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Subverting the Gaze


Master's Thesis: 

Subverting the Gaze: Redefining the Role of the Object

a community bath house in Jerusalem, Israel



From the moment this gaze exists, I am already something other, in that I feel myself becoming an object for the gaze of others. But in this position, which is a reciprocal one, others also know that I am an object who knows himself to be seen.

Jacques Lacan


My interest in the gaze started with Lacan’s story about the sardine can. A fisherman pointed out the can and said, “You can see that? Do you see it? Well it doesn’t see you!” He constructed from this simple conversation a whole theory on the gaze. This is where my research began, with Lacan and then Foucault. Most important to my understanding of the gaze was Lacan’s Mirror Stage Theory. This theory explains the moment of recognition of the self by the infant. As soon as the child recognizes himself as an other, by looking in the mirror, he is at once objectifying himself in order to find subjectivity. From this theory stems multiple gazes. There are gazes of longing, derived from the child’s want of oneness or sameness again, which is impossible as it would require us to not have our own identities. And there are those of judgment and control such as Foucault’s analysis of Bentham’s Panopticon and the structuring of society. Through surveillance and visibility we create docile bodies. Prisons, schools, hospitals and institutions of any kind act in this same manner. The gaze, or the knowledge that it might exist, controls people’s behavior and affects how they perceive and respond to one another.


To define it, the gaze is characterized by an intent look that has the affect of controlling and creating relationships between bodies.


We are all subjects and objects. The gaze inherently will always produce a subject and an object. And the relationship between the two is constantly in flux, switching back and forth between the participants.


Diego Velazquez toys with this interplay in his paintings, specifically his “Las Meninas”. In this painting we are looking at the princess and her court who are looking at the King and Queen, who are looking back at them and also at us through the mirror’s reflection in the back of the room. We are at one time both objects and subjects, objects being gazed at by the actors in the painting and subjects gazing back at them. This painting is very different from his previous work “The Rokeby Venus”. In the latter, we are objectifying the woman depicted in both her physical manifestation and in her frontal reflection. She is also objectifying herself, a narcissistic gaze that relates back to Lacan’s mirror stage theory. Contrary to this, “Las Meninas” creates an interesting juxtaposition of gazes that confuse the status of our role in viewing the painting and give a certain power to the actors in the scene. His work offers a critique to the traditional style of painting.


We live in an extremely visual society. “Vision, rather than a privileged form of knowing, becomes itself an object of knowledge, of observation”[1] “Knowledge was conditioned by the physical and anatomical functioning of the body, and perhaps most importantly, of the eyes.”[2] Since the Renaissance, there has been a desire for transparency. Visibility was and still is equitable to knowledge, democracy and truth. Leonardo Da Vinci examined the human body through dissections. Architects began obsessing over glass curtain-walls. The veil was lifted in order to reveal the innards.

There was, and still is a favoring of sight over all other senses and we as a society generally tend to trust our vision despite the knowledge that our eyes can play tricks on what we perceive.  This perception distinguishes differences between the habitus we know and that of differing groups.


Looking at these concepts architecturally, I began to study Loos’s Moller House and Josephine Baker House and Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. Both of these architects use the gaze but in totally radical ways of each other. While Loos’s architecture proves to be introverted and focused on bringing the gaze inwardly, Corbusier’s architecture is the opposite, extroverted, and directs the gaze outwardly. Le Corbusier once wrote, ‘Loos told me one day: “A cultivated man does not look out of the window; his window is a ground glass; it is there only to let the light in, not to let the gaze pass through.”’[3] For Loos, the subject is the stage actor in the space, experiencing the very theatrical quality of the architecture. The gaze in his houses, fosters a sense of defensiveness and surveillance. For Corbusier, the subject is the camera eye, the inhabitant becomes incidental in the architecture and only his trace is left in the photographs. His constructed gaze is one of recording and registering the surrounding landscape. “If the window is a lens, the house itself is a camera pointed at nature. Detached from nature, it is mobile. Just as the camera can be taken from Paris to the desert, the house can be taken from Poissy to Biarritz to Argentina.”[4]

Like Velazquez’s play with subject and object relationships, Loos’s houses achieve a similar interplay. In the Josephine Baker House, relatable to “the Rokeby Venus”, the glass pool in the center of the house puts her on display to her guests. There is a skylight that reflects upon her and the water so that she not only becomes an object of her visitors’ gazes but also of her own gaze looking back at her in the reflection on the glass. The four glass sides of the pool act as an interface for which the gaze exists. Similarly, in Loos’s Moller House, the lady of the house, in her “lady’s room”, has visual access to the rest of the house but at the same time is put on a stage where an intruder can clearly see her. However, more like “Las Meninas”, he creates a theater of gazes that, in turn, objectify her but gives her the ability to survey, making her the subject to objectify and scrutinize those that enter her realm.


Throughout my thesis year, I tried to understand how the gaze manifests in space and in different spatial configurations. I started by looking at different “built” arrangements and moments of visual confrontation.

My initial studies explore how angle, curvature, materiality, and multiplicity affect this manifestation.

Through drawings and modeling I have tried to understand the existence of these confrontations between bodies. Simple moves and alterations from the standard co-planar, perpendicular spaces affect how a body might respond to a surrounding environment and how bodies can confront each other in these environments. Similarly, how these different spaces come together affect our relationship with how we navigate through their sequence.


I first began to take these concepts and apply them to a human scale prototype, which led me to the design of the Gaze Subversion Helmet (please see tab above for more information).


Architecture plays an enormous role for the gaze, it can either allow it or subvert it.

Our visual and transparent society fosters an environment for the manifestation of all these aforementioned gazes.


Since we live in such a visual society, one overloaded with glass towers and virtual worlds and identities such as facebook and instagram, I am drawn to the idea of subversion of the gaze.


I have looked into ancient and medieval cities that achieve this subversion to a degree. The labyrinthine arrangement of these cities and the narrow passageways allow for particular lines of sight to be formed or disrupted.


It is also interesting to consider how religion in these medieval cities plays a role in their structuring. Because of the tradition of women being veiled in Islam, there exists a literal veiling achieved by the architecture in these ancient cities as well as by the traditional clothing. Narrowing and widening of streets, cloistered neighborhoods and courtyard housing allow for the woman to pass unseen by men, stranger to her.


Therefore, drawing on this research, my thesis question is: how do we bring awareness to the gaze’s manifestation and from this, how can we create architectures that toy with the different nuances of visibility and our perception of space and surrounding bodies? How can we use this to break from preconceived notions of habitus or cultural identity that are informed and strengthened by the gaze’s totalizing existence? By denying the gaze, its reappearance has a more thought provoking value. By denying visibility, our sensory experience changes. We are able then to not rely on our sense of sight and instead turn to the other senses in order to understand our existence in space and our relationship to others.


The gaze facilitates judgment and control between bodies. Particularly, it is dominant in a city like Jerusalem, where I have chosen to site my project. The cultural, political and social tensions manifest a society of surveillance. In this society, it heightens these differences and creates barriers between cultures and groups of people. It is active in the markets and streetscape of the old city and plays an important role in distinguishing neighborhoods and religious and cultural groups. While this thesis is not about religion or cultural conflicts, it addresses these issues by virtue of the fact that these various cultures rely on the gaze to separate and distinguish themselves. The religious culture of the area amplifies the experience of the gaze or the fear of it.


Specifically I have chosen to bridge the old city with the new, situating the project at an intersection of several neighborhoods: the Arab neighborhood, the Hasidic neighborhood, the “secular” new city and the “old city”. It exists on the hillside adjacent to Jeremiah’s Grotto and the Garden Tomb, submerses under the Arab market place and extends under the old city wall with a few peek-a-boo moments into the old city.  Adjacent to its subterranean portion is the Zedekia Cave, a stone quarry from the time of King Solomon, which has, ironically, been used as an auditorium, another theater of gazes. Also, important to note is the dividing boundary of the 1949 Armistice Agreement, which acts as a border condition between culturally different neighborhoods.


Much like ancient Roman baths had the ability to bring people of all classes to one social condition, this project- a community bath house- seeks to attract a diverse user group of people from the surrounding neighborhoods. Unlike most other social settings and public spaces where the gaze plays the strongest roll, this project’s procession diverts, displaces and redefines the gaze allowing for a full sensory experience and multiple sensory interactions that would foster an environment free from “the controlling gaze” and these preconceived notions of different cultures.


This project intends to disorient the user. It creates a procession that will largely deny the gaze but then reorient the user at moments by allowing it. By depriving the sense of sight, the other senses can take charge, making one aware of a. the inability to see at particular moments and b. the acute qualities and perceptions of the other senses- allowing one to experience the space and the other people without the judgment of the gaze.  By pinching, skewing and swerving the path, the user must navigate fully aware. By creating moments where users can see others going through parts where from they have just emerged, the space creates solidarity. This thesis is interested not only in the individual’s response to the architecture but also in how these bodies encounter one another and how the architecture can direct and influence these encounters. While the architecture remains constant from one visit to the next, the bodies that navigate it make each experience unique. In a way it becomes a spiritual procession, culminating with a pool to pass through, which also has religious and spiritual undertones referencing this purging or cleansing, and then reemerge into the real world with the hope that this newfound awareness is carried out there.


The programmatic procession consists of the textured entry that transitions into a smooth surfaced area and a gradually increasing heat that complements the program of the removal of clothing. This is followed by a heavily steamed tunnel, which opens up to the first of the two pools, a hot pool- the first “public plaza” of the building. After this the user goes through an area of dry heat and materiality change and then a heavily textured “ravine” signifying the upcoming decent.  As one begins to descend, the temperature transitions from the heat of the higher elevations to the cool of the lower elevations. The space tightens and twists and leads the user through the sound-scape. This space relies heavily on the initial drip sounds that escalate to the full on waterfall sounds and is coupled with a mossy soft-scape, totally contrasting the rougher and textured surfaces of the previous zone. After, an area of cool mist first subverts the gaze and then opens it to the cool pool atrium. This atrium acts as another “public plaza” in the building but also invites the gaze of those occupying the ground above the building, with one of the peek-a-boo moments. The user is then taken through the showers, wind tunnel and then is directed to the final ascent up the grand exit.

This building is largely about its experiential qualities and the conditions of the body in space and how it can relate to other bodies in space.


I have drawn inspiration from projects like Antony Gormley’s Model and Blind Light installations, Diller Scofidio and Renfro’s Blur Building, Peter Zumthor’s Therme Vals and Jorge Silvetti’s Tower of Leonforte. What they all have in common is denying visibility through different means so that moments of clarity are heightened. They disorient so that orientation becomes more valued.


Similarly, the idea of the labyrinth is to disorient. Not to be confused with mazes, which are intended to lose the user, a labyrinth provides a straightforward path but disorients via the twists and turns. A labyrinth is the starting point of my design strategy.


For this project, the major components of materials are texture, light, shadow and water. There are moments where one is able to walk blindly but rely on textured walls to lead the way, or moments where the sound of water gives the user an idea of depth of space. For reorientation, light dances across specific points of the path and peek-a-boo moments allow for the user to get an idea of his or her point along the path.


It becomes a space where the gaze is subverted in order to dismember judgment and control, aspects common to our society of surveillance.


[1] Jonathan Crary, “Subjective Vision and the Separation of the Senses”, “Techniques of the Observer”. Techniques of the Observer, On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. MIT Press, 1990. 70.

[2] IBID, 79.

[3] Beatriz Colomina, “The Split Wall: Domestic Voyeurism,” Raumplan versus Plan Libre. 010 Publishers, Rotterdam. 2008. 32.

[4] IBID, 46

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