At a time when society is demanding transparency from governments and corporations, there are some things that should remain opaque.
During a 1991 interview, when Philip Johnson spoke about the Glass House he designed in 1949, he described how he thought it would be nice to see the whole place from one spot. Not only all areas of the house, but the landscape as well.
“I claim that’s the only house in the world where you can see the sunset and the moonrise at the same time, standing in the same place,” Johnson described. “Because that’s an impossibility in any house; you have to walk to another room to see one or the other of those effects.”
Of course he would romanticise a house that he designed and lived in, until his death in 2005. His Glass House is one of the most celebrated buildings in modern architecture.
I was never impressed with the Glass House, because I felt it lacked privacy. To me, it was a gimmick and a one-off, that would look fantastic in a magazine, but would never catch on for the general public.
The architectural transparency of the mid-20th century was countercultural, but today we are more open to it. There aren’t many single-family glass houses that exist, but glass condo towers are being erected in many of our cities. Whenever renovations are scheduled for an older building, the default solution seems to be to add more glass. We’ve become use to seeing through things, and to see inside. Not just exposing the structure, but creating a visual communication between the outside and the inside.
Why is this happening in architecture today? Much of the architectural transparency that we now see derived from the high-tech architecture of the late 1970s, when exposing services and structure became more frequent in large scale buildings. Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano’s Pompidou Centre in Paris, the Sainsbury Centre of Visual Arts in Norwich by Norman Foster, and I. M. Pei & Partners’ Javits Center in New York, are all good examples of the high-tech architecture of that era that expressed transparency. Despite the transparency of such monumental projects, society at large did not yet desire transparency.
We didn’t know it then, but those buildings were prescient. Today, transparency is a characteristic that society expects. From our governments, to the institutions that we deal with, people are demanding that what was previously hidden, should be seen by the public. Transparency is a counterbalance to corruption, we are told. Transparency builds trust, community and relationships. Transparency is sometimes used with the words open, or accessible, emphasise our desire to see all.
I understand why we demand transparency, especially when it comes to governments. Though certain information related to national security, should remain hidden. I get why we demand that our public institutions be more transparent, and wish that even more private ones were too. I also comprehend why we would expect transparency from the corporations that we do business with. However, in all of these examples, are we really getting transparency, or is it another gimmick?
It’s great to have access to information, but is it accurate? Are we looking at the right info or are we being overwhelmed with information to conceal the truth?
Many banks try to market themselves as transparent. They renovate their branches to represent the openness between them and their customers, but charge customers hidden fees to access their money.
Ironically, while we lament the lost of online and offline privacy, we are asking every institution and organisation that we deal with to be transparent. Finally, our architecture and societal aspirations are in sync, but should they?
Recently, a Chanel boutique opened in Amsterdam designed by MVRDV, where glass bricks were used to replicate the city’s traditional architectural façade. The project, known as Crystal Houses Amsterdam, preserves the past, while creating a glass storefront. Nevertheless, I would hate to see this replicated on other older buildings. Masonry is rich in texture and colour, but to see it replaced by a transparent substitute would make the history of many of our cities invisible. For this reason, we should not be comfortable with this level of architectural transparency.
Glass bricks also lack the warmth that real masonry has. The latter expresses vernacular architecture much better than the former. With glass bricks, the passing of time isn’t perceptible, but not so with masonry. The weathered surface of masonry adds to the character of the architecture and becomes part of the history of a neighbourhood. There is nothing wrong with an interior that is concealed. From the windows and the signage, we understand the function. Glass bricks remove the mystery of the function and render windows obsolete.
The Glass Office in Hong Kong, another MVRDV project, has transparent interiors. The 13-storey building was renovated by replacing the opaque interiors with transparent walls, floors, furniture and elevators. The architects call it an “ultimate transparency” that makes the workplace feel more spacious and open, symbolic of our societal desire for transparency. It’s the open office concept taken to the extreme.
“We are moving into a transparent society, businesses are becoming more open with the public, and people care more about what goes on behind closed doors,” described architect Winy Maas in a competing publication. “In that way, a clear workspace leaves nothing questionable, nothing hidden; it generates trust.”
An office like that is more dangerous than it is inviting. You can imagine how often people must walk into furniture or shelving by accident. I would also hate to be there during an earthquake. This is transparency taken to an unfortunate extreme. As with the Crystal Houses, the Glass Office is unnecessary transparency. Both projects give transparency in areas we don’t need, while trying to claim the societal desires of transparency.
Also, MVRDV recently revealed a transparent kitchen counter at the Venice Architecture Biennale called the Infinity Kitchen. The architects see this object as a way to make food choice, preparation and waste more transparent. This all seems like a fine experience, but do people really want to see how much food is perishing or how much gets wasted? The transparency that most people desire is to know where their food comes from and if it has been genetically modified.
Yet, the transparency we are offered, the gimmick, is presented to us as a good thing.
“Imagine if not only our kitchens were transparent but the walls through to the neighbour and the next neighbour even,” explained Winy Maas in another publication. “This would create infinite perspectives in our cities. It would make within our claustrophobic environments possibly a view, into the direction of the mountains or the sea.”
That is similar to the justification that Philip Johnson gave for his Glass House. The ability to observe the whole from one spot: the entire house, surrounding landscape, and celestial bodies. It does seem appealing and amusing, but is that the transparency that we really want? When we’re in our dwelling place, we don’t want to see our neighbour, and we don’t want our neighbour to see us.
Yes, we desire transparency in many areas of life and have come to expect it, but we don’t need to see everything. Some things should remain opaque.
Words: Phil Roberts