Sunday, 4 November 2007
Living in a glass house
Interesting article from NYT: a new architecture project in Manhattan involves our concept of privacy.
Yours for the Peeping
By PENELOPE GREEN
Published: November 4, 2007
JEREMY FLETCHER and Alejandra Lillo, designers at Graft, an architecture and design firm based in Berlin, Beijing and Los Angeles, were working out a dialogue between voyeurism and exhibitionism, they said, when they designed the swooping, shiny white interiors of the W Downtown, a glass-walled condominium tower to be built in 2009 in Manhattan’s financial district.
Not only will the building’s glass walls allow W residents to see, and be seen by, passers-by on the street below, but Mr. Fletcher and Ms. Lillo have created peekaboo features within each apartment, like a window between the kitchen and the bedroom, and a bathroom that’s a glass cube, allowing residents to expose themselves to their roommates and family members, too. The idea, Mr. Fletcher said, was to frame and exhibit the intimate details of life, or at least ones that would be aesthetically pleasing, “like your silhouette in the shower.”
“We are creating stages for people to perform on in some way, but it’s a very scripted and considered display,” he said. “Cooking could be a display, for example, with your partner watching you from the bedroom.”
He talked about tuning the privacy of each room, using shades or scrims to have larger or smaller openings, as you would change the aperture of a camera. “So if you don’t want your partner to see you shaving your legs in the shower,” he said, “you can pull the shade.”
Like the clothes Marc Jacobs designed for his own label and for Vuitton this fall — skirts bunched into the waistbands of pantyhose at the back, see-through dresses with bras and panties sewn onto them — Graft’s peekaboo interiors are a sly commentary on a culture that continues to find new ways to display ever more intimate, and mundane, details of domestic life. In a YouTube world, one’s home is no longer one’s private retreat: it’s just a container for the webcam.
In New York City, where the streetscape is being systematically remade by glassy towers like the W, which have been spreading like kudzu in the seven years since the first two terrarium-like Richard Meier buildings went up on the West Side Highway, the lives of the inhabitants are increasingly on exhibit, like the performance art wherein the artists “live” in a gallery for 24 hours and you get to watch them napping or brushing their teeth.
It’s not always a pretty picture.
In September, Curbed, the feisty New York City real estate blog, posted a photograph of a newly completed, glass-walled condo building on East 13th Street. You could see right into the apartments, which looked most like messy dorm rooms. It was a grubby retort to the marketing hoo-ha that surrounds these now ubiquitous buildings and trumpets a sleekly attractive lifestyle accessorized by midcentury modern furniture and designer clothing. There were unmade beds jammed right up against the glass, mangled paper Venetian shades, a towel over a chair.
Accompanying the photo was a report of a sighting of a guy in boxer shorts doing push-ups. “Doesn’t the first condo association meeting need to include a window coverings workshop?” the post wondered plaintively.
City life has always been to some degree a public performance, and one of its pleasures is the opportunity to catch a glimpse of other habitats, to watch the movie of others’ lives through a half-drawn curtain, as Jimmy Stewart did in “Rear Window.” But in the same way overheard phone conversations used to be tantalizing until cellphone use reached saturation point — “I’m on 14th and Fifth,” bellows the guy into his Bluetooth, and your ear — ogling other people’s apartments is no longer so appealing, and holds about the same narrative punch as the inane muffin video (homemade by some teenager in his kitchen) my daughter watches over and over on YouTube.
Indeed, the computer is an eerie (or dull, depending on your point of view) twin to the glass apartment, the Facebook profile page with its status updates its closest emotional kin — Mary is asleep! Jim is working hard! Lucy has “friended” John! There is a behavioral connection between the unconsciously “for show” lives of those living in glass condos and the consciously “for show” lives of those spending more and more of their time online, where domestic activities are recorded in achingly specific detail. The result is a cultural confusion about private and public.
Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and the director of the M.I.T. Program in Science, Technology and Society, sees the glass towers as expressions of “a turning point in form.”
“There is real confusion about intimacy and solitude,” said Professor Turkle, who for more than two decades has been studying computers and the people who love them. “Are we alone in these buildings, facing the anonymity of the city, or are we connected to the city? What do we show and what do we hide?
“That mirrors what happens when we’re on the computer, on our networks in Facebook. We are no longer able to distinguish when we are together and nurtured and when we are alone and isolated. I can be in intimate contact with 300 people on e-mail, but when I look up from my computer I feel bereft. I haven’t heard a voice, touched a hand, for hours or days. I think people are no longer certain where the self resides.”
These buildings, she suggested, tell a story of anxiety, not exhibitionism.
Jeffrey Cole, the director of the Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication, has been researching teenagers and their digital communities, where the glass house metaphor feels most urgent, and most dangerous.
“My experience is that teenagers, and teenage girls especially, don’t know that on Facebook they’re living in a glass house,” Professor Cole said. “They are lulled into a feeling that in their networks it’s just them and their friends who only have their best interests at heart. And who will always have their best interests at heart. They have very little sense of permanent record. I think essentially we have no privacy, or we have fewer and fewer areas we can retreat safely into.”
The open plan interiors and glassy walls of Modernist architecture were the expression of an urban culture relaxing, said Winifred Gallagher, the author of “House Thinking: A Room-by-Room Look at How We Live.” Pointing to Modernism’s first moments in the beginning of the 20th century, she said, “All of a sudden, we didn’t want to be private and cut off.” As it comes around again, Ms. Gallagher notes the same message, but with a wrinkle:
“New York City used to be a city of steel grates and bars on the window. It was a very unsafe place. Today, the city is spectacularly safe. Glass tells that story. Philip Johnson’s glass house used to be something you could only have in New Canaan. Now it’s something you can have in the city. Of course, there’s always the thought, how comfortable are you with the predator looking in your window? There’s something similar going on with the Internet, the idea of connecting to your ‘neighborhood,’ and maybe not knowing all you should about who’s there with you.”
In the 1970s, the psychologist Irwin Altman studied how people developed relationships by using a method of “openings and closings,” as he put it the other day.
“They gradually open themselves up, at very superficial levels of their personalities, and carefully move on to more intimate areas,” he said, as if opening doors in a house. He described his theory of privacy regulation: that in order to balance the times individuals feel exposed, or open, they need to have times when they are closed and alone.
“One of the ways they do this is in their homes,” Mr. Altman said. “Our living rooms are our public rooms, where we show our best selves, our best things, showing off what’s of value to us and what we treasure. And then there are places like bedrooms that are off limits, and only the people who know us intimately are allowed access.”
If a society as a whole has been “open” 24/7, it stands to reason it is due for a bit of a shutdown. Maybe that’s why the architect Costas Kondylis switched the plan for a 31-story condominium in the East 60s from all glass to limestone. Glass, he said, turned out to be “too much of a déjà vu kind of thing.”