Cracks in the Glass

Transparency and the crisis of modernist visibility in Architecture

Published in: Ilina Koralova, Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst Leipzig (eds.), “against within”, Verlag Forum Stadtpark Graz, 2006



Contemporary culture is often referred to as a predominately visual culture. Because of the rise of visual media and “virtual spaces” in the material world around us, the discipline of architecture now competes for our attention along with television screens, mobile telephones, monitors, virtual reality, etc. Moreover, the political-economic developments which coincided with globalisation, as well as the regionalisation of patterns of life, consumption, and production, caused authors like Frederic Jameson to speak about “hyperspace”, a notion of space which is characterised by several different spatial and temporal vectors overlapping each other in one place: a complexity that is too much to bear for one subject who, in Jameson’s description, is no longer able to locate him/herself in this incomprehensible environment.


In his influential text, “Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”[1], Jameson describes the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles as a symptom of this impossibility of locating oneself spatially and culturally resulting from a breakdown of the signifying chain; i.e., the incapacity of our minds to map the great global multinational network and decentred communicational network. He does so by referring to the specific usage of glass to create a destabilizing spectacle. On the one hand, this is established by the building’s façade, which is made of reflecting glass, such that the city is mirrored in a distorted and fractured way, thereby eliminating a visible connection between the building’s inside and the outside. Hence the interior space becomes a sort of substitute reality for the city outside—the city of Los Angeles. On the other hand, Jameson remarks that the continuous, animated movement of the visitors’ figures—as seen through the panoramic elevators and within the rotating 360-degree bars on top of the building—transform the city into an image of the city: a spectacle established through the dissociation of the visitors’ corporeal perception, which is passive and controlled, and his/her visual perception, which is addressed by means of a panoramic illusion of overview. A distanced mode of looking creates a “disembodied gaze” which, as Wolfgang Schivelbusch[2] describes, lies at the core of the historic commodification of the subject’s look into a consumerist spectacle. The usage of glass here has become an indication of a crisis in classical visibility: it formulates a rather dystopian vision of transparency in that it obscures more than it reveals.


This text from Jameson was written in 1984. It marks a pivotal point in establishing a critique of Modernism by identifying central paradigmatic shifts in culture by means of using architecture as a medium for the analysis of a general shift from Modernism to Postmodernism. Critique in architectural discourse--which previously dealt mainly with issues of semiotics and sociological approaches—has shifted towards addressing visual perception and a conception of culture focussing predominately on images and representations.  


By attributing to glass the capability of creating distorting effects on human perception, Jameson calls into question seemingly deeply embedded “truths” of Modernism which manifested themselves, for example, with a call for lightness, openness, and the breaking down of the boundaries between inside and outside.




[1] Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism; Duke University Press; Durham; 1992; p. 413

[2] Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization and Perception of Time and Space; University of California Press (February 6, 1987)