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Windows & Black Boxes – Oscillating Transparency in a Calm Surveillance Society

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Glass facades, or large windowpanes, which potentially give full view of the interior spaces of a building, have come to dominate much of new urban architecture all over the world since the 1990s. This has created new modes of living and of seeing in the urban context. Not only has it changed our way of appreciating architecture as creating a dividing line between interior and exterior spaces, but also new codes for looking into the interior of a building and for people inside the building to appreciate the environment that surrounds the building have emerged.

This talk will give an insight into the on-going collaborative work that I am doing with Dr Henriette Steiner, who works on the history and philosophy of architecture. One of our aims has been to situate the dominant use of large windows or glass facades in a larger historical and theoretical framework. In this paper I shall look at selected, short pieces of literary representations of urban environments, i.e. Edgar Allan Poe’s seminal short story ‘Man of the Crowd’ from 1840, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We (1924) and the two recent novels 120 Tage von Berlin (2003) by Lukas Hammerstein andTeil der Lösung (2007) by Ulrich Peltzer. These literary works are situated in relation to a cultural theoretical argument, drawing mainly on media theorist Alexander Galloway’s conceptualisation of the black box. The aim is to place this concept in relation to the historical development of windows in urban settings – from the dense modern metropolis of the industrial city of the mid-nineteenth century, over the call for transparency of modernist architecture of the early twentieth century, to today’s use of large glass facades in post-industrial urban settings. Hereby illuminating an interesting lopsided correlation between the notion of transparency in modern architectural culture and the logic of the black box, in order to explore how the prevalence of glass in contemporary architectural culture can be seen as part of a contemporary so-called ‘calm surveillance society’.

This talk is part of the German Graduate Research Seminar series.

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