Will Wiles lifts the curtain on a familiar sort of dispute

Art and voyeurism often peer into each others’ bedrooms. Consider, for instance, Sophie Calle keeping surreptitious dossiers on the lives of the guests in the hotel rooms she cleaned while working as a chambermaid, or Kohei Yoshiyuki’s 1971 photographs of crouching men watching exhibitionist couples copulating in a night-time park. These are two examples I have in mind thanks to ‘Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera’, a hugely memorable exhibition staged by London’s Tate Modern in 2010.

Today, Tate Modern is again probing questions of voyeurism thanks to a revealing row that has blown up between the museum and its neighbours, the shining ones who dwell in Richard Rogers’s luxurious ‘Neo Bankside’ building next door. Very next door. Earlier this year Tate Modern opened its Switch House extension, a 10-storey fortress of art by Herzog & de Meuron. It is topped by a viewing deck, and among the things you can view from this deck are the glass-walled Neo apartments, a stone’s throw away (do not throw stones). The Switch House has been an immense success, and the denizens of the Neo feel rather like animals in the zoo.

Public reaction to the plight of the Neovians has been … unkind. In a city crackling with tension over the housing shortage, those able to inhabit a Royal Gold Medallist slice of oligarchitecture a superyacht’s-length from the river Thames do not inspire immediate sympathy. It’s not often we plebs get one over – literally – the hedgies. The backlash is particularly intense because this appears to be a high-profile example of a nasty kind of row that has played out repeatedly in recent years. London’s boom has been eased along by art, culture, entertainment and distinctive architecture. These magnets draw more and more affluent people, and the property industry is adept at deploying them to wring more value from particular neighbourhoods. What sometimes happens, however, is that the wealthy newcomers then complain about the very vibrancy that attracted them, forcing much-loved venues to close or rein in their activities. The Tate’s extension has been in the works since the museum opened – and it’s the museum’s presence that has helped ladle the zeros onto the value of the Neo flats.

Why wasn't that solution more immediately obvious to the Neophytes?

The Neo-ites have some merit in their complaint. Visiting the Switch House, it is immediately striking how overlooked they are, and Rogers’s transparent apartments make ideal display cases for the (extraordinarily consistent) furniture choices of the gilded class. I can understand, as I live in a ground-floor apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows (Levitt Bernstein, 2013) and gawping is human nature. We have addressed the problem with an architectural intervention: a free-hanging light-permeable membrane suspended from a metal rail above the window, more commonly called a net curtain. And that is precisely what Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota has suggested to the angry Neons. 

Why wasn’t that solution more immediately obvious to the Neophytes? Could it be that part of the appeal of this kind of glass eyrie is that you don’t need net curtains? The whole city is down there for you to feast your eyes upon, without it looking back. We are instinctively aware of the advantages of height – it’s called a vantage point for a reason. Is it, on a subconscious level, a privilege for the few alone? German architectural historian Andreas Bernard’s wonderful 2014 cultural history of the elevator, Lifted, makes the point that in the age of stairs, the attic floors were occupied by the poor. But with the coming of the lift and the telephone, the penthouse and the top-floor office were taken by the rich, and the view over rooftops became a trapping of power, not the consolation of the desperate. Which might go some way to explain the irrational British hatred of high-rise social housing. They’re getting something for nothing! Skyline scroungers, looking out of the window when they should be looking for a job! Views should be for the few!  

Will Wiles is a journalist and author


EMPIRE BUILDERS

Some viewing platforms have the power to make the visitor very uncomfortable indeed. Many of the holiest Hindu sites in India, such as the temple of Jagganath in Puri, are off-limits to non-Hindus. The British colonial rulers of India in the 19th century had an architectural hack to get around this proscription: build an elevated viewing platform adjacent to the temple, so you can peer inside. Paternalist colonial hypocrisy, in built form.