many rooms, 10


November 2017


“My Father’s house has many rooms…”

John, 14:2


These rooms I’ve been describing are mostly bedrooms; meaning rooms where a bed is used to sleep, or “slaapkamers”, as they’re called here.

And although there are several synonyms for bedroom in the English language, it is not often that you hear someone retiring to their chamber, accommodation, or lodging. The term room is quite prevalent.

This link between the room (generic) and the specific action to be performed in it (sleeping, using a bed) is not universal, though.

The Castilian word “dormitorio” – literally, a dormitory – does exist, but I cannot recall ever using it myself.

Instead, in that particular language there’s a much less use-related array of terms that are more common, and are often used with some intent, suggesting something interesting.

The first of these words is “pieza” which literally means “piece”.

Clearly, it refers to a whole, of which a piece or part is cut off.

Furthermore, it has no specific relation to any particular action, but in common usage it is very clear that the cut-off piece does not refer to a main or social area in a house.

At least in the context I grew up in, this term has a rather negative connotation.

Rooms for servants and cheap rooms in love hotels are often referred to as “piezas”.

Similarly abstract, yet better regarded in general, is the term “cuarto” which roughly translates “fourth”.

I wonder if it ever meant an actual fourth of an available area, or if the term evolved from “cuadro” or “cuadrado,” which mean square. (The English square – that urban void for public use – we call plaza, which is more accurate, as “squares” come in different shapes, beyond equilateral quadrangles.)

“Cuartos” are often domestic, and often secondary or subservient to rooms with higher dignity in use.

Machine rooms, storage spaces for almost anything, and children’s bed- or play-rooms, are mostly “cuartos”; as were conventional hotel rooms, until recently.

Because at some point, it appears that hotel rooms stopped being “cuartos” and became “habitaciones”.

Still, function remains vague in this term, “habitación”, as inhabitation is a broad term, that does not refer specifically to sleeping or using a bed; and yet the ambitions of some and the aspirations of many appear to agree that this is a fancy way of putting things.

Affluent sick people are taken care of in a particular “habitación” with an identifiable number in a clinic or hospital; while clerks in hotel lobbies upgrade the “cuartos” in their hotel to the level of ”habitaciones”.

Finally, there’s also “alcoba”, which is radically different from the English alcove, which refers to a smaller space, subsidiary to a larger area.

“Alcobas” are basically sleeping rooms in a house or apartment, and necessarily imply some explanation regarding their user.

The word “recámara” is common in other Castilian-speaking countries, not in mine.

In all cases, functionalism appears to be rather foreign to a mind wired in this language.

Instead, using different terms to make social hierarchies clear, appears to be the goal.

Furthermore, the very idea that a big part of our lives goes on in bedrooms, be they functionally or hierarchically defined, is totally relative.

From open, furniture-less tatami rooms; to cosmically oriented single-space “malokas”, many people live their whole life in architectures that are room-less.

My neighbours in the room where I faced death were families that lived in a single space houses with curtains that divided their sleeping areas at night.

Taken for primitive or immoral, the room-less houses of these afro-Colombian citizens share their understanding of domestic space with Gerrit Rietveld’s famous Scrhoder house in Utrecht, often praised as progressive.



Jorge Mejia Hernandez