Anxious architectures. The aesthetics of surveillance

‘It seems there is nowhere to hide; everything is public, transparent, visible to invisible others. The sheltering walls of privacy have been digitally dissolved.’1 The domestic realm, once the haven from public scrutiny, is now a site of a new type of surveillance in the form data – dataveillance, the monitoring of buying patterns, purchasing power and consumer profiles. Architecture, once the threshold between the private and the public realms, is eroded by surveillance technologies, constituting a new kind of visuality. Surveillance emerges as an aesthetic in almost all aspects of cultural production: from fashion and advertising to architecture and design.

Surveillance is the by-product of modernity – social organizations developed to document and regulate taxation in the modern nation state, to optimize production during the industrial revolution and to organize and administer the function of modern armies. Architecture has long structured the systems of surveillance and control. The spatial parameters of surveillance were first outlined in 1843 by Jeremy Bentham. In his model for an ideal prison, the prisoners would be housed in individual cells organized radially around a central viewing tower, occupied by the prison warden. Prisoners would be controlled, pacified and reformed by the threat of constant and uniform surveillance from the viewing tower. Bentham’s spatio-ocular invention predicated on the asymmetrical gaze, was designed to enforce obedience and illustrates the dystopian potential of architecture as a mechanism of surveillance and power.

Architecture, traditionally responsible for defining the limits of the private and the public, now participates actively in spatialization of the gaze, inviting and deploying the gaze, as well as incorporating new systems of information and control. It acts as an index of the evolving technologies of surveillance and society’s optical and spatial anxieties. The widespread use of glass by architects of the modern movement promised a social revolution through new building materials and techniques. Glass curtain walls, initially associated with transparency and revolution, became a ubiquitous urban texture, associated with bureaucracy, anonymity and surveillance. EFCO’s ad for curtain walling sets up an optical trope between the sunglasses worn by the policeman and the reflective curtain wall in the background. The optical properties of the curtain wall and the policeman’s glasses elide the two and their shared properties. ‘Strong. Reliable. Good Under Pressure’. The policeman, the instrument of surveillance and control is compositionally and optically associated with the wall. The policeman, like the warden in Bentham’s asymmetrical structure of vision, sees us, yet we cannot see him seeing. We see the curtain wall building, but not its surveying occupants. Architecture is aligned with and implicated in the systems of surveillance and control.

Paranoid chic

In fashion, Paranoid Chic is the new look. It replaces the superwaif and heroin chic. Its subjects are surveyed, distracted, anxiety ridden, glamorous and pursued. Packaged and marketed, the aesthetic of surveillance participates in the fashion system, transforming a condition into a commodity.

A Versace watch is displayed prominently on the wrist of a woman in the act of fending off an attack by a shirtless man. The image is not glossy. It is grainy, as if captured by the lazy pan of a surveillance camera. The lighting suggests a parking garage or a service corridor. Her dress suggests a cocktail party. Out of context, but wearing Versace, she’s the object of unwanted attention. Her heavy eye shadow makeup anticipates the bruises from the impending attack. Her raised elbow, her only protection, is precisely the gesture that highlights the watch. The product is privileged through the act of defence.

Fire and Ice depicts a woman in a puffy jacket staring intently to the side. The waffle concrete ceiling suggests a parking garage or an institutional building. The low level of light suggests that it is night time. The woman’s intent gaze seems to be alert, ready for an attacker or stalker. The text reads ‘Adapt to your environment. Brace yourself for the elements – urban and otherwise with the latest sportswear series by fire and ice’. The environment is hazardous; you need sportswear. The commodity is the equipment that will protect you. First buy fear. Then buy its paraphernalia.

Givenchy’s ad for its new perfume line, Oblique, features an elegant scowling woman in a parking garage. The image is rendered with the distinctive CCTV look: monochromatic cool blue and white, heavily pixilated. The structure of surveillance is encoded in the naming of the perfume line: RWD (Rewind), PLAY and FFWD (Fast Forward). The woman glares at the camera even as she seems to expose herself to it – her overcoat is pulled back revealing her bare shoulder and neck. Her gesture, suggestive of the general condition of surveillance, is at once intimate and aggressive.

The evacuated architectural contexts for these images are empty parking structures or desolate corridors. The individuals are shown alone, like in Bentham’s cells, surveyed and exposed. The emptiness and its implicit threat captures our attention and positions us as witnesses to an anticipated violence. We consume images of surveillance, even as we traverse its optical landscape, with a mixture of fascination and repulsion. The aesthetics of surveillance captivate us, incorporating the viewer in its visual embrace, highlighting the blurred zones between surveillance, voyeurism and desire.

Architectural provocations

Aesthetics of surveillance figure prominently in recent design as spaces of transgressive vision. Whereas beauty salons and gyms have long exploited the optics of mirrors and glass to create kaleidoscopic environments for multiple reflections and scopophilic gazes, the structures of vision are currently being explored in trendy bars and restaurants in New York. The illicit structures of vision function as a mild spatio-ocular provocation.

The Glass bar in Chelsea, designed by Thomas Leeser, takes the idea of ‘seeing and being seen’ to a new level, with the bar’s street frontage made up of a one-way mirror, so that people on the street can see into the unisex restroom, but the people in the restroom cannot see out. The asymmetrical structure of vision, evoking Bentham’s model, transforms its occupants into voluntary prisoners of architecturalized surveillance. The fish-bowl effect promises to reveal images of people washing and primping, and perhaps other clandestine activities. It seduces the passerby on the street through invited voyeurism. The shop front, which for Walter Benjamin was the ur-capitalist site of commodity desire, is here transformed into a late-capitalist surveillance peep show.

Diller + Scofido’s Brasserie restaurant in the Seagram Building uses the surveillance camera to strategically blur the line between surveillance and exhibitionism. Entering the bar through the revolving door on 54th Street, a surveillance camera captures your image, which is later projected onto a series of flat screen video monitors above the bar. The monitors create a frieze (freeze frame) of everyone who enters. The grainy and stylized images are displayed until new images displace them. The invasive gaze of the surveillance camera is offset by the willed exhibitionism of those captured on camera and displayed for all to see. ‘Big brother is watching’ is strategically displaced by a Warholian moment of fame – or rather exposure – ‘look, there I am’. The Seagram Building was one of the first glass curtain walls, a monument to the transparency of vision. The Brasserie, a restaurant without windows, becomes a site for a different kind of vision – a site of scopophilic pleasure of seeing and being seen.

These projects exploit a pleasure of the gaze, optically biased, televisually enhanced or stylized and blurred. They articulate the ambivalent slippages between the invasive gaze and the pleasurable exposure, the optical power structures and voyeuristic fantasies. The scopic has become a commodity and a theme – surveillance a source of mild titillation, curiosity, a social activity and cultural pastime. ‘People watching’ the sport of the flaneur is taken to new depths by the architectures of scopophilic surveillance.

Control vs. discipline

The mild architectural and optic provocations in fashion and design can occur because control is operative on other more subtle levels; surveillance takes place with invisible and low-visibility means. The mechanics of surveillance have evolved beyond the merely scopic. Gilles Deleuze argues that we no longer live in a society of ‘discipline’, as defined by Michel Foucault, but in a society of ‘control’. Conventional structures of vision and power are replaced by structures of information, credit and control. Whereas discipline privileges vision and the physical structures, control relies on the system of information, access and exchange. The society of discipline surveyed bodies, enclosed within architectural means. The society of control is made of codes that mark access to information. Bodies appear as data traces, samples or niche markets. Man is no longer man enclosed, but man in debt. ‘Enclosures are molds, distinct castings, but controls are modulation, like a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other, or like a sieve whose mesh will transmute from point to point’.2

Our corporeal presence and its image is paralleled by a structure of data, what Kenneth Laudon calls our ‘data image’. This body of information consists of statistical information, age, ethnicity, income, purchasing power, transactional information, bank deposits, medical history, criminal records, voter registration, et cetera. Digital surveillance of information makes up a kind of ubiquitous digital gaze. Transactional data is used in consumer surveillance to customize marketing and target specialized markets with direct mail and customized web sites. Personalized junk mail marketing arrives with pinpoint accuracy to target our specific interests and preferences, and web site cookies track our data footprints through particular sites, tailoring them to our data image. The data gathered achieves a density and an effect that exceeds that of our physical bodies.

Design for fear

Surveillance is so pervasive and its effects so subtle that they are incorporated subconsciously into daily life. Architecture incorporates information technologies even as those very technologies erode its spatial effects. Architecture today functions as an armature to the systems of security and defence. Equipped with the latest information technologies, the new aesthetics of surveillance manifests itself in ways both subtle and overt. Architectural elements such as optical turnstiles, fingerprint recognition and key cards regulate the flow of access within a building. In Deleuze’s terms, ‘what counts is not the barrier, but the computer that tracks each person’s position – licit or illicit – and effects a universal modulation’.3 The physical barrier and the intelligent system are deployed within a strategy for security, integrating measures into design and implementing plans in the event of a crisis.

Since the IRA bombings in London in the early 1990s, many financial institutions have implemented ‘business continuity services’. In case of a terrorist attack, fire or flooding, employees would rendezvous at a different location, a ‘hot site’, located in a nondescript location, usually outside the city.4 The alternate sites are equipped with work stations, telephone lines and data terminals to maintain business operations through a crisis. Anticipatory design builds in contingencies for the most extreme situations, creating a duplicate, remote and anonymous proxy architecture. The new generation of buildings for sensitive tenants will constitute a Stealth-like fleet of innocuous buildings, trading anonymity for security.

Federal Plaza in San Francisco, designed by Della Valle + Bernheimer, incorporates new security concerns into a sophisticated architectural language that camouflages its security measures with defensible design. Replacing concrete barricades, the plaza design is made up of a faceted landscape of angular planes of hardscape and plantings, incorporating seating and lighting. The spatial configuration of the plaza is broken up into discontinuous surfaces to encourage movement and discourage public gathering. Designed shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing, the architectural brief dictated a design that both solved pedestrian and handicapped accessibility issues, while preventing vehicular incursions. The folded landscape elements function like the battered walls of a medieval fortress, providing an architecturally integrated design and a defensible perimeter to the building. The plaza design employs geometry strategically to camouflage its security function, smoothing out the boundaries between security brief and formal style.

It remains to be seen what effects September 11 will have on architecture and culture as a whole. Architecture played a critical role in the attacks, as a port for the jetliners, and as the structure of the target. Structural and material properties of buildings are being reassessed in light of previously unthinkable events. Cesar Pelli’s 88-storey IFC2building, under construction in Hong Kong, is supported by eight 3m x 3m mega-columns. In order to ease tenant anxieties about the safety of high-rise buildings, the client commissioned studies to simulate the structural robustness of the mega-column scheme. Engineers have previously employed computer simulations to assess the damage to a vehicle in a crash situation with a stationary object such as a lamp post or roadside barrier. New impact modelling techniques simulate the inverse – the impact of a 4.2 ton jet engine on a structural member such as a structural column. A building’s physical robustness is suddenly held to higher standards and extreme forces, beyond gravity earthquakes and wind.

After the anthrax attacks in Florida, New York and Washington, new measures are being sought to prevent the use of a building’s mechanical system as a distribution system for a biological attack. Computer simulations of bio-terror attacks map out potential scenarios, and full-scale bio-terror drills are used to test the response capacities of the emergency units. The range of measures that could be applied include: separated mechanical zones, positioning of intakes, quick-closing dampers, HEPA filters, negative/positive pressure zones, and air sterilization.5 A biological attack employing existing mechanical systems would amount to an architectural hijacking, employing our building technologies against us.


In the aftermath of September 11, the basic mechanics of architecture and surveillance are called into question. The debate surrounding the societies of discipline or control, posited by Deleuze, is rendered obsolete. The proliferation of images and information has resulted in a surveillance paradox – data saturation precludes its effective implementation. The low-tech, high-concept attack proved how vulnerable our systems are. Sophisticated surveillance and information technology could not deter the hijackers, equipped with primitive weapons and a fanatical ideology. Unbelievably, six months after the attacks, the Immigration and Naturalization Service mailed visas to some of the very individuals who had perpetrated the worst terrorist attacks in history. The societies of discipline and control, for all their structure and technology, failed spectacularly. In our surveillance saturated society, there is much too much data – too much feed.

As a society of surveyors and surveyees, we have developed a mass psychology of anxiety and uncertainty – a collective neurosis, simultaneously scopophilic and scopophobic. Cultural artefacts like advertising images and architectural designs incorporate and manifest the new aesthetics of surveillance as a new cultural condition. Fashion has appropriated the visual elements of surveillance as a style to seduce the viewer/consumer. Architecture incorporates new spatial anxieties and optical relationships, highlighting the fact that surveillance and control are inherently architectural issues. The prevalence of the aesthetics of surveillance signal a new cultural condition – saturated with data, fraught with uncertainties, visually and spatially anxious.

Architectural responses to the new aesthetics of surveillance are varied and uneven; no new strategy has emerged as a cultural dominant. Instead, the new condition is characterized by a proliferation of strategies: camouflage, decoys, proxies and dissimulation. The Darwinian process of architectural species selection will force architecture to evolve in response to the new increasingly hostile and uncertain cultural and geopolitical climate.

Eric Höweler
1 David Lyon, The Electronic Eye, The Rise of Surveillance Society, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1994.
2 Gilles Deleuze, ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’, October 59, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1992, p. 4.
3 Deleuze, p. 7.
4 Martin Pawley, Terminal Architecture, Reaktion Books, London, 1998, p. 178.
5 Arup Extreme Events Mitigation Task Force, ‘Life Safety – A New Perception for Owners and Occupiers’,


The architecture of suspicion (editorial)