REMINDERS OF HOME: A survey of the semiotic signs related to human dwelling-places

Abstract Introduction Early Shelter Color Pattern Meaning in Language Archetypes
Parts of Shelters Semiotics and meaning Modern Usage Conclusions References Webliography Links


Over time, structures which have become human homes may acquire unique graphic symbols. Specific parts of shelters can even unite the identity of a community, in the same way the particular types of clothing can identify one cultural group from another. Particular parts of residential architecture, such as certain styles of doors or windows, have acquired symbolic cultural meaning over time. Bedouin tent embroidery, brownstone stoops and Victorian gingerbread trim can give information about the original inhabitants of certain homes. Onion domes, stained-glass windows and Dutch doors all suggest specific cultural roots in the design of a house. These architectural features sometimes begin to function as signs by themselves.

Throughout history, human residential architecture has evolved from the simple to the highly complex, becoming increasingly elaborate in terms of function and technology. Walls, ceilings and floors present a variety of forms and design principles that encode expressive messages. The patterns and colors used in floor and wall coverings can contain clear social messages, and the types of materials used, along with the decorations applied, can provide insight into a culture's preferences. Symbols can be found carved in wooden plinths and banisters, sculpted in the plaster of stairways and halls, embedded in windows sills and engraved in eaves, joists, beams and floorboards (Norberg-Schulz 26). Dwellings in differing climates have included structural aspects which both highlight ties to the unique environment and invoke blessings from the local deities.

Stairs: For example, stairs possess a variety of symbolic meanings. Several studies have shown that human memory almost invariably includes the domestic landscape in its earliest patterns. A surprising number of human children tend to hold vivid memories of looking up into attic stairs and down into cellar stairs, and some theories suggest this reveals much about human spatial perception as it relates to spiritual relationships (Urban 22).

Going up stairs sometimes symbolizes growing closer to heaven while descending can be seen as growing closer to death. Stairs can also be viewed as a vertical configuration of the labyrinth, with consequent associations of vertigo, and getting lost. Stairs are one place in the house where the human moves from the safety of the stable floor to the unsteadiness and precariousness of the air. Different cultures represent stairs using different symbols, but many share the same meanings. These similarities can be a starting point for further comparisons.

Roofs: “A roof over your head” is one of the essential forms of human shelter. Because the roofline is the closest part of the house to heaven, some cultures revere that household surface above all others. In Cairo, houses over four hundred years old often contain a Cairene qa'a, a three-part reception hall consisting of a durqa'a, or the sunken central part, onto which open two iwans (courtyards) facing each other. Each of the two iwans is roofed with a vault, which forms an arched opening onto it.

Many of the most spectacular examples of these “teaching roofs” were originally houses of professors where teaching sessions were held, and which were turned into madrasas or holy schools on the death of their owners. The inscriptions on the ceilings are both beautiful and full of meaning, allowing the house to become more than just shelter but also altar, not an official public church but a place of deep private contemplation (Oliver 152). The meaning captured on these roofs can be shared by everyone who visits this home, uniting the community in both an artistic and scholarly way.

The roof ridge of a new house is a particularly revered location in many cultures, the preferred spot for other symbols such as Masonic emblems and religious icons. Medieval Mediterranean house builders honored the wood taken from the forest to build a new house by fixing the branches of a small tree to the roof ridges of a newly framed roof. The custom migrated throughout Europe and arrived in the United States with German and Dutch builders, who still nail evergreen boughs to newly constructed roof ridges (Kidder 173). The sign of the pitched roof is a common representation of the complete concept of shelter.

House Posts:
The cultural context of carved architectural posts ranges from honorary likenesses of royal personages in the palaces of Oceanic kings through detailed color portraits of the house builders' parents in many African countries. Posts and poles, particularly the central support posts of multi-storied houses, are personalized and often revered, as the strength and support of the clan, both structurally and metaphysically.

House posts and poles can also be free-standing art with symbolic and semiotic meanings in their own right. North American and Canadian Pacific tribal groups produce enormous and intricate carved cedar poles, renowned for their large communal collections of colorful wooden totems.

However, these communities also create complex, personalized poles used in individual houses, designed to tell the tales of the people residing within. While these posts are generally recognized as art objects, conveying specific messages about the residents of the house, they still frequently play a direct physical role in supporting walls or ceilings. Carved house frontal poles are placed against the house structure, often serving as doorways. Engraved interior house posts commonly support roof beams, and free standing memorial poles are placed in front of houses to honor deceased chiefs. The carving can be done by recognized artisans or undertaken by the householders. A mixture of natural and human forms intertwine to tell the stories of the family inside, often including mocking figures and irreverent references to mistakes, misunderstandings and, of course, heroics. To understand the full message in these domestic carvings, you must be part of the group, one of the insiders, a member of the extended family (Thompson 101).

DoorWays: In various civilizations, the entrances of certain structures include (and sometimes become) signs of power.

Control of the keys is an inherently important position, with particular responsibilities and privileges. Even simple residential doorways are perceived as dangerous portals which if left unattended can allow unknown powers to enter the house and provide openings for protective spirits to escape unnoticed. The threshold, a piece of Earth which marks the doorway to the private house, is a particularly powerful semiotic place, separating the sacred space within from the profane and dangerous space without, and has earned signs of protection in almost every human culture.

Sometimes the doorway itself takes on symbolic and legal significance. Old Nordic culture assigned great power to private residential thresholds. Norse women wielded influence inside the home, and controlled the keys to the house both figuratively and literally. This self-reliance by all members of the group led to an acceptance of divorce as a sometimes necessary event, but only if it was properly witnessed, and accompanied by the correct ritual. The ceremony of renouncing a spouse involved a statement made in public, while stepping through the threshold of the shared house. Only by making such a declaration while crossing the shared threshold, before witnesses, could a spouse signify that a divorce was now final (Weiss 54).

The custom of carrying a new bride over the door guardian for the first time probably has ties to the Roman door Limentinus, but Eastern builders, particularly the Chinese, also recognized that household doors are junctions of power. The image of the open door was commonly used to describe life, as a metaphor for all of the uncertain openness between birth and death (Dreyfuss 20).

Even the lowliest Chinese house traditionally had at least a screen to divert evil spirits from finding a direct path inside. Screens can also be reinforced with actual protective signs, sometimes in the form of either gods themselves or natural materials which posses protective qualities. On the first day of the first month, during celebrations of the New Year, pictures of the two traditional door gods are pasted on household entrances everywhere in China (Davis 106).

Protective signs to make household doors safer were important in many societies. In Japan, kadomatsu decorations are made with assembled pine branches, enhanced by stems of bamboo and soirées of plum trees. During the New Year period, a pair of them, one for each side, are placed in front of the house gate, both for decoration and for symbolic protection (Fisher 10).To protect against random, wandering evil spirits, shimenawa (woven rice straw ropes with paper cutouts attached) are hung as door protectors on Shinto shrines and homes on New Year's Day. These twisted rice straw designs mark off a sacred place, delineating it from the profane, and have traditionally been thought to ward off evil and sickness (Gillian 61).

Special signs of protection for doorways can be incorporated within larger systems of architectural design. Long before feng shui became famous in the West, the Hindu theories of the Vastu house (graha) as a microcosm of the universe, and the idea that the position of nine planets should concur with the format of house to their good effect on the inmates, was widespread. Vastu, the ancient Indian Vedic science of “environmental bliss”, stipulates norms and standards to be adopted in all temples, houses, corporate offices and even barns to protect the inhabitants and provide the best atmosphere for work and love. According to Vastu rules, the position of main door must be related to a directionally-based Rashi sign and should be facing east or north. Intricate door carvings called mithuna, generally depicting erotically entwined young couples, are thought to provide some deflection of dangerous forces from heavily used doorways and are seen as signs of protection (Knevitt 29).

Physically attaching particular graphic marks to doors, intended specifically as door guardians, in order to sanctify and protect the house is also a common practice in diverse societies. For example, two Yoruba (African) gods, Eshu and Ogun, are commonly found on a variety of African door carvings. Eshu is a divine mediator who crosses the boundary between the physical world and the spiritual realm, and Ogun is the pathfinder who works with Eshu to "open the way" for communication between humans and gods (Seamon 112). The strength of animals is sometimes invoked when protecting doors, since the association of a powerful defender is seen as a deterrent to many types of dark forces. Lamassu are human-headed lions and bulls that guard the gates of Assyrian temples and palaces. They have wings, and therefore the power of flight with great protective strength. They are usually reserved as protectors of the wealthy, and seldom appear by the doorways of ordinary citizens (Moran 213). Chinese door guardian animals, often pasted on door frames as highly-colored paper cutouts, are numerous and have been reproduced for use electronically on a variety of web sites (Modley 34).

Clearly, the desire to protect the doorway of a shelter is an ongoing psychological phenomenon, as well as a practical necessity. Marking the division between the safety of home and the dangers without requires signs of great power and endurance. Based on iconic images of animals and gods, or symbolic patterns and colors, doorway signs to protect the household from outside forces are still necessary. Modern residences often employ a token security camera which is not attached to a system, to give the appearance of surveillance when none exists. This token device, along with more utilitarian bars on windows and deadbolts on doors, gives the urban landscape an air of remoteness not unlike that aspired to by the ancient gatekeepers under their stone lions.

Windows: Before glass windows became common, the majority of human shelters throughout the world were constructed as single undivided spaces, with walls and low roofs, often connecting to central courtyards or, if on upper floors, opening out from one wall onto balconies (Kazmierczak 23). Genuine privacy within a residential shelter was unheard of, because the shelter itself contained no architectural way to effectively separate the residents.

As technology provided more efficient ways to heat buildings, and as transparent windows looking out on the world became more common, the urge to protect the activities within one's home from public view became stronger. In some cultures, particularly urban societies in which dense populations coexist closely for mutual safety and convenience, domestic privacy is valued above all other characteristics of shelter, including comfort. Striking architectural innovations have evolved to meet this demand for personal privacy. Most of the signs related to windows in dwelling places emphasize this requirement for privacy, boundaries and removal from public scrutiny.

In Egypt, social norms stress the notion of the home as the sanctuary of its inhabitants. Religious doctrine regulates access to private spaces and discourages people from discussing their private affairs with others. Old Egyptian houses can be dated by the original intricately constructed mashrabiyas (carved wood screens) which acted as privacy shields and dividing walls from the time before windows were available. The convoluted, non-representational abstract designs and architectural complexities of these privacy screens are both intentional and effective at blocking all views from outside the safety of the house. Stripping this protective shield from a personal household invades its sanctity, exposing the bare walls of the private life within to the scrutiny of the public view without. These ornate signs of distance and removal mark a home as privileged and private.

Windows carry great symbolic meaning in many cultures. A light in a window is an almost universal signal of hope and life, where darkened windows are often icons of death and loss. Shuttering windows, closing blinds and boarding up glass are practical activities but the visual results of such protective measures also provide clear semiotic meaning within the physical environment. Just as an open door is sometimes equated with a welcoming environment, shattered window glass is a striking icon of abandonment, violation and danger.


(C) 2004 Tami Sutcliffe
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements
for the degree of Master of Arts in Art History
in the Graduate School of California State University,
Dominguez Hills, Fall 2004

"Seaside Souvenirs" by Marney Johnson: 32" x 34" - Oil on Masonite
"An Indian Corn Morning" by Marney Johnson: 32" x 48" - Oil on Masonite
"Japanese Juniper" by Marney Johnson: [central triptych panel] 34" x 36" - Oil on Masonite
All images courtesy of Marnie Johnson: Visit her work here:

Last updated 07.15.04