COLOMINA, Beatriz

Blurred Vision: Architectures of Surveillance from Mies to SANAA

Series:
Date: Tuesday 13 January 2009
Time: 00:00
Venue: Lecture Hall
Running time: 77 mins

The history of the modern window is the history of communication: Le Corbusier's horizontal window is unthinkable outside of cinema, the Eames House unthinkable outside of the colour slide, and the midcentury picture window unthinkable outside television. In each case, the ambition to dissolve the line between inside and outside is realised by absorbing the latest realities of communication. Today, new forms of advanced surveillance technologies operate in the city, and these models of vision act as new paradigms. The glass box has become something else altogether. Beatriz Colomina is Professor of Architecture and Director of the Program in Media and Modernity at Princeton University. Her books include Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media and Domesticity at War.

Lecture Transcription:

Brett Steele introduces Beatriz Colomina.

BEATRIZ COLOMINA: Thank you very much, it’s very exciting to be here at the AA, and I was just thinking that it was here where I first lectured outside the United States, on what would later become my article on Loos and the windows, given here on the last sprint of Alvin Boyarsky.

I’m going to talk about the glass pavilions between let’s say, Philip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe, and SANAA. I’m going to put that in context of technologies of communication, and technologies of surveillance. In fact, this question of the relationship with glass and the technologies of communication has been an ongoing inspiration, so to speak, in my research, a thread. The history of the modern window, for me, it’s a history of communication. Le Corbusier’s horizontal window, for example, I think it’s completely unthinkable outside cinema, not only did Le Corbusier think that film was the best way to represent modern architecture, but the frame itself, the way we see the world, if you think of architecture as a machine to see—is unthinkable outside the cinematographic frame. Likewise, I have tried to demonstrate quite recently that the Eames house is unthinkable outside the colour slide that was introduced during this years, and made possible for them to make thousands and thousands of colour slides of their house, and this is the way in which it’s represented, in this kaleidoscopic view of colour slides. The picture window at mid century is unthinkable outside television, that is in each case the case the ambitions of modern architecture to dissolve the line between inside and outside, by absorbing the latest technologies of communication. So, if communication is always about bringing the outside in, for example when reading a newspaper, to bring in world events into your life, or getting the inside out, by sending a letter. It’s quite beautiful in this advertisement of 1950 windows in America, that there is precisely a mailman bringing a letter. So, if communication is about bringing the outside in or the inside out, it will seem as if glass represents this act of communication. It is almost as if the glass, takes more and more of the building, as the systems of communication become more and more fluid. Having dissolved the wall into glass, the question becomes how to dissolve the glass itself, into a delicate line between inside and outside. It is the relentless quest for greater fluidity between outside and inside s no longer as simply driven towards transparency, but as we will see with SANAA, the glass box has become something else altogether. So, to show this I will like to go back to the glass house at mid century, the glass house of Philip Johnson and then move from there to the glass house of today, as represented in the world of Kazuyo Sejima. So lets go back to Philip Johnson: the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Philip Johnson is the glass house, but I’m going to introduce another question here, which is methodological: what if instead of relying on his 1950s article where he gives us all the laundry list of the influences that Boulé influenced him, that he copied from Mies, that all the sources, all the mountains of articles accumulated over the years about this house—what if instead of all of this, we take the 20 to 30 television programs that Johnson did in the course of his life? So the hypothesis is: what if the glass house was made for TV? What if Johnson was himself made for TV? I’m going to pass you a clip of one of these TV programs. [Shows clip].

Two really persistent dreams of the 20th century, that of the glass house and of television, were finally realized at around the same time and around the same place: the suburbs of America. Experimental glass with glass fantasies have been playing a role in science fiction, and also in modern architecture since at least the mid 19th century, only by mid 20th century was the dream finally inhabited in Mies van der Rohe’s house in Plano, Illinois, and Philip Johnson’s house in New Canaan, Connecticut. Two spacecrafts have landed, so to speak, the Farnsworth floating just above the ground like a kind of craft coming into ground, and the glass house finally resting on the ground, one could even say a flying carpet. What had been experimented in drawings, models, writings, and even pavilions in fairs, has become useful, as Louis Kahn put in another TV program, where he is with Philip Johnson, and he says some of the most amazing things are said on TV, because it is a completely different register, like the unconscious of the architect flows there. He says: 'the glass houses are marvelous buildings, because they stated very clearly what was secretly in everybody’s mind at the time of its conception, he brought out the picture of what modern architecture wanted to be'. So the house then, in this beautiful description of Kahn, as an image, as a photograph of what everybody had already in mind, was a dream in physical form: the dream of transparency finally inhabited. Here you have pictures of the glass house as represented in Life magazine, precisely, inhabited. It’s important not to subestimate the importance of the popular press, the most beautiful photographs—because they have the money, the resources, the good photographers—are often in the popular press, and yet you don’t even find resources when you look at the bibliography of the glass house, you have all the architectural magazines and all the architecture books, but they never include Life, Look, even Vogue, and House and Garden, which have amazing material.

The glass house, then represents the realization of a century-old dream of transparent house that goes back to the science-fiction like quality of a Paul Scheerbart for example, in his images of glass buildings, in an ideal future in his novels, or on his 1914 collection of aphorisms, glass architecture that was precisely dedicated to Bruno Taut’s own glass house, the pavilion for  the glass industry in the Werkbund exhibition of Cologne in 1914. You can think also of the Mies and Lilly Reich’s glass room in Stuttgart, of 1927. Or the German pavillion of the Barcelona exhibition of 1929. You can think also of the project of Mies of the glass house on the hill of 1934, again, a dream never possible to realize. You can think of George Keck ‘s Crystal House, here with Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion car parked in the garage. This was built as a pavillion for the century of progress exhibition in Chicago, and so many other examples.

By 1939, the dream of a house defined entirely by glass walls, or we can even say the absence of walls was fully realized in Mies and Johnson’s houses. It was important to understand that the absence of traditional walls doesn’t really mean that the inhabitants of glass houses are exposed, because as a Danish reporter said when visiting American houses after the war—and he’s not even thinking about Johnson, or Mies, he is looking at regular American houses with picture windows— 'a glass house bespokes more security than a stone house, because the owner can afford to dispense with the safety of the stone.' In some less common pictures of the glass house, you can really see that it is quite protected by the landscape. Whereas Johnson says of his own house in a 1965 CBS program, I’m trying to use sources from popular media: 'it was an opportunity to live in the woods. A wall is only an idea on your mind, if you have a sense of enclosure, you are already in a room.' And to the repeated question of whether his house was a fishbowl that exposed his body to the eyes of others, he answered that in the 16 years he had lived in the house, nobody had came up to glue their faces on the glass, and then he says: 'I think is that it is because people are afraid that you are looking at them.' So he turned it around, of course, he makes evidence that the glass wall operated both ways, that artists like Dan Graham had also been exploring since the 1970s, for example on a work the alteration of suburban houses, where Dan Graham replaces the facade of a suburban house with a glass, precisely, to expose the reality that in the suburbs the pedestrian is really exposed. The glass house really operates both ways, but Johnson even experienced the glass as transparent, but also as wall paper. In another TV program Philip Johnson says the glass house was very well, for the simple reason that the wallpaper was so handsome, it is perhaps a very expensive wallpaper, but you have a wallpaper that changes every 5 minutes throughout the day and surrounds you with the beautiful nature that sometimes Connecticut gives us. For Johnson, it provides enclosure, containment, rather than openness. He says in another TV program: 'I built this glass house shortly after Mies gave us all the model with his famous glass near Chicago. The image of the model of Mies was already in circulation in 1947, when it was under construction. This is very Johnson, before anyone says 'you are copying Mies', he says 'I was copying Mies, of course!' If you look at the picture of the model, it’s amazing, because the model appears to be black, rather than white. And compared to an early model of the glass house, [picture shown] it’s also nice to see the differences.  think of that, that the model appears to be black. This is a still from a TV program, I can never find this model or photographs of this stage of the project. Going back to his words: 'I built this house shortly after Mies gave us the model of his famous house near Chicago. This one came first, so people think I’m original: I’m not! I knew the plans of the Farnsworth very well. But of course, they are differences, I wanted to live on the ground, I wanted to be contained, I don’t believe in indoors, outdoors architecture, when what you want a contained house to cover you, to hold you near the heart; you want to get your back xxx to a fireplace, any anglo saxon does, maybe the Italians don’t care about it, but we do, so this house is contained, and I must admit that the containment is a rather small feature: a black band that goes all around the house, but it keeps the landscape away, it turns the landscape into a kind of wallpaper, where the sun and the moon, and the stars make different patterns. So, it is precisely this sense of complete envelopment that makes this minimalist statement an architecture. If you are in a good piece of architecture, Johnson continues, you have the feeling that you are surrounded. In fact, rather than dematerialized architecture, glass in fact reinforces this traditional role. Architecture is how you enclose space, that is why I hate photographs, television and motion pictures.' he says precisely in the context of this TV program.

Television also arrived in the US precisely at mid century, and also it had been part of science fiction fantasies of the future. But TV was featured in it’s first public presentation in 1927, prompting Buckminster Fuller—as soon as there is a new technology, there is an architect round the corner saying that he’s using that technology—to state that his Dymaxion house of that very same year, 1927, was precisely organized around a TV communication centre. The Dymaxion house, he claimed, was equipped with the latest media technology: telephone, radio, TV, phonograph, dictaphone, loudspeaker, microphone, and so on. But of course, some of those technologies barely existed in 1927, only in the late 40s and 50s was TV widely introduced to the American public, when DuMont and RCA offered the first sets to the public in 1946, and basically between 1948 and 1955 nearly two thirds of American families bought a TV set. In 1950, the most famous of the mass produced suburbs, Levittown in Long Island, offered a TV set built into the walls of its prefabricated Cape Cod houses. In  the initial offering photograph, there is an amazing situation with a couple surrounded by all the elements of the house, the appliances, the windows, everything is on the floor, and in the centre of the plot is the couple with the TV set. You know the beautiful story that Levi organized that all the appliances, which were still very expensive, particularly the television, will be included in the mortgage, so it was a very clever strategy, because with 25 down you could have a TV. The amazing thing is that only one year later, the TV is no longer a distinct appliance, but is embedded into the wall, so you can say that the TV has become part of the architecture of the American house. Of course, with all this talk about TV, you are probably thinking that nothing could be farther away from the high art world of Mies van der Rohe, or of Philip Johnson, but yet, the former students of Mies, Edward Duckett and Joseph Fujikawa, say of him—I almost couldn’t believe it when I read it from this little book where this two students that had worked with Mies talk about him—the later says: 'he liked boxing, or at least he enjoyed watching it on television' and the other one states: 'yeah! he had the largest television screen of anybody I knew.' So now you have this completely transformative vision of him, with the biggest TV set that anybody had seen, I bet this changes completely the heroic view of the man.

I think that Herbert Greenwald was the one that bought the TV set for him, and I did a bit of research into that and it turns out that Greenwald was this character, which was a rabbinical scholar that came a real estate developer, and that associates with Mies in 1946, and between the two of them did fantastic projects, like 1968 Lake Shore drive apartments in Chicago, as you know, twin 25 storey glass structures on the shores of Lake Michigan, containing 275 glass apartments each. The project represented, according to one reporter of the time—as I said I’m always following the popular press—he says that 'the project represented the fulfillment of Mies’ 30 years dream of a skin and bones construction. Mies wanted to give city apartment dwellers the feeling of being as close to the outdoors as people in the suburbs are, who have floor to ceiling picture windows in their houses.' He could only have said that talking to Mies, but then you have that Lake shore, so it’s like bringing the suburbs to the city, as if we were stacking suburban houses one on top of another. The apartments are glass houses suspended in the air, allowing breathtaking views over the lake from every apartment, but at the same time turning each apartment into a display, can you believe this situation, why are there two twin towers facing each other, and nobody seems to be using curtains, so you have this images on Life magazine, where you can say that Lake Shore Drive apartments have become like multiplex theatres where they are all audience for each other, and in 1950… each tower looks at its identical twin, as in mirror images. Inhabitants seem to have been perfectly at ease, as one of the first tenants put it: 'I felt quite akin, and not nearly as exposed as I thought I would feel, now that the furniture is in place.'

The glass house of Philip Johnson which was built exactly at the same time

when North Americans were buying television sets, avoids all media technologies, there was not a television set inside of any of the Johnson houses, including the Hodgson house of 1951, whose client was a series television executive, so he must have had not one, but many television sets, and yet in all the architecture publications you’ll never see a television set, it’s like an anathema. Johnson himself insisted that the glass house has no television, no telephone, no gramophone, no noise of any kind. You can say: no media in a house was designed precisely for the media, the glass house itself, I will argue now, was operating like a television set, but not in the obvious sense of the view the house makes possible, but one can argue that the typical post war suburban house operated as a TV set. The Johnson glass house closes itself to the outside much more radically than a stone house would do, to become precisely a TV broadcasting studio. This model of using your house as a TV broadcasting studio was picked up later by authorities on the American house Martha Stewart, who not only uses her own houses as a broadcast studio, but owns also a country estate of four places also in Westport, Connecticut, near the Johnson house, with a series of model houses, so in the same way, Johnson had his state with series of model structures built over the year, he uses each one of them as an opportunity to broadcast. Each time the glass house seems to run out of esteem, Johnson builds a new structure that renews the discussion of himself, but also of the early house. These are images of Martha Stewart when Rem and I went to interview her for Wired magazine.

Back to Johnson, he builds a new house, a new structure every time that he feels like the glass house is running out of esteem, and he calls that getting a niche, he says: 'I keep building around the place because I get itchy, nobody asked me to do funny things, so I have to do them for myself, as a sort of test. Clients always want something definite: toilets and other necessary gadgets, but I can always build what I like for myself, so about every five or six years, I build another funny thing.' The glass house was the one first built in 1949, the brick stone house with round windows is also from 1949; the pavillion in the lake was added in 1962; the swimming pool, which as he says is an essential part of the composition, wasn’t built until 1963; in 1965 he says he had 'some pictures I wanted to hang, so I thought: good opportunity, we will try something funny for a gallery, and as I didn’t want to build it too close to the glass house, I put it in a bunker: people think that it is an underground gallery, but it’s not'; 1970 was the sculptural gallery; 'I had nothing to build for a long time and around 1978 I was itchy again, the land next door came up for sale, so I kept expanding, the studio was built in 1980; the Lincoln Houston tower and the guesthouse in 1985, and the visitors’ pavillion in 1995.' So until the very end of his life he is still building this tower.

The official story in architectural scholarship is that the glass house was Johnson’s laboratory, and it is, as Johnson himself puts it 'I consider my own house, not so much a house, as a clearinghouse of ideas, which can filter down later through my own work.' What he doesn’t tell us is that the house is a platform for him on the media and not only the professional media—all the architectural journals—but also the popular media: Vogue, House Beautiful, The Ladies Home Journal, The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, Businessweek, House and Garden, Show Magazine of magazines. Many times it’ the first time that you see colour photography and the first time you have extraordinary photographers, so it’s an incredible resource.

Johnson appeared with astonishing regularity in a TV program, from 1951 he is already on TV, which is a time when the people in TV didn’t know exactly what they were doing, or supposed to be doing. But Johnson knows what he has to do, he is the best character for TV. Always, what it’s more interesting is that the house ends up being at the centre of all these programs. Each program becomes a new opportunity to talk about the house. Always using self-deprecating strategies: when the presenter asks about what people say it’s his most important work, he answers: oh yeah, a lot of people think it’s the only good thing.

The best descriptions are those of Johnson, he links this house to a celestial elevator, in which when it snows it seems to be going up, because everything else is coming down, which is a beautiful idea, the glass house is levitating. This house was described by Michael Graves as more Miesian than Mies. What it’s curious about the idea of an elevator is that Johnson repeatedly notes how much he dislikes elevators and how they are the end of architecture, the end of the experience of space in movement. For example of the Seagram building he says 'unfortunately the entire experience of Seagram leads but to the elevator: that claustrophobic box, brings visual, professional beauty to a complete dead end. The visitor can only look out of a high window, elevators are here to stay, but one is not forced to love them. It seems as if the claustrophobia of the elevator goes away when there is only the elevator in the landscape, the glass house, a freebox, a glass elevator in a way with 4 doors. Even the black band going around the box makes sense now, it is something to hold on when the house goes up.

Already in 1947 in his book on Mies accompanying the exhibition at MoMA, Johnson had described the Farnsworth house as a floating self contained cage, and Henry Russell Hitchcock, described as a beach yacht, with no provision for outer living beyond the very confined space of the screen deck and the small travertine dock below it. This idea of floating, you can also find it already in the popular press. Johnson  is picking up the metaphors of the Farnsworth house to describe his own house as floating in the sea, even if he dislikes the sea as much as he dislikes elevators. This is what he says: 'that’s why I don’t like the seaside, there is nothing there. Unless there is a boat, then it’s ok. In the East River (of Manhattan) wonderful barges go by, but god, keep me from the Atlantic Ocean. There are lot of glass houses there, facing the ocean, and people like them, but I say there is nothing there. The glass house, he says, was designed as a Chinese box: you have a box, then you take the lid off and there is another one, then another one and then another one. We start with a room, but it’s rather a large room, it is the landscape, from the forest on the road to the forest in the forest and from the North to the South. (…).

The living room is just the raft of the carpet in the brown sea, or the brown mat of the paving that again it’s on a green plot, which again it’s on a forest loan around you. To experience the house, then, is to move from floating raft to floating raft, each providing a sense of containment, defined precisely by the outer lines of the raft. The glass house is not a glass box, but precisely a horizontal surface, a raft. There are no walls here, the space is defined by the horizontal surfaces. Is this horizontal movement contradictory with the idea of the vertical elevator? Not at all, Johnson accumulates metaphors and repeats them in different contexts, the raft lacks direction, it is floating in the sea, if it’s an enclosure is in the vertical volume defined by this raft. This is what he says: 'the intimacy of the raft is as great as the intimacy of a closed room. That is what is hard for all other architects to understand. On the ocean, on a raft, on the void, you are enclosed: you can’t step out—you can’t step out of the raft, either, it brings you emotionally together, so you can have a conversation. This evocative idea of the house as a raft has already been precisely used by Arthur Drexler within a month of the glass house completion, in an article in ‘Interiors’ where he describes the site of the house as a room with carpets, and describes all of it as rafts. And then he talks about ocean, providing a safe passage. So, it’s Drexler listening or Johnson, or Johnson listening to Drexler? I think that something we have underestimated with Johnson is that he really is like a sponge, he did, in a way the same thing he’s doing with his work, he picks up ideas, whether from the popular press, or from Arthur Drexler, and recombines them to present them in a refined and simplified way, like a television journalist reporting in an easily understood language. Here there is no difference between the reporter and the thing being reported, Johnson was simply a television program, a reality TV show, that run longer than anybody could have imagined. [Shows clip, Johnson at a TV show, interviewed by Charlie Rose]

  • Charlie Rose: You know what they say occasionally…

  • PJ: What do they say?

  • CR: You’ve said sometimes 'I’m a whore'

  • PJ: Well, that is a very generic remark that is taken out of context all the time, you mean that you don’t work for anybody?

  • CR: [Laughs] No, no… I got it!

  • PJ: It’s just a very bad word for a very normal matter… Then the Boston paper published: 'We don’t want a whore doing our architecture in Boston, thank you.'

[Different excerpt, clip recorded at the glass house]

Philip Johnson: We are just as small, just as self centric, just as egotistical, just as mean as any soprano you’ve ever known, or any ballet dancer.

[Back to the clip at the TV show first shown]

  • Charlie Rose: Can you be a great architect without having a huge ego?

  • Philip Johnson: No…no. The huger, the better the architecture has to be.

  • CR: Bigger the ego…?

  • PJ: Bigger the ego, better architect.

  • CR: Because?

  • PJ: I don’t know why! I’m not a psychiatrist…

  • CR: We can talk about your propagandist quality. (…)

[Other excerpt, different TV show]

Philip Johnson: Everybody hates me, because I got along in the profession so much, and I’m building more than any other architect.

[Different excerpt, from the TV show at the glass house already shown]

Presenter: Who’s taking over, the landscape architects, the garden architects, the urban planners…

PJ: The urban planners, of course, because we don’t have the right words to strike the public right now, we haven’t got words like ‘inter/inner synergistic,’ I’m not sure what that means, but I see it in the urban planners manuals, we are not ecologists, but have been doing buildings before ecology, and I hope, after ecology.

[Different excerpt]

Presenter: When you design a house, what are the first steps that come through your mind?

PJ: I don’t have the slightest idea. I think that it’s impossible in architecture to say what happens, you see? Architecture is not a game that is translatable into English language, as much as I admire Shakespeare, I’m just thinking he was lucky he didn't have to do buildings, because how would you translate sonnets into stone? You remember Richardson’s famous phrase—the greatest American architect was not Frank Lloyd Wright, it was Henry Hobson Richardson—and he was so great that they’ve asked him what the principles of architecture were: 'get the job'.

Beatriz Colomina: 'Get the job', so these are all part of television programs, which are very hard to get, because in television, they destroy the tapes of most of those things. I’ve discovered also how important television was for Le Corbusier, and it’s very hard to do the research, because you go to BBC, where Le Corbusier had been extensively and they don’t have the tape! They’ve destroyed them. Of all the records, it’s the most unbelievably fragile. I’ve tracked down this one with this woman, because at a certain point, I thought to myself: this one, with the female presenter… maybe she is still alive, and she was living in Madison avenue, so I went and called her, she was so happy to see me. And she was the one who gave me this tape of the program that doesn’t exist anymore.

It’s very hard to get the television programs, but there is where you get not only you get the character, but you get so many more things about them. Le Corbusier was the first architect to fully understand the media, but when he gets to television, it is no longer his medium, he tries very hard, in the 1950s, Le Corbusier thought that everything should be on television, and he gets into a lot of television programs in France, here at the BBC, everywhere… but he cannot adapt to the medium: he does all the wrong things. He turns his camera to the viewer, he writes on the blackboard, he gives very long elaborate things, and because they cut him up he gives up. Johnson is the first architect to fully understand television and become so natural; he is even better than the interviewer, you see him there with Charlie Rose, and he asks him the tricky question whether he is a whore, and he’s very fast, he immediately turns that around: 'you mean you don't’ work for anybody?' He’s faster than the interviewers!

I’m going to move very quickly now to SANAA’s glass pavilion in the Toledo Museum of Art. At first sight it seems—and the project has been extensively read that way—as the perfect example of transparency: an all-glass pavilion for all glass objects, in the glass city, and in this sense, SANAA is seen as an inheritor of the Miesian tradition of radical transparency. In the standard publicity images of the project, you see this project sitting in the park, and echoing some of Mies’s canonic project, particularly the Farnsworth house, and the 50 by 50 house. Mies, of course, famously deployed sheer glass to radically expose the interior. This phenomena, that has been precisely to explore the possibility that transparency in Modern architecture, was directly related to medical technologies of imaging the body. From that point of view, the logic of the sheer glass is that of the X-ray, an inner structure is revealed by a new technology that allows you to look through the outer skin of the body. Mies even described his work as skin and bones architecture and refers to the structure of the glass skyscraper of 1922 as the skeleton. Mies was of course deeply interested in x-ray images, he collected them and he used them in his publications, for example in his famous publication in ‘G’ the magazine he was editing. Of course, Mies was not at all alone, books on modern architecture are really filled with images of glowing glass skins revealing inner bones and organs, think for example of Le Corbusier’s project for a glass skyscraper of 1925. Also Walter Gropius, the Werkbund exhibition in Cologne 1914, or the Van Nelle factory in Rotterdam, or Eric Mendelsohn's Schocken department store in Stuttgart of 1926, the glass palace, in Heerlen in the Netherlands, by Frits Peutz, or George Keck’s Crystal House of 1933-4, think about Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion tower, or think of all this other images that you have in your head. You start thinking this way and the whole history of architecture is like an album of x-ray images. This experimental designs from the early decades of the 20th century became the basis of the everyday buildings at mid-century, when the see through glass became a mass phenomena, and that is exactly at the same time when the x-ray, that was also at the beginning an exoteric technology, became a mass phenomena as well. Screening the body for tuberculosis, men precisely penetrating with the gaze areas of the body that were previously invisible, just like architecture. The technologies of the x-ray had been available in sanatorios since the beginning of the century, but only by mid-century did the mass x-raying of citizens become available at a regular basis. It became not only a tool for diagnosis, but also the site for a new form of public surveyance. Policing the population by scrutinizing their insides, institutions such as schools, military, took over the management of the most private spaces of the body. Over a period of half a century, an experimental medical tool had been transformed into a mechanism for medical surveillance for the entire population. It’s very interesting that this association between x-ray and glass house had already happened in the popular literature at mid century. For example, there is a film called ‘Highlights and Shadows’, which is a 1937 production where the Kodak research laboratory is trying to convince people about the virtues of x-ray use in diseases prevention. You have this woman wearing a swimming suit that is struck to the laboratory table while her body is subjected to x-ray. As her photographic image above gives way to the x-ray image, the narrator—a male narrator, of course—says: 'this young lady, to whom henceforth a glass house should hold no terror, will after an examination of her radiograph, reassure that she is physically fit. So, you see what I’ve just read? what is really saying is that after an examination of her radiograph a glass house should hold no terrors. The glass house will no longer be threatening. Exactly the same set of associations can be seen in the discourse around canonic works of architecture, for example, in ‘House Beautiful’ Edith Farnsworth, a successful doctor in Chicago, compares her famous weekend house, by Mies van der Rohe, to an x-ray. She says, 'I don’t keep a garbage can under the sink, do you know why? because you can see the whole kitchen from the road on the way here, and the can would spoil the appearance of the whole house. So I hide it in the closet, further down from the sink. Mies talks about free space, but his space is very fixed. I can’t even put a cloth hanger in my house without considering how it affects everything from the outside: any arrangement of furniture becomes a major problem, because the house is transparent as an x-ray.'

As a doctor, she makes the association between the glass that she owns and the x-ray. The metaphor of the x-ray was not accidental, Modern architecture and this is understudied, cannot be understood without tuberculosis. Is not by chance that Farnsworth goes on to say about her house 'there is already a local rumour that the house is a tuberculosis sanatorium'.

The development of the x-ray and of modern architecture actually coincides, just as the x-ray exposes the inside of the body to the public eye, the modern building also exposes the interior which becomes subject to public scrutiny. A new clarity of vision, a penetrating gaze, liberates a new architecture, whose structure is meant to be as clear as the gaze looking in. Or so the story goes, because as we have seen with Johnson, and also with Mies, actually what fascinated architects like Johnson and Mies at mid century is no longer the transparency, but it seems more the way in which the gaze gets caught in the layers of reflection. In canonic photographs, the glass house of Johnson appears opaque, in words of Philip Johnson as a wallpaper. For Mies and Johnson, reflections consolidate the plane of the wall. When explaining his glass house, Johnson cites Mies’s words from 25 years before, he says: 'I discovered working with actual glass models that the important thing is the play of reflections and not the effect of light and shadow as in an ordinary building.' When Mies was saying this words, he was probably referring to the models of glass skyscrapers that he had repeatedly photographed in a garden in Berlin before arriving to the canonic images that we know. You see all these images that emerged of the archives recently, he was precisely experimenting with this, with this play of reflections. Charles and Ray Eames also went to considerable trouble to study the reflections in their house, for example by placing this model [shown] of the project—the so-called bridge house—on the site and photographing it from every angle. In so doing, they took Mies’s experiments one step further, with the Eames house the plane is broken, the reflections of the eucalyptus trees are endlessly multiplied and relocated. As Ray Eames said after 13 years of living in the house: 'the structure long ago ceased to exist, I’m no longer aware of it'. Again, the Eames house. SANAA, I think, goes one step further in producing this layering of reflections on the inside as well as the outside, that is the blurring of reflections, it’s no longer the outside limit of the space, the whole space is at the limit, as you can see in this image of Novartis. There is no clear cut between inside and outside, the space is neither in nor out, and seems to extend to infinity, as you can see for example in those images of Kanazawa museum. In such a space, walls are not optical barriers, but optical intensifiers. The walls are exposed along with the people and the objects, for example in the Toledo museum is very clear, that the limits of the walls are exposed, the inner and the outer edge… Most importantly what they are showing is the cut between them, the inaccessible space of the wall itself: you cannot enter that space: the double line of the wall undoes any sense of solidity. SANAA’s vision is far from Crystal clear, in fact the glass pavilion seems more like a blurring of the view, a softening of the focus, than about the transparency of the early European avant-garde. In SANAA’s wrk no structure is ever revealed, the buildings are not even structures, you look into our out from, they are optical devices without visible mechanisms. The real view is not from the outside looking in, or the inside looking out, as in Mies or Johnson, but from the inside looking even further inwards, not discovering the inner secrets of the building, but to be suspended in the view itself. In Toledo, the visitor is literally suspended between these carbon walls. What you see through the glass layer in front of you is another layer and yet another one. Even the objects are displayed as made themselves of glass. Looking through the layers division is softened and distorted with the curves even accentuating the distortion. So, if Sejima is the inheritor, as most critics want, of the Miesian transparency, the latest in a in a long line of experiments, she is the ultimate Miesian, deeping beyond transparency in all kind of mirage effects. After centuries of architecture organized by the straight lines of the viewing line, we now have an architecture formed by the kind of soft distortions of the gaze, more tactile experience of vision. To enter a Sejima project is in a way a subtle softening of the territory. Even the reflections of the trees in the outer layer of the glass has a softness that you can never find in Mies, whether it is in the rendering or in the full size model. They always do this one to one models, because with such tactile sense of vision, models are crucial in their practice, in the working of the studio, countless models are made of every possible solution in order the effect can be felt before is fixed in drawing. Indeed, Sejima goes for the variation whose effects are more unclear. She says: 'we try not to select options for which we can already imagine the outcome.' It is an architecture of deliberately unclear vision. The modern discourse of x-rays cutting through the outer layers in other to reveal the secrecy of inner layers, endlessly folded in overlapping fabrics that intensify the mystery, rather than remove it. The x-ray logic absorbed by modern architecture culminates in a dense cloud of ghostly shapes, the clearest of glass is now precisely to undermine clarity. In conclusion, the architecture of SANAA, despite what most critics have been saying, I don’t think at all is an architecture of transparent vision, it’s more a kind of a blurred vision, a veil, more nebulous, more oceanic, like a dense snowstorm, or fog…

Today, there are new forms of surveillance technologies operating in the city, and there are also these new models of vision that act as a new paradigm for the window today. We cannot, of course, predict which of these technologies will be absorbed by architecture but some of them are already having an impact in the built environment. I’m talking of course about hand held scanning devices that are capable of scanning through clothing, through walls, through buildings, and are used by the military but also increasingly by the police. They are effectively making solid walls behave like glass, and open up the possibility or the inevitability of new kinds of architecture experiments. Here you have forward looking infrared radar, one of these technologies which is based in the electromagnetic frequencies. Seemingly solid walls no longer offer privacy, in fact, you can still be exposed if you are no longer in the building: the heat signature remains for a while, so that is incorporated into a new kind of vision. Bodies are treated in the same way as buildings with the passive millimeter imaging (PMI), which is used in the US to detect hidden weapons or contraband in clothing, but also in bags. It’s tripping really the outer layer of the body. With the Kaya lens, anyone can use a regular camera, even a cellphone to see through clothing by concentrating in the infrared spectrum. The use of PMI has been restricted due to privacy concerns, and the KAYA lens is illegal in the United States and also in Europe, I think people get it through the internet anyway. So, mid century fear of the loss of privacy in the glass house and with the x-ray has reappeared, it is as if each new technology is initially perceived as threatening and then they are quickly absorbed into everyday life. The fear of the glass house, or of the x-ray, even the grainy black and white images of video surveillance, seem already less invasive than a few years ago, almost reassuring. Perhaps today’s scanning technologies will also seem quaint in the future, since each technology goes deeper and deeper into the private, the definition of private changes with each new invasion. Meanwhile, the original glass house seems to have reemerged, as a mobile turned into a protective bunker, with the popemobile, this four sides of bullet proof glass after the 1981 assassination attempt. It’s almost like a Johnson glass on wheels. It’s amazing, because now this transparency is used as a bunker, as a protection rather than exposure. Soldiers in Iraq, have appropriated the concept with what they call precisely pop glass, which is made of this ballistic proof windshield to offer protection.

In conclusion, the point about these quick notes about SANAA and new surveillance technologies is that in changing our definition of public and private, the new surveillance technologies, like the technology that emerged in the early years of the last century, changed our understanding of architecture. Architecture is never threatened by new technologies, as we have seen repeatedly through this lecture; on the contrary, architecture feeds on those technologies, or at least is currently digesting these new modes of vision, and it’s possible that new architectures will emerge inevitably, out of these new technologies. Thank you very much.

-

Transcription by María José Orihuela, Architect, MA HCT at the Architectural Association.



All lectures are open to members of the public, staff and students unless otherwise stated.


November 2018
Su M Tu W Th F Sa
123
45678910
11121314151617
18192021222324
252627282930

Contacts

AA Photo Library has DVD copies of Public Programme lectures dating back to 1974

Links

Online Lectures
Lecture Archive

Share

Share |

Feedback

For any issues with video playback please contact
AA Digital Platforms

The Architectural Association, Inc. is a Registered Charity Incorporated as a Company limited by guarantee. Registered in England No.171402. Registered office: 36 Bedford Square, London WC1B 3ES, 020 7887 4000

Click here to read the AA’s latest review report.

Click here to read the AA’s latest action plan.

close