‘Homeowners Enraged by Human Nature’ image

‘Homeowners Enraged by Human Nature’

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London, for those of you unfortunate enough not to live here, is basically one enormous building site. The skyline is not so much punctuated by as scribbled over with cranes and scaffolding. New ‘iconic’ buildings are popping up all the time, and one of the latest to be completed is the extension to the Tate Modern.

One of the art gallery’s new features is a viewing platform, offering visitors panoramic views of London. Unfortunately, it also affords a fantastic peek into the £4.5m apartments next door. Residents, some of whose floor-to-ceiling windows are just 20m/65ft away from the viewing platform, have been disconcerted to find themselves the latest exhibits on show.

Nick Serota, Tate’s director, said:

People purchasing those flats were in no doubt that Tate Modern was going to build its new Switch House building and the character and uses of that building were widely known. People purchased with their eyes wide open.

Personally, I’ve never been a fan of the modern fad for homes entirely made of windows. Daylight is great, and I’m very thankful for the views from my new house, but it has always struck me that the downside of quite so much glass must be that others can see in, just as much as you can see out. Sadly, the buyers of these posh flats didn’t think that through.

The thing is, people are nosy. I’m nosy. I had no desire to visit Tate Modern before I read this story, but now I can’t wait to go.

When travelling around London, particularly in the evenings, I love to ride on the top deck of the bus. Why? So I can get a glimpse into the infinitely varied homes and lives of people along my route.

On holiday or at the weekends I enjoy visiting historic homes. They don’t have to be of anyone famous, though of course many of them are, I just want to see how total strangers lived.

As a species, we are fascinated with ourselves, sometimes literally: be honest, when you first used Google earth, you looked for your own house, didn’t you?

I haven’t studied other species extensively, but I don’t think any of them spend their leisure time watching each other. Sure, they observe to learn skills and information (like bees watching each other’s dances to learn where the good pollen is), but they don’t just watch for the sake of watching.

We, on the other hand, have made it an art form. We are under scrutiny all day long, and children growing up in the age of Facebook often find their every milestone – from the 20-week scan before they were born – shared online for all the world to see. I read last week that an Austrian teenager is suing her parents for “for infringing her right to privacy” because they refuse to take down the 500+ photos they have posted of her since her birth.

And here we find one of the great paradoxes of human life: we desire both to know and be known, and to keep our privacy. We build and buy homes clad entirely in glass, then complain – often vehemently – when others look through that glass. We scrutinise our friends, neighbours, colleagues and celebrities, but are deeply hurt if we find that we have been the subject of gossip.

What’s going on here?

I think we were designed to know one another as we are fully known – think of Adam and Eve in the Garden, naked and unashamed. Think of Jesus, who knew the fears and motivations of every person who came to him. He knew the full life story of the woman at the well, yet instead of feeling exposed and vulnerable, she felt deeply known and profoundly loved.

I think our desire to conceal our true selves is a direct result of the fall, and I think our desire to pry into the privacy of others is a warped version of what we should be.

As CS Lewis famously said,

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. (Mere Christianity)

If we long to know one another, is that a hint that one day we will? Will we know without judging and be known but not judged? It seems likely.

In the mean time, those who live in glass houses should invest in curtains.


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Image credit: Steinar La Engeland (cc)

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