourner is installed. Leung sets the project about home in a non-home sphere whereby schema of misplacement is manoeuvred; it also suggests the notion of home is essentially emotional repercussions. Rather than a physical shelter, dwelling at home infers peaceful and settling emotional condition at peace. ‘Home and Nonhome’ ignites rhetorical mediations on recent turbulence of Hong Kong: what if home becomes non-home and what if non-home calms the shattering souls?  

Between the private and public spaces

The fine line between ‘home’ and ‘nonhome’ reveals the relations between public and private spaces, and the paradoxical substitute between the two notions. The gap between public and private spaces is to do with subjectivity; an architecture structure is built and aimed at providing shelter for people is merely a functional housing; (King 2004) only when it is occupied by dweller does it take on a meaning and significance beyond the physical structure. Home, in this sense, is a private dwelling wherein the dweller is able to be oneself. Once the sense of accomplishment and contentment is attained at home, the dweller will start to seek common bond within community. The concept of dwelling, according to Norberg-Schulz, thus has an important link between private and public; (Norberg-Schulz 1988) the sense of security in dwelling gives us the ability to be part of the community; that is to join and interact with the other in public sphere. Life of a person is anchored in contentment of being at home and the sense of belongingness in a community.

Dwelling connects the private and public spaces; it bonds home and community. In ‘Home and Nonhome’, Leung reenacts his earlier project Open Home (Hong Kong) (2007) – a 30 channels sound installation in a private residence – in a new setting of hotel room; the reenactment mediates the notion of home anew and reflects on the mutation of public space and private dwelling. The 30 channels of sound are audio interviews of Hong Kong people, including local and expats, talking about their homes. The interviews are often preluded with descriptions of physical complexion of ones’ home, such as the spatial area, interior decoration, location, surroundings, and numbers of family member. The physicality of home constitutes underpinning to prepare the home as personal habitation and to establish bonding with community. The interviewees would then detail the particularities - be them setting of kitchen, an undecorated wall, a painting, a piece of furniture from hometown, or a home library - that make homes heartfelt dwellings. Akin to Bachelard’s dictum of the poetics of space, heartfelt dwelling refers to a space wherein the experiences of sentimental repercussions (Bachelard 1969), ability to daydream, and nostalgic longing are freely resided; once the emotion attachment is attained, dweller will start to connect with the community. The notion of home cannot be fully professed without the orientation with its community. Some of the interviewees of Leung’s project spoke about their feelings – mixture of pleasure and annoyance - about their neighbourhood and Hong Kong insofar as their ideal living space. Thus, the interviews reveal attachment to a private space and the spatial surrounding are both essential in connecting ones’ home to the community and contributing the subjectivity – being one’s self - at home.  

Being Oneself at Nonhome

The emotional attachment of home that completes and safeguards the being of one’s self manifests not merely through the inheritance of inert knowledge and corporeal experience of dwelling; it can be rendered via reverberation or dialectics inspiration of then and now. (Bachelard 1969) The past experience of being at home becomes reminder and mediator of the now notion of home; thus a space called home is not only filled up with the dweller’s traces and memories, but also the dialectical reflections of and tensions between past and present. In the project of ‘Home and Nonhome’, the two hotel rooms accommodate ruminations of two generations – the then and now - on the notion of home; the setting constitutes an oscillating reverberation on the notion of home. One of the two rooms situates the iteration of Open Home (Hong Kong) as mentioned earlier, which is a project of Leung in 2007; while a new set of installations derived from the conversations with young people on the notion of home is set in another room. To the younger generation, home is often mediated through things, be them personal collections or gadgets; their sense of home is also projected in futuristic terms - such as plans of study aboard or preparations for the public examinations for a better future – that render the urge of being acknowledged by the community.

The urge of the young people is epitomised by the obscure photographic renderings of the scenes of Nathan Road. Nathan Road is supposedly known well to the local; however, the familiar pathway on Kowloon Peninsula becomes dubious from the perspective of hotel’s window of hotel room. The aliened familiarity of the photographic installation tells once again the inconclusiveness and mutability of the notions of home and nonhome; it also reveals the trans-generational fractures in perceiving the notion of home. The two-hotel-room-setting constitutes dialectics of trans-subjectivity that entails individual to restore and comprehend the various notions of home through reverberations to the others. The schema of trans-subjectivity in ‘Home and Nonhome’ professes heartfelt, safe and secure dwelling at home cannot be assured without the connection to community; the settling sentiment of one’s dwelling in a private space is partly relied on communal reckoning.

Dwelling at home is one’s personal life; home is where the dweller is being somewhere as somebody; a person’s life anchors at home and starts to become visible to the others through interactions with community. The visibility of our life in the community becomes the orientation that locates us in a place, giving us a focus; the orientation also provides routes from personal dwelling into institutions, the city, and its environment. (King 2004) If only the sense of security about dwelling at home is attained, then we will able to participate and interact with community. The assertion of King’s on the intertwinement of home and community finds its epitome in ‘Home and Nonhome’. Leung employs schema of misplacement - insofar as putting artworks that mediated the notion of home in a non-home setting – to examine the intertwinement of private and public spaces; the schema of misplacement addresses the circumstances of home-in-transits of Hong Kong during the recent socio-political unrests and COVID-19 pandemic. In the recent turbulence of Hong Kong, people found temporary refuges in hotel, friend’s place or even stranger’s home when the public transportations were suspended amid the savage confrontations between the protestors and the police of the city. Hotel room is also bestowed an in-between space for quarantine - a space of isolation for the safety of oneself and others - it provides a safety dwelling as that of home. The nonhome, namely hotel room, shelters the people from violence, insecurity, urgency, and contagion; it thus transforms as a temporary intimate dwelling for people.

Dwell to be set at peace

Bachelard’s concept of the poetics of space is in debt to Heidegger’s assertion on authentic dwelling. Rather than a mere physical shelter, namely building, a peaceful, safe, and emancipated setting for one’s being, for Heidegger, is an authentic dwelling of human. The dwelling differentiates itself from a mere building structure with its potency to provide emotional cultivation and care for the dweller. Heidegger propounds building and dwelling are not related as means and end as they are generally perceived; to build is not at all a mere provision of dwelling, dwelling is an ontological existence of human being. Heidegger epitomises the dwelling in linguistic terms; the old German word bauen, building, means to dwell; it denotes to remain, or to stay in a place. However, bauen at the same time means to cherish, to protect, to care for, and to preserve; the care-taking notion of the German word signifies act of cultivation. Thus, dwelling denotes both ideas of staying in a physical structure of shelter and also nurturing the ‘shelter’ of our life, namely soul and body. To dwell is a form of human existence, therefore, we are being human by dwelling on earth. (Heidegger 1971) In this sense, apart from residing the physical body and offering emotional attachment, home is a space where dweller is cultivated into a better person; to be a human being means to be on earth as a mortal. It means to dwell. Heidegger extends the notion of home from the oft-denoted physical structure and emotional shelter to cultivation of humanity. He unleashes the idea of dwelling from the confinement of the concept of shelter provision, be it architectural or emotional, and infers to human being dwells on earth. The home, in this sense, is route or journey of one becoming human, in which human being interacts with others and nature.

The iteration of Monuments for Solitude in ‘Home and nonhome’ renders a non-structural idea of home that resonates Heidegger’s assertion. The sculptural installation recalls the bygone role of public phone booths as circuit to connect home from nonhome. In the analogue age, when optical fiber and digital devices had yet to exist, public phone booths were once indispensable for the sojourner to connect home. The tiny space installed a phone that could only accommodate one person; by making international phone call and hearing voices of love ones from home, the little phone booth transforms into a dimension for emotional repercussions for the caller. The connection with home calms the sojourner’s unsettling sentimentality and longingness; the phone booth, in this sense, renders a space like home, it resides the caller’s emotion and provides route for interaction with others. The potency of connecting with the others regardless the distance consolidates the existence of human being, in Heidegger’s word: the life as mortal.

For emotional attachment cannot be kindled without interactions with others, in Heidegger’s words dwelling is not merely staying on earth under the sky and before divinities; dwelling has to be coexisted with other mortals and things. Therefore, the sense of home emerges with the presence of and interaction with others and things. To contemporise Heidegger’s assertion, the authentic dwelling means living on earth, being able to communicate with others, and respecting presence of non-human, namely things. Monuments for Solitude, thus, is a reminder of these qualities of dwelling that contribute to the notion of home. The phone booth annotates analogue communication through sound and voice in conversational manner, which is an eliminating means of interaction in the age of instant text or voice messages; the act of chatting and being able to converse with the others infer the fundamental way of human interaction. With the petrified wood replacing the phone in the work, Monuments for Solitude is a tactile reminder of the bygone auditory sense and act of speak in analogue mode that once smoothed the unsettling feeling.

Dwelling at home is a sense of being safe, intimate, and free, as Heidegger writes: To dwell, to be set at peace, means to remain at peace within the free, the preserve, the free sphere that safeguards each thing in its nature. The notion of freedom is particularly accentuated and related to the peaceful dwelling. To be dwelled at will and set at peace transforms the space as home, be it an architectural, emotional, or ontological dimension. A home is a free sphere wherein one’s nature and right are safeguarded; the role of safeguard has to be continuously exercised, the space will cease to be home otherwise. Therefore, the notion of home is not at all a fixed idea that is merely attached to the architectural structure or material rendering; rather, it is emotional repercussions of settling, accomplishment, safety, and contentment derived from the assurance of security and freedom. In this sense, home and nonhome are not binary set but reciprocal concepts; their reciprocity lies in sensational assurance - being at peace, free, content, and safe – in remaining in a space. It is the sensational assurance but not the functionality of the architectural structure determines a space called home.


Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Beacon Paperbacks. Boston: Beacon Press, 1969. 

Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. [1st Ed.] ed. His Works. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. 

Kemsley, Roderick, and Platt, Christopher. Dwelling with Architecture. London: Routledge, 2012. 

King, Peter. Private Dwelling [electronic Resource]: Contemplating the Use of Housing, 2013. 

Norberg-Schulz, Christian. Architecture: Meaning and Place: Selected Essays. Architectural Documents. Milan: New York, N.Y.: Electa ; Rizzoli, 1988.