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On Exhibition

The glassy new buildings along the High Line create spectators—looking in both directions.

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The just-opened second half-mile of the High Line runs from West 20th to West 30th Streets, slicing past freshly sprouting condos and old brick buildings that once hugged a rail corridor and now find themselves suddenly tucked against the city’s newest green bauble. Public park and private residence squeeze so closely together here that they literally overlap. HL23, Neil Denari’s small but conspicuous apartment building at West 23rd Street, reaches part way over the High Line like a ruined arch on an ancient road. The park’s landscapers have fronted the building in a strip of lawn so incongruously lush that it looks like an ironic gesture: an airborne front yard for a post-industrial suburb. From the boardwalk, you can almost stroke the rippling steel skin of the façade. The apartments’s glass walls sidle up so close to the park that passers-by could practically read a magazine over a resident’s shoulder.

The High Line is a watcher’s Eden, a sequence of startling vantage points. The new segment offers a look down a silent alley behind a former factory, where a pair of smokestacks looms. An outdoor parking lot with auto lifts puts its elevated cars just barely out of reach as traffic on Tenth Avenue lurches by below. Seen from the bench seating, the greasy auto-repair joint on West 26th Street resembles a quaintly realistic backdrop for a drama about West Chelsea in the days before the High Line made it chic.

As the industrial relic bloomed into a landscaped public amenity, it also reinvented the home by the elevated tracks. Once, the Third Avenue El rattled past tenements, yielding stroboscopic glimpses into households resigned to the noise and the fleeting intrusion. Now, across town, pedestrians brush by luxury pieds-à-terre. Just as the voyeur and the exhibitionist need each other, so High Line and HL23 are joined in an intricate symbiosis. The park created the market and shaped the form of the building, which rises from a tiny plot and mushrooms asymmetrically as it goes up, held in balance by diagonal steel braces. The building is an attention-seeking container for attention-seeking people; the park ensures a steady stream of spectators.

Peeping is an honorable metropolitan activity, and so is rewarding the watchful with an impromptu floorshow. Some New Yorkers keep a pair of binoculars on the sill. Others prefer the oblique view from the sidewalk: a patch of ceiling, a crammed bookshelf, an oil painting hanging high on the wall, perhaps the occasional flamboyant chandelier. Until recently, an unspoken pact governed the relationship between spy and spyee: The first watched at a distance, unobserved; the second pretended to believe that nobody could see. Rear Window depends on the conceit that what happens indoors goes unobserved by polite society; only Jimmy Stewart’s aw-shucks earnestness saves him from being a creep.

But that premise seems increasingly antique. For years, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, MTV Cribs, and the Real Housewives franchise have led the curious into the domestic life of people whose crises are more operatic and customs more alluring than our own. Lately, the real estate business has tried to stimulate and satisfy the complementary desires of the showoff and the peeper. Gyms present passers-by with chorus lines of glistening bodies bobbling rhythmically on expensive machines. The High Line and HL23 face off at close quarters, and each is both a balcony and a stage, where audiences watch each other perform their lives of preening leisure. These days, it’s almost rude not to stare.

Glass homes are not novel, but in New York they (and their owners) have acclimated to density. Half a century ago, California modernists perched minimalist mansions above unpeopled ravines, Philip Johnson set his Glass House down in his Connecticut estate, suburban architects turned picture windows toward quiet cul-de-sacs, and Mies van der Rohe opened his wide-windowed apartments in Chicago toward the vastness of Lake Michigan. This widescreen transparency does not seem ideally suited to Manhattan, where the public and private realms rub together so promiscuously. But the High Line expresses contemporary culture’s ambivalence towards privacy in architectural terms. Tracking software, e-mail monitoring, and identity theft have raised alarms online; in the real world, the Standard Hotel markets itself as an exhibitionist’s playground. A few blocks away, Shigeru Ban’s newly completed Metal Shutter Houses face West 19th Street demurely, receding behind balconies and veiling themselves with perforated metal screens. But at the back of the building, the bedrooms, walled in floor-to-ceiling glass, nuzzle the side of Frank Gehry’s IAC headquarters, giving the staff some potentially exciting lunchtime entertainment.

Residents in glass-skinned apartments can always lower the shades, of course, turning a monolithic façade into an irregular checkerboard of clear and opaque panels. You could see that grid as a map of society’s conflicted feelings about reticence and display. Some people continue to protect themselves from scrutiny; others send risqué self-portraits flitting from phone to phone, or at least enjoy the benefits of advertisers’ keeping track of their shopping habits.

If New York has embraced the architecture of exhibitionism, it’s partly because some city dwellers are already accustomed to broadcasting their intimate lives by a variety of low-tech means: sidewalks, fire escapes, buses, stoops, and flimsy walls. The soundtrack of the city has always been made up of scorching insults and loud sex, tender exchanges and screaming fights. Meanwhile, the shadowplay of intimate life, even when it is visible, remains incomprehensible from the outside. Every evening, my neighbors install themselves in their see-through boxes like the ladies of Amsterdam’s red light district, but they do not generally engage in public orgies and glamorous soirees. Instead, they spend hours cuddling their laptops. For all I know they could be indulging their taste for extreme raunch, embezzling billions, praising Bin Laden, slandering siblings, or hacking into my e-mail. Floor-to-ceiling windows, it turns out, are a highly effective scrim. I can study the specimens who live across the street, yet looking at them tells me nothing. Their privacy is intact.


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