Against the Urban Fishbowl
There is a certain building in Islington that I hate. Every time I look at this building, I feel the need to remark to anyone who is with me upon how much I dislike it. It is not an ugly building, and it doesn’t seem outlandish in context, but there is a very simple design principle that it uses that I find so completely and utterly inappropriate that it offends me to my professional core. The offense? This building, with shops at ground and residential units above has an abundance of floor to ceiling windows for the residential units along the street-front.
I was going to say that this particular building has floor to ceiling windows on what is a very busy street-front. But actually, while considering this post, I remembered another horrible and offensive building that makes the same faux pas in Brooklyn on Garfield Place. Garfield Place isn’t a particularly busy road, but the floor to ceiling windows on this particular residential building (including in the freaking bathroom for crying out loud) on the street setting are equally offensive.
Glass houses, the ultimate architectural expression of ‘man in the landscape’ may be a reasonable approach when you are surrounded by acres of your own private land, as in Philip Johnson’s glass house above, but it is not at all appropriate in an urban setting where spaces and buildings by default must create zones of privacy. Otherwise your home is literally part of the street.
The thing is, people, through their purchasing power, can’t seem to get enough of the glass box. I recently attended a presentation by a developer who was lamenting that they had to spend such an incredible amount on triple glazed, gas filled, specially made floor to ceiling glass windows in order to meet the thermal requirements of the UK building regulations. They used this as an example of why building regulations were bad for developers. I dared to ask the question, “But who said you had to have floor to ceiling glazing to begin with? Had you reduced the glazing, would you not have found it easier to meet the requirements?” The developer scoffed at me, “But this is what people want!”.
So it might be what they want, but is it what they like? I have not come across a study of this particular phenomenon, about for example, the turnover rate of rental units with floor to ceiling glazing on ground or first floor (or even second) floors. Or correlations about the divorce rate. But I feel that these relationships probably do exist. Because every time I pass one of these offensive buildings, and the one in Islington I have passed by many times over a matter of years, I never see anyone in the room. Or if I do see someone in the room, particularly at night, they tend to have all of the lights turned off and they are hunkered down in some over-sized sofa, to all intents and purposes, hiding from the street. Although this is an incredibly infrequent event, that I see anyone at all!
When I have had this discussion with people who for no credible reason assert that they prefer floor to ceiling windows, when faced with the privacy issue, the first thing they suggest is blinds or curtains. So I wonder, what is the point of having a window only to cover it up? Why does that make it a valuable addition to a room? Personally I prefer to have my windows unobstructed. I enjoy being inside and having a clear view of the outside. I also enjoy my privacy. I don’t need to compromise, I can have my cake and eat it too, I simply have windows that take up the top half of my wall, and wall underneath them that protects me from views from the street. The one place in my house where I have the equivalent of a floor to ceiling window- the glazed door onto my micro balcony, I keep covered all the time with a curtain because I don’t like people “seeing in” (and this is on the second floor UK/ third floor US!).
The higher into the air you go, the less problems with public realm exposure you are likely to have which is part of the reason (though obviously only part) that floor to ceiling windows are popular in sleek modern high-rise construction. But it often doesn’t work there either. The thing with all of these buildings, is that when people need their privacy, I would assert that they much more frequently (because with floor to ceiling windows it’s an ‘all or nothing’ exposure situation) close their blinds or curtains more often which has the knock on effect of making the entire wall closed off or a blank facade which I find particularly unfriendly and unnecessary.
In the case of the Islington building, there is clearly something wrong with the construction, or a covenant about what you can do to it because none of the tenants have even installed any curtains or blinds leaving them exposed to the street 24-7. Because the windows start at the ceiling edge, any curtain system would need to be affixed to the ceiling, which is not impossible, though likely somewhat expensive. In the meantime, the empty rooms sit there like an exhibit at the zoo where you wait to see if you can spot the creature amongst it’s natural habitat. And as so often as the case in the zoo, you can not!
While I don’t feel it’s necessary to add any other rationale for why I think this design idea in urban environments is stupid, another excellent reason why floor to ceiling glazing can be a very bad idea, is the environment. As I said before, the developer I spoke to had to get specially imported triple glazed gas filled fixed windows so that he could even begin to meet the thermal requirements for current building regulations. Those building regulations are in place to ensure that the legacy of what we build today is able to cope with the energy and temperature challenges of the future. In most cases, these glass boxes are absolutely not sustainable and have no business being built when reduction of energy use should be on the forefront of everyone’s mind. Difficult to heat, easy to over-heat, this sort of construction locks you in to a cycle of energy use that is not necessary and not sustainable.
So, as with most things, I am not suggesting that floor to ceiling windows don’t have their place in design. Of course they do. there are places where this sort of window makes sense both to the design intention and the privacy of the user. There are also ways for example, to put floor to ceiling glazing opening out onto balconies which if designed correctly can provide shading to minimize heat gain, as well as providing privacy from the street depending on the depth and detailing of the balcony.
I’m not saying ‘never’, just not on my urban street. Rant over. Offending pictures below, click for larger views.