Beatriz Colomina – Blurred Vision: Architectures of Surveillance from Mies to SANAA

Lecture date: 2009-01-13

The history of the modern window is the history of communication: Le Corbusier’s horizontal window is unthinkable outside of cinema, the Eames House unthinkable outside of the colour slide, and the midcentury picture window unthinkable outside television. In each case, the ambition to dissolve the line between inside and outside is realised by absorbing the latest realities of communication. Today, new forms of advanced surveillance technologies operate in the city, and these models of vision act as new paradigms. The glass box has become something else altogether.

Beatriz Colomina is Professor of Architecture and Director of the Program in Media and Modernity at Princeton University. Her books include Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media and Domesticity at War.

Lecture Transcription:

Brett Steele introduces Beatriz Colomina.

BEATRIZ COLOMINA: Thank you very much, it’s very exciting to be here at the AA, and I was just thinking that it was here where I first lectured outside the United States, on what would later become my article on Loos and the windows, given here on the last sprint of Alvin Boyarsky.

I’m going to talk about the glass pavilions between let’s say, Philip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe, and SANAA. I’m going to put that in context of technologies of communication, and technologies of surveillance. In fact, this question of the relationship with glass and the technologies of communication has been an ongoing inspiration, so to speak, in my research, a thread. The history of the modern window, for me, it’s a history of communication. Le Corbusier’s horizontal window, for example, I think it’s completely unthinkable outside cinema, not only did Le Corbusier think that film was the best way to represent modern architecture, but the frame itself, the way we see the world, if you think of architecture as a machine to see—is unthinkable outside the cinematographic frame. Likewise, I have tried to demonstrate quite recently that the Eames house is unthinkable outside the colour slide that was introduced during this years, and made possible for them to make thousands and thousands of colour slides of their house, and this is the way in which it’s represented, in this kaleidoscopic view of colour slides. The picture window at mid century is unthinkable outside television, that is in each case the case the ambitions of modern architecture to dissolve the line between inside and outside, by absorbing the latest technologies of communication. So, if communication is always about bringing the outside in, for example when reading a newspaper, to bring in world events into your life, or getting the inside out, by sending a letter. It’s quite beautiful in this advertisement of 1950 windows in America, that there is precisely a mailman bringing a letter. So, if communication is about bringing the outside in or the inside out, it will seem as if glass represents this act of communication. It is almost as if the glass, takes more and more of the building, as the systems of communication become more and more fluid. Having dissolved the wall into glass, the question becomes how to dissolve the glass itself, into a delicate line between inside and outside. It is the relentless quest for greater fluidity between outside and inside s no longer as simply driven towards transparency, but as we will see with SANAA, the glass box has become something else altogether. So, to show this I will like to go back to the glass house at mid century, the glass house of Philip Johnson and then move from there to the glass house of today, as represented in the world of Kazuyo Sejima. So lets go back to Philip Johnson: the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Philip Johnson is the glass house, but I’m going to introduce another question here, which is methodological: what if instead of relying on his 1950s article where he gives us all the laundry list of the influences that Boulé influenced him, that he copied from Mies, that all the sources, all the mountains of articles accumulated over the years about this house—what if instead of all of this, we take the 20 to 30 television programs that Johnson did in the course of his life? So the hypothesis is: what if the glass house was made for TV? What if Johnson was himself made for TV? I’m going to pass you a clip of one of these TV programs. [Shows clip].

Two really persistent dreams of the 20th century, that of the glass house and of television, were finally realized at around the same time and around the same place: the suburbs of America. Experimental glass with glass fantasies have been playing a role in science fiction, and also in modern architecture since at least the mid 19th century, only by mid 20th century was the dream finally in