Steven Heller | Essays

People in Glass Apartments

445 Lafayette Place, designed by Charles Gwathmey

People in glass apartments shouldn’t throw stones or other projectiles. Nor should they engage in private acts directly in front of their floor to ceiling windows. Yet lately there has been a rash of exhibitionism throughout New York City owing to an increase in floor to ceiling windowed buildings. Influenced in part by Richard Meier’s glass box towers in lower Manhattan (and his newest one at One Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn), these transparent living spaces, once the quintessence of twenty first century Modernism, have become eyesores, particularly at night when they take on the appearance of showrooms in Amsterdam’s red light district.

How often have you walked down streets where you’ve seen much more of another person’s life and lifestyle than necessary? Yet like a moth drawn to light you couldn’t resist? 

You’d think there should be a law. Indeed there are peeping Tom statutes on the books. A Tom is a person who, according to uslegal.com, “stealthily peeks into windows, other openings with the purpose of getting a sexual thrill from seeing women or girls undressed or couples making love. It is a slang term for a voyeur. Being a peeping Tom is treated as a crime based on sexual deviancy, according to state laws, which vary by state. The victim of a peeping Tom can bring a lawsuit for invasion of privacy.”

Granted simply walking down the street and inadvertently peering into a window does not constitute “secret or surreptitious” trespassing on another’s privacy, but it does beg the question: Why would anyone want their intimate life exposed to any peeping Tom, Dick or Harry? In other words, what were the architects thinking? And why are so many developers buying into this aesthetic? 
In the 1949 film version of Ayn Rand’s over-wrought The Fountainhead, starring Gary Cooper as the “visionary” architect Howard Roark, a residential skyscraper looms over Central Park with its terraced glass facade shimmering in the sun. The structure represented the victorious struggle of iconic Modernism over tired classicism. It further symbolized Rand’s ideal of the supreme individualist combating mass conformity. Any high school and college student aspiring to iconoclasm envies Roark’s tenacious insistence on artistic integrity — the integrity of the devout modernist for whom rightness of form trumps the needs of many. Curiously his fictional buildings, perversely rooted in Bauhaus aesthetics, reveal a preference for glass curtain walls, which in real life on Park Avenue in the sixties added luster to the old boulevard. But now that such buildings are sprinkled all over the city and throughout the boroughs the result is not radical but bourgeois conformity. 

I will leave the critique of structural virtues of floor to ceiling fashion to architects. I accept that living space, even in these troubled economic times, is expensive and the glass wall enables architects to give the illusion of more height and breadth in otherwise small apartments. I also accept that at the architectural scale-model-stage, these exteriors are quite impressive, especially when the glass punctuates the monotony of an average brick and mortar streetscape. But inhabited buildings are never as pristine as the model, not everyone has the same window coverings (if at all.) Often furniture, which would ordinarily be placed in front of walls are backed up to the windows. Moreover, I’ve passed buildings where residents have even thrown up bed sheets to block out the sun and unwanted gazes. But most of the apartments in my neighborhood do not even attempt to cover-up. Speaking as an involuntary peeping Tom the windows are invitations for leering and are as provocative as the sensational photographs and headlines on the New York Post.

I asked a neighbor who lives on the fifth floor in one glass front building why he allows his family to be so exposed. “Well, we paid for the windows,” he replied, “and we like the light, the view of the street, and didn’t really think that people would even want to look in.” But they do, so how do you feel about a stranger’s gaze? “Well, we are careful not to run around naked, but that’s a small price to pay for the airiness.” Still, don’t you feel like you’re in a fish bowl? And doesn’t that make you feel self-conscious? “Well, for now its fine, maybe in a few years we’ll be sick of it and decide to sell.” Then one final question, is there any pressure from the building or your neighbors to maintain your windows in a specific way to insure the integrity of the design? “Well, it was suggested that we not hang heavy drapes, or shades that were not white. But that makes sense given the environment we chose to live in. No one has told us what sofa or lamps to buy, it’s not like company housing. What’s the big deal, anyway?" 

This is as far from company housing as possible, but the floor to ceiling window policy invites unwanted company. A more traditional window treatment means there are more options to be open or closed, revealed or concealed. Floor to ceiling windows also produces visual clutter that ultimately conflicts with the architectural transparency. So, what’s the big deal? These buildings, especially at night, add to the chaos of the street. Too much visual information is not good design. Floor to ceiling is certainly in, but I’m tired of looking in — I’ll close my eyes, but you close the blinds. 

Posted in: Architecture, Arts + Culture, Social Good

Comments [28]

Why are you looking into windows of buildings? I've walked by these buildings at night a thousand times, never once looked into the windows. I look at the ground and the people around me. In NY isn't that enough? Or are you escaping the masses in hopes of peering into a better world above the fray?

I'll stay with the fray. Thank you.

(As for a "solution" to keep your eyes out of their homes? May I suggest the ricepaper ideal of Japanese homes -- floor to sealing light but with privacy.)

I used to live in a canyon of pre-war buildings around Murray Hill and could always count on someone being naked by one of the hundreds of punched windows in my immediate vicinity...

Yes, I'm dismayed by it (gawd knows i wouldn't want to be caught dead nude infront of my neighbors) but am probably more appalled by the things people expose while talking on their cell phones so go figure.

I'm assuming the glass towers are collection spots for everyone yelling "... and then, OMG, he asked me to do XXX and I was like gross but then, ya know, i DID!" as they walk down Lex.

The issue of why are they so ass ugly (the towers - its self-explanitory for the aforementioned residents) is likely independent of their occupation: Gwathmey's Astor Place Toad would look ghetto in SimCity, let alone real life, and having modest residents wouldn't make a whit of difference...

Sculpture for Living Charles Gwathmey
Very amusing Steven — it is all in your point of view. When I was a student at Cooper Union 445 Lafayette Street was a parking lot. Today the residents of Astor Place, 445 Lafayette Street will look over at Cooper Union and see both the historic foundation building and the CU Alumni celebrating their new building at 41 Cooper Square. It is one of New York City’s outstanding green buildings.

Preview: The Cooper Union

A Tough and Sexy Statement
Carl W. Smith

If people want to leave their windows exposed, they can not expect people not to look in. I always like to look in - you get a brief glimpse at someone else's existence. And I often find that I prefer mine! The only rule is not to stand and stare but keep walking.
Mark Cotter

You've made me think of a quote from The Twits by Roald Dahl — Mr Twit is discussing the genesis of his totally windowless house:

"Who wants windows?" Mr Twit had said when they were building it. "Who wants every Tom Dick and Harry peeping in to see what you’re doing?" It didn't occur to Mr Twit that windows were meant mainly for looking out of, not for looking into.
David Wall

Does anyone remember Ugly Naked Guy from "Friends"? The only thing that seemed to upset the regular cast members was that the guy was very overweight. Had he (or she) been an Abercrombie and Fitch model the complaint would have probably been that he was not there enough.
Fort Worth Guy

Great quote, David. Arguably, Mr. Twit got it wrong. Poor misguided Mr. Twit. But windows open both ways. A home is a castle (and most castles didn't have windows), impervious to the outside world unless the drawbridge is lowered. But a floor to ceiling windowed building is more like a vitrine, filled with lots of little exhibits. I guess its in the eye of the beholder.
Steve Heller

Mr Heller,

I agree with your point that this trend of floor-to-ceiling windows constitutes a fad and will most certainly look dated one day.

But about the lack of "visual conformity" and abundance of chaos that they bring? Isn't NYC itself a huge experiment in architectural heterogeneity? In a way aren't these buildings reflections of what's going on all around the city?

Having said that I live in San Francisco and haven't seen any examples of these buildings in action, so perhaps I'd balk in "real life." The concept that people living within the building literally change the design, a sort of "living design" is an interesting concept nonetheless.
Max Batt

One more reason to hope solar curtains come to market soon! http://www.cnn.com/2008/TECH/science/07/01/solar.textiles/index.html
James Puckett

sorry for this not being a productive comment, but please ...
cry me a glass river.

that gwathmey building is a fitting tribute to his legacy, that is to say, a laughable and neglible one (those who feel he is to be applauded will be doubly shocked when he is soon forgotten like paul rudolph is nowadays). this lafayette street "masterpiece" was hands down the ugliest piece of rubbish in downtown, until bernard tschumi usurped the title with his mind bogglingly atrocious blue building.

Glass towers will never lend themselves to the individuality of a person and their home.
Raphael Del Rio

we designers must control the entire process - including the building life cycle. thus applicants to our glass buildings need to be vetted both for worthy credit and appearance. perhaps apartments in 'the back' can be reserved for tenants of lessor quality.

glass office buildings, especially those done by mies successor firms, include lease requirements that dictate the lighting pattern, ceilings and colors within 15 or 20 feet of the facade as well as uniform window coverings. why not residential buildings as well
harvey rabinowitz

Andre Balazs new hotel, The Standard, in the meatpacking district encourages guests to live out their bizarre voyeuristic fantasies in their fully-visible, floor-to-ceiling windows. I don't know, it's not my thing, but people are into it. The most hilarious thing about it is there is a public park (the High Line) sprawling with families and youngsters just below it. Way to go Andre!

Ryan Adair

hi steven, perhaps it is just time for better, more innovative blinds ;). meanwhile, i have to agree. come to williamsburg, where this trend has overrun the environment but people often instead choose NOT to be on display, where the buildings are shorter and the streets less full of other distractions. here, the blinds are almost always closed, but contain stored items, like cardboard boxes, the backs of canvases or even trash bins, that the owner cannot see but the passerby can. empty, these buildings were signposts of an unfortunate new era filled with overpriced and shoddy construction in a once edgy neighborhood. now we just see the underbelly of the residents in a very PG and boring way. bring on the nudity. it might bring life back to where steel and glass stole heart and soul.
carrie solomon

Jacques Tati made terrific use of this phenomenon in his 1967 classic film Playtime. Funny as hell, and as timeless in some ways as it is time-bound in others.

This apartment looking amazing here and peoples may feel like top of the word, staying in apartment. I really appreciate the work of architects. Thank you for showing on this site.
jeux pc

I love the apartment but the fear of disturbing privacy. However, building looks to me wonderful. By the way, anyone knows the approx. cost of these apartment? If so please let me know

Ugh.. tell me about it. I live across the street from one of those new glass towers. Constantly seeing my neighbors naked. One of them doesn't close her bathroom door despite the fact that it faces the windows of her living room. I'll be watering my plants or peeking out to check the weather, look up absent-mindedly and BOOM! lady peeing (I hope!) I've considered putting a sign in my windows so she realizes I can see (maybe she doesn't?)

I'm not sure how relevant this is, but I can't help thinking about the large open windows in Amsterdam homes. Everyone's windows are wide open and especially the ground floors are on display for all to see. When asking a local there about how to deal with the voyeur/exhibitionist tension this could create, he said simply: "It's like when a girl with a very short skirt rides by on her bicycle. You can't help look, but you shouldn't stare." She gets to ride however she wants, and it's on you to look away. Now, I know this isn't Amsterdam but... maybe we're turning back to our roots.

awesome - floor to ceiling glass facades provide a potential display to the outside world - why not! we should not stiffle free spirit and the creative mind! its better than the neon world of times square or picadilly circus or central tokyo!

Very quickly:

Glass buildings are not green. Making the glass takes a lot of energy, and there are chemical compounds in them which in a couple of decades will wear out so that the glass wall will have to be replaced. That's wasted energy 2x.

Buildings with thermal mass are more energy efficient.

On the whole, the greenest building is the building that lasts the longest. Preserving an old building, rather than tearing it down, conserves an enormous amount of energy and materials.

The Times had a story on the destructive effects of the western sun. Put a fabric behind a west-facing glass wall and you can bleach the fabric in just a few months.

Rooms with glass walls are difficult to furnish. You don't want to block the view, and furniture looks silly in front of a glass wall.

Last but definitely not least, all the best streets in New York are made with masonry buildings defining the street walls -- if you don't believe that, show me the exception.

Glass buildings don't have to be terrible at making a street wall and defining the public realm, but they often are, particularly with the current fashion for flush walls and graphpaper-like repetive patterns.

The buildings that make the best street walls have mass, depth that produces light and shadow, rhythm, composition, and vertical windows rather than horizontal.
john massengale

PS: That makes it sound like I'm completely against glass buildings, but I'm not.

Just yesterday I was admiring the Cooper Square Hotel - and decrying the new Thom Mayne building for Cooper. As usual, design can solve problems or cause them.

When THOR (The Hotel On Rivington) first opened, I spent 3 enjoyable nights there, and if I can get a better rate at the Cooper Square Hotel, I might spend a night there too. These glass rooms are a nice place to visit, even if I don't want to live there.
john massengale

would like a job working with his production team I work with glass and loved the work of your company
everson araujo

One can treat the windows with a film, or install certain shades, that allow light in, retain the integrity of the floor-to-ceiling window design, AND keeps others from being able to see inside the home without affecting one's ability to look out at the view.

And with these tints and shades, apartments and homes are more energy efficient. The UV rays are blocked.

Yes, you can have both.

And it's not okay to put furniture in front of the glass? huh?
Piper Maxwell

"Beg the question" doesnt mean what you think it means ;)

"Last but definitely not least, all the best streets in New York are made with masonry buildings defining the street walls -- if you don't believe that, show me the exception."

John Massengale, I agree entirely. One of my favorite streets (as far as architecture) in this city is Wall Street. With all the glass popping up around the Financial District, it's nice to see architecture that doesn't look so......"temporary", for lack of a better word.
Gabrielle Gozo

I would like to live in one of the glass apartments some day. The glass buildings, especially apartment buildings, suddenly struck my fancy.

Jobs | July 13