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April 07, 2004

Architects and Glass

Dear Friedrich --

It's important (IMHO, of course) to learn to defend ourselves against architects, many of whom share a taste-set that civilians find bizarre, even repulsive. High-toned architects like flat (or warped) planes, acute angles, razor-sharp lines, and things that glare and gleam; they like buildings that twist, swoop, torque, and fold in on themselves -- that stand out rather than fit in. My usual response to these whirling abstract structures is, "Hey, when I wanna look at TV graphics, I'll turn on the TV."

But most of all, architects like glass. In fact, many architects are such fanatics about shimmeriness and reflectiveness, openness and transparency that you'd almost think they don't like buildings at all, given the fact that the rest of us tend to look to buildings for such qualities as permanence, shelter, coziness, and security. Glass is something a building can definitely have too much of. Randy Minor, a Chicago Magazine writer who lives in a Mies van der Rohe-designed apartment building, once wrote this about what it's like to live surrounded by acres of Miesian glass:

My own living habits, however dull, are calculated and self-conscious the minute I walk into my modernist marvel. The only privacy I have is in a couple of corners in my tiny bathroom and kitchen, where I retreat when I want to be "alone."

I wrote here about a couple of new Richard Meier-designed glass-and-steel perfume bottles, er, towers in Greenwich Village that have atttracted a lot of media interest. Flashy geometrical cages -- what a considerate and lovely way to enhance rambly old bricks-and-cobblestones Greenwich Village, eh? So it was fun to find out in this article here by Deborah Schoeneman for New York magazine that some real-estate shoppers, now that they've had a look at Meier's wraparound, floor-to-ceiling glass, are having second thoughts. Schoeneman writes:

The Rear Window effect already has some buyers backing out of the building."It's not very private," complains one uptown socialite whose new husband bought a Meier loft before they were engaged and has since put it on the market for $2.75 million.



posted by Michael at April 7, 2004


The secret is drapes. Drapes, curtains, blinds, that sort of thing. I wouldn't be surprised if Meier has interest in a drape manufacturer.

For the truly outre glass painting is an idea. As is glass engraving, etching, and similar treatments.

Then there's colored glass, smoked glass, fogged glass.

Or the creative placement of furniture, panelling, artwork, or similar objects.

Last, the inhabitant could just let it all hang out, and let passersby complain about the show. Then, when the police show up, show them to management, which should eventually lead to a police visit with Mr. Meier and his arrest for creating an attractive nuisance.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on April 7, 2004 10:37 PM

I refer you to the Monty Python sketch: "Architects -- Scum of the Earth". It takes this tendency to a gruesomely logical conclusion

Posted by: Dave F on April 8, 2004 6:05 AM

My father lives in a house of his own design which has an unusually large number of unusually large windows. This works great in the family room, where you sit feeling as though you are enthroned in the outdoors. However, when I first visited the house I was a bit intimidated to use the bathrooms because of the same effect. (Fortunately, his house sits on a wooded lot at some distance from his closest neighbor.) When I remarked on this to the honorable ancestor, I was floored at his nonchalant reply: "Well, I figure if someone has never seen people in the nude before, they won't know what they're looking at; and if they have, then, well, what's the big deal?"

Of course, this was before his second marriage, when a number of tasteful window treatments appeared in the more private parts of the house.

Still, maybe Mr. Meier needs to recruit my dad to indoctrinate the potential buyers into his, er, philosophy!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 8, 2004 9:08 AM

I suppose that part of the contract to lease in a Meir loft says "No Stones Allowed!" *grin*

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on April 8, 2004 9:16 AM

Glass and modernism: does anyone else feel that a big problem with modernist buildings is that that seem low-class? Most of the time, to me, they just shout "cheap!" The lack of ornament is part of it, but another is the big windows. Can someone else confirm this? That windows are a key point that modernism (and postmodernism) falls down? I've been thinking about this a lot and would love to get some confirmation.

Posted by: Bleauhard de Chardin on April 8, 2004 12:44 PM

As far as I know, some condos and coops (and, of course - office towers) prohibit use of drapes on the windows, same way as they prohibit people (rightful owners of their small "castle", heh) to put bulky items on their balconies. Reasons - to the Board's discretion.
Now, to the transparency issue.
Let me introduce two examples from my own modest experience. (Can't name names, you know)
1st one is from 4 yrs ago, architectural Co I used to work for was doing renovation for the HQ offices of a famous Co located in it's namesake modernist landmark in midtown, starts with "L"(soap, anyone?). "One of the many attractive and innovative features", as I recall it was called in ID magazine article, was public bathrooms with toilets facing the floor-to ceiling exterior glass wall, with no screening of any kind. Everybody in our office (and clients, and the arch. critics too) seemed to be mad with admiration. I felt as a cross between black sheep and white crow and kept my mouth shut.
2nd. Quite recent. NY branch of international "only-for-members" club/hotel in the Village (on 9th ave), in multi-story renovated building with different finish treatments in every guestroom/floor. The only unifying feature in every room is no boundaries between nominal bedroom and bathroom, "open plan" developed into an exhibitionistic one. Custom tub is placed parallel to the bed, no screening; transparent glass partitions toilet from the rest of the room. Again, hips of praise from critics and client alike, opening reception was called 'event of the season' success.

Or, and is anyone beside me feels uncomfortable using the street-facing bathroom in that bar (oh, g-d, whatsthename?)in the Village, ('Bath'? 'Glasstub'? something like that)with stripe of opaque etching on otherwise transparent glass wall? I'm just not sure my physique qualifies for public entertainment.

Note aside - browsing thru comment spread on the archived Michael's post he linked, I can give the reasons for the "hands-off" bathroom fixtures (faucets and flush buttons). As much as I disagree with Aaron Armitage on other topics, he is right on this one: it is considered more sanitary to limit physical contact with controls in the public bathroom. Also in play here the [now Federal] requirement of water saving. See, we only allow you to use water while actually wetting your fingers. And who cares how long you have to wait for it to come out!

Posted by: Tatyana on April 8, 2004 4:16 PM

I remember reading somewhere that if you buy into the Meier buildings, you're required to use a very specific kind of window covering -- curtains? Blinds? I can't remember. It's a sneaky but good thought: does he get a percentage of that business?

It's funny the way that the architecture and decor worlds have many people thinking that they just have to have more glass, that bigger windows are always better, and that they ought to be unarticulated -- ie., one huge pane rather than a window made up of (maybe) a medium sized pane and smaller ones around it. In fact, in many cases, that's a recipe (as Bleauhard has noticed) for making something look really cheap. And the light is often blinding -- you don't want glare in your living room, believe me.

I've had friends excitedly put big new windows in their houses, and wind up with a hoiuse that looks much more cheap than it did before the modification --it's especially bad if you don't recess the window in the wall but let it be flush with the outside or inside. It screams "flimsy," and looks awful. Funny how the arhchitects often don't realize how much civilians look to buildings for shelter and solidity. What seems to turn them on are daredevil, zigzaggy games with abstract "space" and abstract "material."

Of course, a lot of what architecture and design world pros (I love Tatyana's stories!) are doing is just making business space look a little more attractive than it'd be otherwise...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 8, 2004 4:50 PM

Thanks, Michael, you knew I'll bite into the topic.
And it should be hEAps of praise, not hIps.
*bangs her head in despair*

Posted by: Tatyana on April 8, 2004 5:25 PM

I have been constrained for sins now unremembered to work closely with a number of architects over the years. It is my experience that they all have one thing in common: They don't live in the spaces they design. In fact, a lot of the ones I know live in more-or-less-restored Victorian gingerbread.

So why do they design monstrosities? Because the prizes and the commissions go to the designers of crap.

Posted by: JimT on April 8, 2004 7:40 PM

And don't forget those of us who like to throw stones.

Posted by: Tommer Peterson on April 11, 2004 10:19 PM

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