People in glass houses shouldn’t throw fits

Neo Bankside and Tate

In our ongoing series on healthy homes, I noted that modern architecture, with its emphasis on glass, developed in the period between the understanding of germ theory and the development of antibiotics. “Dirt and dust harboured germs that must be destroyed by fresh air and sunlight.” But there is a problem when you have too much of a good thing like glass in dense and rapidly changing cities, where people in glass houses become like fish in an aquarium, on display.

That’s what has happened in London, where occupants of one of the most expensive (and I think beautiful) buildings in town, the Neo Bankside towers designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour, found themselves looking into the observation deck of the Tate Modern’s new wing. I could give more background but it is all in the headline and subheads of the Daily Mail:

daily mailDaily Mail/Screen capture

In response to their complaints, the director of the Tate, Sir Nicholas Serota, had a simple solution:

He said privacy would “be enhanced if those people decided that they might put up a blind or a net curtain or whatever, as is common in many places." He added: "I need to repeat the fact that clearly people purchasing those flats were in no doubt that Tate Modern was going to build its new Switch House building and the character and uses of that building were widely known. People purchased with their eyes wide open."

This outraged the residents, hence the lawsuits and the fits. But it is a complicated issue that people all over the world have to deal with.

neo bankside and tate further away photo© BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images

In the more upscale Financial Times, architectural critic Edwin Heathcote looks at the issue of living in the Neo Bankside towers and notes that it is “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.”

Things used to be different in our homes; Heathcote writes:

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.

This is where it gets so fascinating from a TreeHugger point of view. I have complained for years about the environmental issues of all-glass buildings, the energy needed to keep them comfortable and their lack of resilience. But Heathcote rightly points out that as our cities densify, there are also serious privacy issues. And apparently, class and status issues.

It is all a bit embarrassing for me to read and write this; I am an architect and have never had window coverings, desirous of transparency and openness and light. I am thinking that it is time to get some net curtains.

People in glass houses shouldn’t throw fits
They should probably buy net curtains, or perhaps an apartment with walls instead of windows.

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