The right to a view: glass, class and our transparent lives

As developers seek to out-glass-tower each other, windows are replacing walls. But should we be living in ‘bubbles’?
Neo Bankside apartments © Getty

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A view is not a one-way privilege. Sure, you can have a panoramic window, but there will also be a view back in. It is a condition highlighted in recent complaints by residents in the Neo Bankside apartments that visitors to neighbouring Tate Modern’s new viewing gallery were using it to look right into their apartments. There have been letters.

Sir Nicholas Serota, the outgoing director of the Tate, probably didn’t help when he suggested the residents put up net curtains. Yet the flippant (and also rather brilliant) comment did highlight a contemporary condition, and a facet of modern architecture, that is little discussed but which is destined to become a real problem as the skylines of global cities compete to out-glass-tower each other with ever denser developments.

The difficulty stems from a confusion at the heart of contemporary architecture — that is, the difference between a window and a wall. In the first decades of the 20th century the Modernists dreamt of transparency, of the melting away of structure. Already in the mid-19th century a fissure opened up between a new glass architecture and the traditional blocks of the city.

You can see the conflict between the two at St Pancras Station in London (1868), in the way William Henry Barlow’s magnificent glass shed comes crashing in to the city only to be blocked by George Gilbert Scott’s gothic brick castle of the Midland Grand hotel. The new ideal was represented by the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park (1851), a building through which Joseph Paxton, an engineer, challenged the profession of architecture with a new conception of containing space.

St Pancras Station, 1800s © Bridgeman
1851 engraving of the Crystal Palace, Hyde Park, London © Bridgeman

It represented a fundamental rethinking of architecture. It was not walls with windows, but walls that were all window. The Crystal Palace did not contain a series of spaces or rooms — it was one great open plan, a representation of the world of trade and manufacture just as Kew’s Palm House (1848) was a container of an exotic other world. Philosopher Peter Sloterdijk called the idea the “Bubble”, one enduring meme that is now resurfacing from designs for Google’s new Mountain View HQ to Elon Musk’s plans for a base on Mars.

Our world of contemporary things is represented by the Apple Store. Think of their Fifth Avenue store in New York, manifested as a pure glass cube — this is our world of apps and online consumption. Completely transparent, as elegant as the screen on an iPhone. Though nothing happens in the glass cube itself (the trade is conducted below ground), it is the representation of an idea.

Apple Store, New York, by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson © Alamy

You could argue that the tradition of glass architecture began in Britain (with some of those examples above) and subsequently reached its apex there. It is easy to see the journey from Barlow’s shed or Decimus Burton’s Palm House to Norman Foster’s Gherkin or his Thames-side office and Richard Rogers’ practice RSH+P’s Neo Bankside. This is the architecture that became known as High Tech and was as influenced by Victorian engineering as it was by Modernist design — with the pivotal 20th-century figure of Richard Buckminster Fuller and his geodesic domes (bigger bubbles) sandwiched somewhere in between with Center Parcs as the salad.

Richard Buckminster Fuller © Bridgeman

The idea of a glass architecture chimed with notions of transparency being a “good thing”. In the corporate world, transparency is a metaphor for good governance. You cannot do shady or backroom deals in a building with neither shade nor back rooms.

In the world of government it is even more so — it’s almost impossible to imagine a new parliament building being built in a democracy that does not express itself through the slightly dim-witted metaphor of transparency. Both Foster’s Reichstag and Rogers’ Welsh National Assembly building have glazed chambers so that their workings are open to the electorate. Visually, at least. And then there’s the home.

The Reichstag, Berlin, designed by Norman Foster © Getty

This metaphor of transparency got carried through to the psychopathology of the domestic. It was a built expression of the idea that light cleanses and that interior dark corners (ciphers for the recesses of the subconscious) should be purged. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (1951) was the high point. It was completely transparent, and its owner hated it, feeling vulnerable and overlooked — despite the house being in the middle of the Illinois countryside.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House © Alamy

There was always an ethical dimension to transparency, the opening up of everyday life to the world, the throwing open of the metaphorical curtains. Of course, those curtains really are only metaphorical. Houses with windows on to the street once had shutters. Then heavy curtains (for the night) and net curtains (for the day). The reason Serota’s riposte to Tate Modern’s neighbours had such bite was in its invocation of small-minded, curtain-twitching suburbanism. The kind of people who buy glass-walled apartments overlooking London see themselves as a different class of people to those in Victorian terraces. It brings in the delicate question of class, an issue still bubbling up beneath urban aesthetics in Britain.

Yet curtain-twitching, you might argue, is a symptom of exactly the kind of sense of belonging to a place, and a consciousness about what is going on, that it is the very essence of the Jane Jacobs-style community that is the contemporary orthodoxy. The sense is that residents in their glass bubbles want to look out — to consume and own the view — but are offended if anyone else looks in. A view is a public amenity and should not be controlled by wealth. If you walk past Neo Bankside, you realise you can see into the apartments pretty well from the street; an element of exhibitionism is inscribed in the architecture. No one who wanted real privacy should have bought a glass-walled flat here.

And there is a broader societal parallel. Our lives, lived in such large part online, have become almost completely transparent. Our metadata is monitored, our Uber rides are all on a database along with our emails. CCTV cameras follow our movements. Our every transaction is logged. The glass wall is an acknowledgment of an ethical and actual condition — our lives are opened up for all to see. If you don’t like it, buy a flat with windows. And draw the curtains.

Herzog and de Meuron’s Tate Modern extension, with the Neo Bankside towers behind © Getty

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture and design critic

Photographs: Bridgeman; Getty Images; UIG via Getty Images; Patti McConville/Alamy; Keystone Pictures/USA Zumapress/Alamy

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