The Pleasure of Watching Others
How the architecture of living spaces creates a stage for the exhibitionist and a theater for the voyeur.
Glass towers with large windows have become the accepted norm in the modern cityscape — a major shift away from the Brutalist architecture of the mid-20th century. In this highly visible society, personal identity shifts according to the observer. We take a certain pleasure in the experience of being seen, and in the act of watching others. What is it about human beings that motivates us to put ourselves on display, and to watch and speculate about the lives of others? How are the related instincts of the voyeur and the exhibitionist bound up in the evolution of our architecture of living space?
This shift away from concrete curtains and opaque walls represents a cultural and psychological shift: a population that once valued privacy above all else now embraces the public, performative display of self. But the disintegration of privacy has material drawbacks, and even transparency can be an illusion.
Visibility in modern architecture
Take New York City’s High Line Park for example. The park’s proximity to neighboring apartment buildings has become a circus of voyeuristic activity, with residents sometimes even choosing to keep the glass panes of their domestic space bare and curtain-less. The Standard Hotel, next to the West Side Highway, has a long history of naked guests reportedly performing their sexual activities in front of the windows, and even a naked girl jumping on a trampoline.
Elsewhere on the High Line, near 23rd Street, residential buildings become more abundant, and the domestic activity inside those walls sometimes becomes an overt public performance. High Line 23, a glass-and-steel building designed by Neil M. Denari Architects, features floor-to-ceiling windows with excellent views of the Hudson as well as an ample stage for exhibitionism. Denari consciously integrated the High Line Park into the building’s structure, and he told the New York Times that “There’s a public aspect to [the design of] HL23 … I’ve never tried to be recalcitrant or not address the opportunity.”
The same New York Times article also mentions Ten23 Apartments, a luxury building next to the High Line, offering the same fishbowl-like existence. The nearby 245 Tenth sets a similar stage for performance. “It’s reality-TV living,” one tenant told the Times. Speaking of herself and her partner, another resident commented, “neither of us is very modest.” These inhabitants consciously put themselves on display for a constant stream of tourists and locals, watching the passersby watch them.
Veronica Schreibeis Smith, CEO and founding principal of Vera Iconica Design and Initiative Chair for the Global Wellness Institute, believes the rise in architectural and domestic voyeurism stems from our ocular-centric society. “It’s ironic that people are buying into these huge, open glass spaces because the rendering looks so cool, and it probably costs more because of the views, but in a way it’s like they’re buying a cage because it’s putting them on display,” says Smith. “The people the architecture may be hurting are exactly the ones buying into it.”
Essentially, we’ve been trained to think that certain things are cool without really thinking about the subtle psychological consequences or even why we’re attracted to certain things. “Looking at history,” says Smith, “particularly over the last hundred years, architecture can be egoic in some sense. Whether it’s a starchitect doing something really fancy to draw attention, or what we saw in [our work in] Asia in particular, it was very important for owners to design something cooler than their neighbors. [These residents] wanted their building to be an iconic landmark and stick out.”
The high visibility of domestic spaces also touches on the fact that we exist in a consumer-driven society. “If you know your neighbors can see you, you start worrying about ‘did I buy the right mid-century chairs,’” notes Smith, “and you start concerning yourself with these very superficial, consumerist ideals instead of really nurturing the important aspects of your life.”
In this sense, architecture itself is performative. Sure, the Zaha Hadids and Frank Gehrys are wonders to look at, but at the end of the day, their shock value can nullify real psychological or spiritual connections. Smith compares the “wow” factor in certain architectural designs to a screen door. “If I say, ‘picture the banging of a screen door,’ you didn’t just picture that screen door … you have this whole image that comes to mind.” Smith continues, “There’s something that viscerally touches you on an emotional level, and whatever memory that image is bringing back. But it’s not ‘cool,’ it doesn’t impress your eyes — it has some other connection to you.”
Without these real ties, the human value — the human connection — can be stripped away. “There needs to be a connection to the objects and artifacts that you have in your house in order for them to have a positive impact on you and your well-being,” says Smith. “And when it becomes more along the lines of keeping up with the Jones, you’re never getting a reprieve. Your home is not a place of repose. It’s a continuation of this being bombarded by technical displays, or how we’re taught, or how we think we should live.”
All-glass towers and houses tend to cost more, and therefore they signify a particular status or wealth. Dr. Sally Augustin, author of Place Advantage: Applied Psychology for Interior Architecture and a Design With Science Fellow, consults with architects and design firms around the world on the psychological implications of architectural experiences. “As a group we might think that this [glass architecture] communicates success, for example,” she says. “The reason why something communicates [in this way is because] of the memories of the observant culture. They have all learned the same rules.” Transparent, high-visibility design symbolizes success, and therefore we equate it with such.
Rather than creating their own value systems, people tend to align their values with the masses according to existing and established symbols or signifiers. But aside from the glitz and glamour of the building itself, why would one want to live in such a high-visibility space? Augustin thinks it’s about the messages we choose to send out into the world. “I think that people are always looking for new messages in the places where they are, messages that have been sent by other people or individuals that control a space, and we respond based on the messages that we read,” she says. “People have done things like having live feeds in their homes for a long time now. That is similar to communicating to a broader audience [even more so] than these people in buildings with the big windows. People want others to know the things about them that they feel are important.”
Domestic Visibility & Pleasure: Curated Existences
“He is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication.”
— Michel Foucault, ‘Discipline & Punish’, 1975
The interesting thing about architectural exhibitionism is that few might perform certain acts in the unsheltered public — e.g. sexual, strange, or highly personal — without the walls around them. Architecture is key: It provides a secure stage, a sense of safety inside the space, that makes the inhabitant feel both protected and secure, and yet on display.
Augustin, who is also a fellow of the American Psychological Association, says that the fascination with watching others and performing for others is rooted in our need to communicate non-verbally, perhaps about things that are difficult to say directly. “Nonverbal communication has a certain legitimacy that spoken words do not,” she says. Research shows that [people put more] trust in the messages in the physical environment, rather than [written or spoken] statements,” she says.
One form of nonverbal communication is the act of performing for others through these windows of experience, whether it’s social media or within the physical home. Anytime we are conscious of being “watched,” there is a level of performative behavior involved — even down to the subtle arrangement of our furniture. “I think we perform all the time in our domestic spaces,” says Augustin. “We’re always putting together the spaces in which we live to send certain messages, like where we are and what’s important to us.
“We have always done that,” Augustin continues. “When we didn’t live in high-rise buildings, we lived in huts where people would enter the hut and see what we had done to it. If we’re keeping it very clean, it shows we’re conscientious. Now people in these buildings with the big windows can maybe communicate to more people at a particular time, based on how their apartment is placed in the building, how that relates to other buildings nearby, through which they can be viewed.”
The Danger of Watching Others
“They are like so many cages, so many small theaters, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible. The panoptic mechanism arranges spatial unities that make it possible to see constantly and to recognize immediately.”
— Michel Foucault, ‘Discipline and Punish’
There is a kind of pleasure that occurs in the act of seeing and being seen, because at our core, we are pack animals. Watching and learning from others is part of the human social experience, and we derive a sense of safety and peace when we feel connected to others.
According to Dr. Ganz Ferrance, a Canadian doctor who specializes in developmental psychology, the need to see and be seen is a healthy impulse. In a sense, it’s a way of feeling part of something larger, a part of the community. “We have to feel like we’re connected to others and to know that we’re not alone, to know that there are others like us,” he says. “If there wasn’t the internal drive to see and be connected to others we wouldn’t have social media, TV, books, movies, and plays. All these things are actually part of this [healthy] drive to understand others more deeply and see ourselves in how others act.”
But what we find to be pleasurable is a complex formula, and of course it varies from person to person. Take a look at screenwriter Diane Weipert’s experience. In 2015, Love + Radio aired “The Living Room,” where Weipert discussed how she became emotionally involved with her neighbors in an adjacent building — without ever meeting them. As an exhausted new mother, she found herself watching a young couple in their bedroom for days on end, noting their movements, sexual activity, and even changes to the décor. Eventually, when the man in the couple became terminally ill, her voyeurism took a strange turn. She bought binoculars to continue her act of watching and eventually became further obsessed with the inner lives of the couple. Watching his bedroom from afar, she described the “moment” he died, and admitted that she was so invested in their “story” that she even ran out into the street as the paramedics were taking his body away.
It was in that moment, on the street, that she realized the absurdity of the situation: These people had never met her. They didn’t even know she existed. What was she to say — “I’ve been watching you this entire time”?
Ferrance says that the pleasure of voyeurism — even if morbid — is due to a sense of ownership over the situation. That sense can prevail even from afar, even if it’s not reciprocated, even if it’s done in secret. “Pleasure is learned in practice by our experiences and associations,” says Ferrance. “People develop fetishes, like voyeurism, out of a need to feel this connection to others, even if it’s kind of weird.”
Our brains are literally hardwired for this behavior, too. “The human brain is made up of three basic components,” Ferrance continues. “There’s the brainstem, which is the part of the brain we share with reptiles, like alligators and snakes, and is all about survival. Then the next layer is what we call the mammalian brain, which we share with the wolf, cow, and other mammals, and it’s all about belonging. But as humans, we also have an extra piece of brain called the neocortex, which is on the outside. The main function of the neocortex is inhibitory: It stops us from doing stuff that the other two brains tell us to do. It’s one of the main functions of what makes us human, and deals with rationality and morals.”
So it’s within the neocortex that voyeuristic tendencies may conflict with the mammalian brain’s impulse for community, and subsequently create a moral and social conflict. The neocortex dictates that we shouldn’t look at other people in their private spaces, that we should give them their privacy, and that we shouldn’t put certain behaviors on display.
“The reptilian and the mammalian brain [have more influence] than the human brain can comprehend or is aware of sometimes,” notes Ferrance.
Does this mean voyeurism becomes less taboo in an age of exhibitionism? Not necessarily, but there are repercussions if the mammalian brain takes over. “[Wanting to be watched] is about needing to feel like you’re significant, to feel like you’re connected to the world,” says Ferrance. “But I think it’s important when you’re being watched that it feels like you’re doing something worthwhile, or that people admire you in some way. So while the basic need is not necessarily unhealthy, there are people who get addicted to that sort of thing — perhaps they don’t get their fill in healthy ways from parents, friends, or other relationships.
“You get this with people in the public eye a lot,” continues Ferrance. “They sort of get addicted to the attention and the limelight. When they walk into a room and everybody doesn’t stop or look or start to whisper, they’ll feel somehow diminished because they’re not as important, or that they don’t have the same sort of value in life.”
Visibility in the Work Space
“He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power, he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.”
— Foucault, ‘Discipline and Punish’
We perform, consciously or otherwise, in not only the domestic sphere and on social media, but also in the workplace. The ubiquity of open-office spaces further reduces the sense of privacy, as most can look up from their computers (yet another tool used to “watch” others) and catch an immediate glimpse of an entire community of people engaged in a nominally private endeavor.
On the one hand, these open-office spaces set in modernist structures with floor-to-ceiling windows have certain wellness benefits: We know that daylight has a direct impact on our circadian rhythm, and it’s known to help improve mood, productivity, and morale. Even further, when people are exposed to calming views of the outside world, particularly water, trees, and grass, they tend to perform better during the workday. But all that visibility may also create an unwelcome feeling of being on display at all times. In this sense, architecture and design can act as a sort of psychological punishment — the burden of being constantly seen.
Open-office, all-glass spaces can make some behaviors more or less likely, but it can also resemble a glass cage. Veronica Smith, an architect who focuses on well-being, recounted a conversation she had with a client on the subject of the glass cage effect. “I was recently in an office building that had inoperable storefront windows,” she says. “I was talking to the owner, and he knows our focus, and he just looked at me and said ‘I regret this. I feel like I set them up in a glass cage. I have the best view in the office, and we spent so much time working with the architect … it was all about the design and the aesthetics and it’s beautiful. That was important. But now I’m in this glass cage.’ Ironically there’s a deck outside his window that he can’t access because the glass door doesn’t open.
“There’s all of these other aspects of being a human that are really important to us and that allow us to thrive and live energetic, happy lives,” continues Smith. “And if we’re only focusing on how to shock or wow your eyeballs or psyche, we’re missing this whole other spectrum of beauty that humans need, that can essentially nourish them.”
Close the Curtains
“… among workers, [the Panopticon effect] makes it possible to note the aptitudes of each worker, compare the time he takes to perform a task, and if they are paid by the day, to calculate their wages (Bentham, 60–64)…This Panopticon, subtly arranged so that an observer may observe, at a glance, so many different individuals, also enables everyone to come and observe any of the observers. The seeing machine was once a sort of dark room into which individuals spied; it has become a transparent building in which the exercise of power may be supervised by society as a whole.”
— Michel Foucault, 1975
The 20th-century French philosopher Michel Foucault described the sensation of being watched all the time as a form of psychological torture. The panopticon effect, or “the state of conscious and permanent visibility,” is a trap that assures the “automatic functioning of power.” In the workplace, the panoptic effect can be “used as a [psychological] machine to carry out experiments, to alter behavior, to train or correct individuals.” Architecture, therefore, has the power to manipulate individuals and modify their actions.
The all-glass high-rise, which can be likened to Foucault’s (or more precisely Jeremy Bentham’s) panopticon, which Foucault describes in Discipline & Punish as “a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad … one is totally seen, without ever being seen; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen. … The heaviness of the old ‘houses of security’, with their fortress-like architecture, could be replaced by the simple, economic geometry of a ‘house of certainty.’”
“There is a disjunct between what [people] have been taught they want, and what is actually healthy for them,” says Veronica Smith. “So if you’ve been taught that you should want a big glass house with the views, but not that that may not be the best thing for you… Propaganda is a really powerful thing, as is advertising. I’ve seen the impact that can have on an entire mass of people. As a society, we’re still trying to find a balance with the quiet voice in the conversation, which is this health and wellbeing.”
Visibility in the open-office plan can also lend itself to certain behavioral modifications. Dr. Sally Augustin says, “In the office people might restrain certain behaviors and not do certain things that might require discussion. People can self-edit.”
While we’re social creatures and hard-wired to watch others and observe, privacy is just as important. We need time when we are not observed, where we’re not heard, so we can properly process our experiences in the social world.
“Humans want to have a reasonable level of control over their physical environment, and when they are in a workplace where it’s all open — like a glass-wall conference room where anybody can be walking around at any time — people don’t have a feeling of control,” says Augustin. “That can make them feel stressed, and under stress their mental energy is diverted from their task at hand, and they don’t perform to their best potential.
“When we have privacy, we have an opportunity to think about the things that happened recently to us in our lives and integrate those recent events with prior events and sort of make sense of our situation in general,” continues Augustin. “When we don’t have a chance to do that, it can make us really stressed, and our brains are almost like a record that starts to skip. We just can’t process any more new information effectively until we deal with the backlog filing that lives in our brains.”
Dr. Ganz Ferrance also weighs in on the psychological effects of constant visibility: “Lack of privacy in the workplace adds to your sense of stress and sense of being exposed,” says Ferrance. “One of the biggest things that’s stressful in that kind of environment is when you have to conduct your own business, whether it’s a phone call or whatever, but you hear other conversations going on, so you have to work a lot harder to filter out other conversations to be able to focus on your own. In one sense it’s like you’re being spied on sometimes, like the company always seems like they need to be watching. Not having any space or any ability to have some downtime throughout the day can be very stressful. Some companies will have privacy rooms or areas you can relax and be by yourself; if you don’t have that or that’s hard to get, that can cause real problems for people.”
Design’s Effect on the Subconscious Brain
Returning to the three major components of the human brain, Dr. Ganz Ferrance pointed out in our conversation that architecture and design deeply affect healthy adult humans in ways that we cannot understand on the surface level. “Architecture affects our moods, our sense of safety, our sense of calm,” he says, noting that children, animals, and adults with a lower IQ are most sensitive to the unconscious distinctions in structure, décor, and spatial energy.
Ferrance shared a personal anecdote on just how influential design can be on a subconscious level. He wanted his patients to feel a sense of calm when they walked into his office, kind of like “a spa for your mind,” so he hired an interior designer to do the job. Assuming the interior designer knew what she was doing, he accepted the dark gray, white trim, and low blue-tinged lights as on-trend and cutting edge. But when he brought in his four-year old daughter for a quick tour of the new space, she took about five steps inside and started to cry. “I mean like floods of tears. She started to pull me out of the room,” he recalls. “That was a gut, visceral reaction.”
He wrote it off at first (“We tend to talk ourselves out of what we know,” he says), but eventually his own instincts kicked in. He completely redid the space with neutral tones and lighter colors, and now everyone remarks on how comfortable they feel there.
This shift towards how people feel in a space is something that architect Veronica Smith considers a movement away from the strictly visible. “People are not quite as taken by the dog-and-pony show of exteriors, facades, or the surface materials,” says Smith. “People are starting to become much more aware of how they feel in an environment.”
Surely there are psychological repercussions from living in our high-visibility culture, just as Foucault predicted over 40 years ago. Bentham’s watchtower has evolved into the glass skyscraper. Only this time, we place ourselves inside the glass willingly.
But these glass cages ultimately become stages, and we must learn to create and acknowledge a new standard for architecture — one that acknowledges the full scope of humans: as emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical beings. Architects, developers, designers, and even wellness specialists must work together to create truly human-centered spaces that address issues of the total human being, including issues of sustainability, carbon footprint, and environmental consequences.
Rather than thinking of buildings as austere structures independent of human experience and interior spaces as empty vessels to fill with objects, we must think in terms of interconnectivity — how objects and space have a direct impact on our daily lives. We must acknowledge the profound and intimate relationships we have with the spaces in which we occupy.
This story is part of the Culture Trip Special: Limits collection.