In the slew of celebrity self-help videos, in which they “help” us through this corona-virus pandemic together, it may be tempting to make fun of the fact that, firstly, no one buys it, secondly, yeah I bet everything’s fine in your secluded mansion, and thirdly, why do all your houses look the same anyways?
I won’t recount the exact history of this FLW-style modernist design, but it’s worth asking, I think, how these modernist buildings came to symbolize a certain modernist form of power, especially, if you’ll notice, given the liberal use of glass. These brittle boxes are a far cry from the medieval castles from our collective imagination, whose brutal strength was demonstrated quite literally in their harsh, stony builds. Castles radiate their power; their strength was physical.
Of course, this sort of brutalist design is not limited to some mythical and romantic pre-modernity; they exist in plenty of government buildings and military facilities to this day. And yet, it seems that at least with respect to the economic elites, your celebrity homes and financial districts and gentrified downtown neighborhoods have a certain fetishism for glass. Bullet-proof glass in some cases perhaps, but glass nonetheless.
There are two quite simple suggestions here. From the inside, glass represents freedom. It opens the enclosure to the world without losing its inherent exclusivity. You can be outdoors indoors. In this sense, nature is thoroughly conquered, the aim of modernity finally achieved. To take all that one can get without giving any back. So this is one suggestion. Conversely, from the perspective of those on the outside, what is inside the glass takes on a commodified existence. The glassy exterior mirrors the storefront. The plastic hetero-normative family or the buzzing life of a Wall Street banker, it doesn’t matter. You can have it too, the glass says. They might as well be mannequins. All is for sale, if only you could pay.
But there is something more here, something even more pernicious. It may seem weird to phrase it this way, but in a sense, glass is parasitic. What I mean here is that its aesthetics is derived, at least in part, from its background, its context. Of course, the aesthetics of anything cannot be totally isolated, but glass is different. It holds minimal aesthetic appeal, if any, by itself. It exists only in complementation. A window looking only into pure darkness is, after all, no window at all.
Bong Joon Ho’s recent Parasite is a great example of this in action. Take the two central window-images of the film, the window from the Kim family’s semi-basement and the cinematic backyard facing one from the Park family’s modernist home.
One looks over a landscaped backyard, while the other into a grimy alley, whose meager view is further obstructed by prison-like bars. Both windows, yet vastly different from one another. The windows are parasitic on the material conditions of each family’s financial context. What is so luxurious about windows? Nothing for the Kim’s, apparently.
The glass’s aesthetics rests on a presupposed material condition, and so it is with its power. Glass itself is brittle, and yet it exerts power because it has come to display the invisible, all-encompassing power of modern social democratic liberalism: you will never get to the point of making contact (and breaking) the glass because the iron front gates, the patrolling security guards, and the implicit threat of a police call would have stopped you well before that point.
Where before, the brutal structures challenges violence with its own violent rigidity, glass can now welcome it. It makes itself vulnerable, and in its vulnerability, the challenger to the status quo becomes the perpetrator, the illiberal, undemocratic, backwards, unreasonable, violent individual, and the comfortable becomes the well-meaning victim.
Glass dares to be brittle because the game has already been won. It is like making a bet in poker after having seen everyone’s hand, which is to say it is no bet at all. To move forward then, takes much more than breaking just the glass ceiling. We have to tear down the whole house.
The connection between glass and the storefront is taken from chapter 3 of Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man (1964).