A Privileged Source of Information


Alexander D’Hooghe


1914 not only marks the beginning destruction of the historic stone facades of Western Europe’s cities. In the same year, the Belgian Emile Fourcault invented a method for the commercial production of large glass sheets: flat glass. Early generations of Modernists immediately became enthralled with the revolutionary potential of this transparent technology. For the first time in human history, it became possible to conceive of buildings, programs, etc – that would not be there; buildings, whose presence would be a studied kind of absence; whose form would have no expression.

This invention is representative for the fascination shared by generations of modernist architects with transparency as the ultimate achievement of abstraction. But the appearance of flat glass not only led to a new degree of transparent architecture; it also was of no small consequence for the formerly hidden private sphere that now was to be laid open to the public eye. For as we will see, the project of neutral abstraction in architecture ultimately leads to a completely transparent public sphere. And – in the last consequence – ends up placing the objects of the private sphere into full view – effectively transforming these into public forms.



In 1908 the early modernist Adolf Loos wrote “Ornament und Verbrechen” (Ornament and Crime) and built, at the same time, a series of houses that aspired to have neutral, expressionless facades. For Loos, this absence of personal expressivity, or subjective gesturing in architectural form, gave the house a public persona. He argued that architecture only existed in tombs and monuments, which were endowed with a similar sense of dignity: they were not the expression of individual anxieties and obsessions by their authors or inhabitants, but merely offered a contour of a public sphere, devoid of personal interest and achieved through a muteness, an absence of gesturing, sign language or other communicative (i.e. figurative, expressive) efforts. For Loos very aptly understood that the essence of the ideal bourgeois man was to distinguish between his public persona (neutral facades), and his private concerns (expressive interiors). Loos produced his oeuvre by and large before Fourcault’s breakthrough, so he had to resort to white plastered walls and flat roofs. He was the first one to do so in modern Western architecture.

Loos’ masterstroke was to turn all expressionistic architecture into vain attempts at personalized drama, in other words: melodrama or kitsch. Such was from then onwards the fate of his contemporaries in German expressionism, like Bruno Taut, Hans Scheerbart, and Hans Poelzig. Ultimately, Loos’ view unmasks also the contemporary expressionistic whims of Frank Gehry, Morphosis, Greg Lynn, Zaha Hadid and Coop Himmelblau as mere kitsch.

When Loos made the case for neutral and abstract public personae, the fine arts were simultaneously developing a similar project of abstraction. In painting, this eventually culminated in Kasimir Malevich’s “Black Square”, a layer of black paint on a white canvas.


Then, everything changes: flat glass appears on the scene. Flat glass is even more abstract – so abstract as not to have a texture, so neutral as not to have an expression of its own. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe took advantage of this new zenith of abstraction, culminating in his project for a Friedrichstrasse skyscraper, a project so radical in its systematic application of flat glass that it would achieve a degree of transparency unparalleled even in contemporary projects with more advanced glass technologies.

However, the early modernist position – that expressionless neutrality was the manner to achieve a civil public persona – was now reversed within itself. For while the flat glass surface was the most abstract and neutral public façade imaginable, it also ruthlessly exposed the interiors of the building to public view. This is a peculiar result of the more general aesthetic principle of what Colin Rowe and Robert Slutsky called “phenomenal transparency” in 1956: Phenomenal transparency is “the capacity of two figures to interpenetrate without optical destruction of each other” (Gyorgy Kepes as quoted by Slutsky and Rowe). Through phenomenal transparency, an object of the public realm and one hitherto relegated to the private realm suddenly appear on the same plane. This simultaneity or interpenetration is made possible by the flat glass panel, which destroys not only the separation between the two but also the depth (distance) between them, placing them effectively in the same plane of perception. So suddenly, a unified space appears – and this is a space as a collection of objects that are endlessly exposed to each other and to the public gaze. The older Kantian notion of a public sphere as a neutral platform devoid of private interests (objects) suddenly becomes rather problematic. And ultimately, transparency, if installed successfully, pushes architecture away from the facades, onto the design of interior objects.


What are the responses to this? They are twofold. The ruthless colonization by the public gaze and its objects of the entire formerly private sphere elicits two possible responses from architecture: first, submission; second, resistance.


The first response to the ruthless subjection of everything to the public gaze and its regimentations – in other words, the submission of the private sphere to being networked – is an architectural paranoia to neutralize and abstract everything private or previously hidden from view, into public objects; just like Mies van der Rohe did. For Mies, there was only one solution: the entire building interiors, its private parts, had to become public personae. The logic of the flat-glass panel, and its underlying concept of neutral abstraction, purges all the nooks and crannies and hidden corners of the building from its privacy, from its opacity.

Every object is now publicly visible, every act observable. So the consequence of flat glass is that the modernist project of neutral abstraction has to be nested into all objects, be re-iterated over and over until the entire building has achieved an asymptotically achievable, perfect state of complete neutrality and abstraction. Thus, the initial Loosian premise of modernism – the neutral public persona, a dignity achieved by eliminating one’s own expressionism and creating a poker face, while hiding the more private sphere from public view – has now been turned on its head: the private sphere, as such, has been abolished. The modernist project reverses itself: alienation is complete, inhabitation is no longer possible. After Mies, interior design becomes increasingly integrated in the overall project of architecture.


The advocates of the other answer favored the presentation of these formerly undesigned, un-public objects in the public realm just as they were found. Instead of re-designing the no longer private items of daily life, they wanted them to appear just as the objects of utility that they have always been.

This, in fact, is what happened in painting. After Malevich’s white canvas, art did not propose a glass panel (although that might have constituted a great statement at that time had it occurred). Instead, Marcel Duchamp arrived. His ready-mades really dealt with transparency as well: the objets trouvés – certainly most of all the urinal – were nothing else than the most private parts made most public.

In presenting objects like a bottle-drying rack or a bicycle wheel as found art Duchamp’s point was: everything can now be on display. Flat glass transforms all private objects into public ones. So the elements of the private sphere float in the public realm, as found objects, as non-designed elements. However, rather than forcibly redesigning them in order to make the palatable to the public sphere, they are simply displaced and presented as such. Thus, both sides of the equation change.

The formerly private objects are now making sudden public appearances. They can no longer fulfill their private functions. After their exposure they have become unfit for that; in a sense, they have become fossils, transmitting the memory of a former life. But similarly, the public sphere loses some of its abstract totality: it is disrupted, its transparencies, ultimately, serve as a platform for the presentation of a variety of private ideals which nevertheless have become impossible by virtue of their being in the public realm.

So Mies’ solution was: design everything, formalize every aspect of life by neutralizing its appearance. Duchamp’s solution was: design nothing; once the public sphere penetrates everywhere, and all things private are subjugated, the public sphere loses its value and becomes a totality; rather than complete submission to it, the presentation of the debris of former lives powerfully displays this violent disruption of privacy and informality for what it is. Mies’ city is an endless, ruthless tarmac of publicness. Duchamp’s city then is an endless, ruthless tarmac of publicness, dotted with debris, ruins, and fossils, embryos of non-totalized entities. Duchamp’s revelation exposes designerliness as terror, after Loos had already laid bare expressionistic designerliness for what it was: kitsch.


Thus, finally, the discovery of flat glass seals the fate of the architect as ‘designer’. Her task now is the presentation of found objects and ready-mades, assembling this debris, the exposure of elements once formed outside the total gaze of publicness, as a powerful testimony to a world which was composed of various, different, spheres, rather than one total one.

This is the terrifying beauty of absence: a world of found objects, fossils of a life currently unimaginable but also containers of an alternative imagination. The task of the architect in such a world is no longer to design, but merely to present discoveries and to take un-designed objects out of their context and subject them to the public gaze. The inadvertent result of the flat glass invention, finally, is the end of designerliness as a critical act. As for the public sphere, the course towards its neutrality finally leads to an exacerbated representation of formerly private concerns.