thoughts on our urban future

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.

Offensive in Islington, view across the green, straight into the homes!

Sofa and lamp, no curtains, no people. West and south facades as seen from the bus stop!

Inappropriate in Brooklyn, no curtains, no people, no sense! (And south facing non-operable??)

Bathroom windows: end of tub on left, sink on right. Seriously??

Would you (or anyone?!) like to live in this fishbowl??

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  1. Whilst I definitely don’t feel as strongly as you do about the privacy issue, I think you are absolutely right about the fact it is indeed stupid to have floor to ceiling windows and then struggle with meeting the required u-values – as your developer had complained about. I think this is another case of taking ‘what the market wants’ way to literally, assumming everyone wants large expanses of glazing in their new flats. I can see these look modern and light and airy, but I am sure if they bothered to actually survey people about it, most would be happy not to have these, especially when made to consider the issue of heat loss/gain and the potential impact these have on the energy consumption ->energy costs and the environment. Plus, coming back to the privacy issue, I am sure most people would actually agree with you that too much exposure is just not confortable… although some may like to show others just how big their sofas are!

  2. You’re just bragging about windows without bars on them!

    Seriously, I agree with you and think that your arguments about sustainability are persuasive. My inner snarky voice wonders how many residents of buildings like this are big proponents of public transport or bikes or hybrid cars because they want to save the planet and just have no idea how unintentionally and environmentally disastrously ironic they’re being.

    But for me, personally, privacy would be huge factor were I looking for a flat in an urban setting. I love sunshine and airiness as much as anyone, but I also really love lazing around in my pajamas without being on display to the world around me. And we all know that for the outsiders trying not to look in, the eye is drawn inexorably to that stupidly large window that lets you see the people inside, no matter how respectful we mean to be about others’ privacy.

    Great post!

  3. Yes it is YOUR urban rant, pent up over years of frustration (perhaps Freud might be able to figure out why). However, I completely disagree with your personal issues with glass exposures in general. Where I think your argument lies is where we all agree: we dislike poorly thought out schemes.

    On MY urban street in east London, I lived in a building with two floor to ceiling window/doors on the first floor (2nd floor US). The flat was energy efficient, and only in the bedroom did I place blinds as I like to wake up in the dark. In the lounge, there were no blinds and I had no privacy issues. The windows were the best feature of the flat; if they were gone I would have preferred another flat.


  4. The building on Garfield Place is down the block from me. Outside of the inappropriateness of the glass design on a block of 19th century row houses, there is more to dislike. I live on the same side of the block on the 2nd floor (US) and get full sun for the entire day. My 19th century shutters are closed on the top to cut out some of the sun and for privacy on most days. MY understanding from neighbors is that they have only sold 2 units in that building in a year. The ones that have sold, use shade-up designs for privacy but I wonder how much privacy there is at night with shadows cast on those shades in the bathroom or the bedroom. Also, there are not the strict construction rules in NYC that Kayla talked about for window insulation.

    And to top it all off–look at the picture–that wooden slatted wall in front of the first floor windows is not just unfriendly to the street but can you imagine living with all that glass to look out at the wood wall just 2 feet from your window? The other side of the building (the actual front) is set back from the street with a garden. From community interest and meetings, I know that that space was initially supposed to be a parking lot for the co-op (street parking in my neighborhood is beyond difficult). Then they petitioned to allow 2 houses on the site instead because the market value had dropped—but that was not approved. If they had moved the building back just 3 feet, the first floor apartments could have had a small patio.

    It is difficult to protect the integrity of a neighborhood. Park Slope now has 12 story buildings at its lower end and no new buildings above 4 stories on the blocks. But it still doesn’t protect us from bad design. If you want to see another semi-monstrosity glass building, look up Richard Meyer’s building on Grand Army Plaza just outside of Park Slope. Hasn’t sold many units either.

  5. I dream of one day having a wall of glass overlooking my lovely and large (therefore private, because it’s far away from neighbors) garden somewhere in the first world. I love light and air and the feeling of incorporating the outside inside a living space. But not at the cost of being able to lounge in just a t-shirt and undies in my living room without being on display to all and sundry. So, not all glass is bad glass, just when it compromises privacy, which I think actually harmonizes Kayla’s rant with Scott’s defense.

  6. Does anyone have the floor layout of the Islington apartments?

    • I have not been able to find them. The flats have been occupied for at least 3-4 years now (so many years of my staring at them in dislike). The room with the glazed walls is the lounge or living space. The kitchen and bedroom(s) (and bathroom(s)) are not as exposed, certainly not like the Brooklyn example. So I suppose that’s where the people who live there hang out- in the kitchen or in their bedrooms. The upper unit which is double height has a large living space with what looks like a loft bedroom area above, although again, I never see people in it.

  7. Thanks!

    I suspect the reason you dont see any “GoldFish” is that they are too busy working to pay for ( energy bills etc.) and upkeep of the FishBowl.

    To tell the truth, I rather like the Islington flats. Not too much exposure for me. I live in a house (rural area) where I can be seen on ground level from passers-by in the evening. When next I am in the UK, I may even make a special visit to see these flats.

    Brooklyn Project – Perhaps the bottom section of glass could be frosted (attractive patterned design). Gradual transparency. Allow light, but not too much detail below waist level. This may add some interest to the facade.

    • Oh no, let me assure you, most of the time when I am looking at that building, I am also ‘out of work hours’. So in the evening for example, when it is dark outside, I have sat in a restaurant across the green and been able to see straight into those typically empty flats. I have, very rarely, seen a person, hunched down on the sofa with all the lights off, but probably in 4 years I could count the times on one hand. I have seen into those flats for years, in all seasons, on weekends, on evenings and they are always empty in the lounge. I would reiterate that I believe this is entirely due to the fact that it must be a very uncomfortable space to try and ‘live’ in and is therefore a clear expression of bad design.

      I agree with Samantha, and did try to say in my article that of course there is a time and a place for these types of windows where they make sense and deal with heat loads appropriately. But in a city, where you don’t get much privacy to begin with, I don’t at all agree that the level of exposure shown, particularly on the street, is either appropriate, or desirable, made evident by the lack of people (or in the case of the Brooklyn flats, the lack of sales). If you are going to ‘shade’ a window half way, you might as well have a wall with proper insulation. But yes, shading is an option, as are louvers or screens (like the ground floor of the Brooklyn units as per Bev’s comments. But that really doesn’t address the energy use of the building and then somewhat defeats the purpose of having all the glazing to begin with.

  8. I think I agree with your first post that research needs to be carried out on the use of these supposedly private spaces. It looks like the residents have regretted leasing or purchasing these flats. More analysis needs to be carried out on market demand. Rationalising of market demand. Does the market really know what they need as opposed to what they say they want? Developers follow blindly the market to the exclusion of practical and sustainable design. Limited long-term vision. Typical of some developers.

  9. There’s a bigger problem with full height glass windows across a range of uses.

    On offices it drives me to distraction that PEOPLE PUT DESKS UP AGAINST WINDOWS so that I can see the rubbish they accumulate underneath, and the wires, and the boxes as I walk along the street.

    We designed our office (with full height glazing) to have routes around the edge and so avoiding desks against windows.

    Why can’t everyone do the same. There should be a law against it!

    and don’t even get me started on the ‘fritted’ glazing that ‘solves’ this problem. Or doesn’t……

    • Hilary- Thank you! I completely forgot about full glazing in offices and desks!! It’s true- and the poor person stuck at that desk who can have their legs looked at all day as well!

      Walls are very useful when considering the layout of furniture in a room. I really don’t understand why people are so averse to them! And a wall, to match the height of said furniture, with a window starting above the line of said furniture, makes perfect sense to me and is the idea combination. I think your solution of creating a walk-space against the windows in an office with this condition is a sensible compromise, though I imagine there are many offices with central cores so the windows are the ideal place for desks and lead to nothing in particular which only reinforces to me that they should not be!

      Yet developers insist this is “what people want’. Who are these people exactly? I’d like to re-educate them…

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