The hoarding has just come down on a new residential complex just round the corner from Midori House. What a surprise, it’s another cubic monstrosity with what has become as familiar to Londoners as pigeons: floor-to-ceiling fenestration. It seems not one residential development – and in London, there are plenty of those – can be constructed without being coated by these great big movie screens into the residents’ lives. It begs the question, whatever happened to windows?
Not glass walls, but actual windows. Simple, small, squareish eyes out of a home, where pots and plants could be placed and tended to on their ledge; well-proportioned glassy portals that could be opened just a fraction, or flung open on a hinge on summer days. Windows: architectural components that allow a polite conversation between private and public realms in our cities, not a Twitter-sized open dialogue.
This way of building has changed the aesthetic nature of London in two ways. Visual pollution, for a start. Once upon a time, the look and feel of our streets would be dictated by the choice of building material – colourful red brick, elegant Portland stone, handsome concrete. Windows were of course important, but only as punctuation; as a tidy architectural element, not architecture in itself. Now our streets are decorated by views of peoples’ ironing boards, the backs of ugly sofas, the juddering of widescreen TVs and the tangle of cables behind them.
Coating buildings entirely in smooth glass also removes texture from our neighbourhoods. There is nothing touchy-feely about the material, it doesn’t age, weather or get a bit scruffy. The only things that ages are the interiors, which we sadly have full access to.
Floor-to-ceiling fenestration is nothing new and there are of course shiningly brilliant examples of all-glass residential architecture. The Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe in Illinois, Phillip Johnson’s Glass House in Connecticut or Lina Bo Bardi’s home in the Brazilian jungle. Why they succeeded was because they were detached homes located in rural settings occupied singly by people with good taste in furniture. And curtains: Van der Rohe designed a system of curtain tracks to ensure privacy for Dr Edith Farnsworth (though drapes were never installed, but let’s not judge her for that).
But take the assets of floor-to-ceiling glassy living into a city setting and multiply them upwards and outwards, and the only losers are passers by. We have enough of these building-sized cinema screens in the many retail and office developments in the city; let’s leave our homes alone. I have no more desire to see the wastepaper bin or Boots carrier bags under a secretary’s desk than I do the ironing board of one of our Marylebone neighbours. This new development is billed as “luxury living”, ironically forgetting the greatest luxury of all: a bit of privacy.
Tom Morris is Monocle’s Design editor.