Saturday, January 3, 2009

Display Lives



This new apartment building in our neighborhood, on 7th Avenue, partakes of the fashion for big walls of glass, which is the thing in new buildings in New York, and feels like an import from Miami or other warmer climes. Since so many city apartments have smaller windows, or face other buildings, or dwell much of the day in shadow, you can see why people would be drawn to big expanses of glass. Not to mention just how interesting it is to look at the city's shifting welter of detail.

But this has the odd effect of creating these lit, open-to-the-street lives. I'm not sure how much you can tell from this photo, but from the street it's easy to watch the television sets in the apartments on the second and third floor, not to mention watch the people: a woman in the kitchen preparing something, a child wriggling out of his pants, a man walking through a room looking for something. I wonder if they feel at all conscious of being looked at; do they enjoy that, or do they edit it out? If I'm walking by at night, I can't take my eyes off the mirror on their living room wall, or the surprise of movement as a person walks through a room, even though it makes me feel like a voyeur. How can you be a voyeur if scrutiny is so invited?

It seems an invitation, from the designer of the building to the dwellers therein: turn your life outward, go about your business spotlit, in the air, just above the street, so that all the world sees your achievement, the accomplishment that is your address. As well as to the casual viewer: this life could, or maybe couldn't, be yours.

9 comments:

Dana said...

"... turn your life outward, go about your business spotlit, in the air, just above the street, so that all the world sees your achievement, the accomplishment that is your address."

Sometimes this is how I feel about all the blogging and social networking I do. And I am not sure how I feel about that. I might be OK with it. I might not be OK with it. But putting up a wall where there were only windows is no easy task.

Mark Doty said...

A very perceptive connection, Dana. Maybe it's the same impulse, the walls of glass around the home and the self. A response to an isolating culture?

Leslie said...

When I was a kid, and still today, I loved to be driven around at night for the glimpses into people's living rooms, kitchens, dining rooms, their lives—framed by lace curtains or amputated by half-pulled blinds.

Sometimes it seems like a forgetting, sometimes like a performance, but also a kind of generosity—see, I'm open, at least a little, to the world passing by.

I only have blinds on the three windows in the front of my house. The rest are available for view at all times. But I live a half-mile from the nearest neighbor, so mostly I'm being open and generous to the trees, the coyotes, the deer.

Michelle said...

I don't think I could live in an apartment like this. I like to be able to shut out the world from time to time.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Do any of them have bookcases?

Ryan said...

I wonder how much of this phenomenon results from our culture’s shift from validating internal life to validating external life. It’s hard to believe that just twenty years ago, even our rock stars were raving against materialism when, now, almost every mainstream public figure partakes in the bravado of bling and all that. (Yes, there are indie figures who don’t, but I’m talking mainstream, ie Nirvana vs. Nickelback).

Not to be a primitivist, but it does seem that not too long ago, our culture valued privacy, solitude, the self unseeable. With the rise of reality TV, everyone’s internal lives are becoming externalized: maybe the architectural equivalent is large glass windows. TV trumps Proust?

I wonder what Forster would say?

Peter Joseph Gloviczki said...

I also wonder about the extent to which life, in the apartments you mentioned, Mark, becomes about re-presentation for the occupants. (i.e. I want to show you (the viewer) that this is how I live). Whether or not that is a genuine reflection, life would seem to become a performance in that setting.

Skye Van Saun said...

There's a difference between closing off the world and the world closing you off. What if nobody looked? As with all those web cams focused on people's lives 24/7, when your audience is made up of strangers, you are spared the awful possibility that it might just be that nobody gives a damn.

artistb said...

Looking out the airplane window, my mood monopolized vertigo, displacement, and an hour later fond attachment to beacons of light in an otherwise pitch blackness. Geometric pattern is a tenacious fold to ascend through. I realized this was my second person, and my first person is light. What is the universe but a dark building or several dark buildings? Yes, at this distance light can be all too revealing, but it is the only viewpoint we have at unknown distances.