Voyeurism in Architecture


* This article was written by Maria Flores, The Archiologist Founder

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the word voyeurism is defined as "the practice of obtaining sexual gratification by looking at sexual objects or acts, especially secretively." 

When does voyeurism play a key role in architecture?

I am going to be exploring the conditions found along the Miami Beach Urban Escape: There are so many displays of affection and intimacy found along the streets of SoBe, that even a visitor might find attractive or a past-time to start looking at. "We kiss each other hello and goodbye. Don't get nervous. It's a Latin thing." - Frances Robles, Miami Herald.

Strolling during the day or night through the streets of South Beach can be an interesting thing to do. In fact, many families and tourists visit SoBe only to see the crazy things individuals do along these streets. Especially Collins and Ocean Dr. Things such as men dressed in bikinis dancing on the street to drunk women with their nipples out, beautiful and luxurious cars parked just outside Versace's mansion to old cars imported from Cuba just outside the next door Cafecito Cubano coffee shop. So many things to see that people start to "voyeur."

The truth is that everywhere we go, architecture creates spatial relationships that helps us watch without being watched. Some spatial relationships that are not supposed to have these effects in the first place but are used by people to explore voyeurism. It is particularly interesting how Miami Beach has brought about a culture where the public can be passive to the voyeuristic situations and where people want to be watched. A place where there are situations in which a person's vulnerability is greater than another's but where it is more often than not, not frowned upon the community to WATCH/SEE but where it is revered instead.

To study voyeurism in the city, it is important to know who is the object, the person that is being caught in the action, the "voyee." The voyee is the person that is the most vulnerable at the moment and that through the use of "anonymity" will never find out they were being watched in the first place. It is through anonymity that the voyeur allows the object to be viewed/watched without being seen. It can be a screen, a wall, a column, or any element set up in the oblique direction. Why the oblique? Because when you watch someone and don't want to be noticed, we tend to see them from the corner of our eyes, almost an oblique instance. a 45 degree angle that makes us look as though we are looking straight so that others don't feel threatened by our sight.

It is in the most common domestic situations where we tend to use the act of voyeurism. Through personal intrigue and a bit of attraction. When we see any type of disturbance in the night such as couples fighting or the next door neighbor walking drunk to his apartment. When the gaze is turned to the nearest window or the street outside. This is where the desires to know what is happening come to play. It doesn't have to be a sexual desire, it can be a curiosity to understand what happens in your surroundings. Everyone has them, at some point in their life, a person has become a voyeur. It is an instinct and it feels safe. However, the other person also feels safe, in the comfort of their own homes or surroundings: the walls and windows are compacted in their own space, they believe they have a distance from the outside world, but these elements (windows and doors) are acting as the screen. Elements where the voyeur can see the voyee from.

Going back to the real location of Miami Beach, there is a street in between Collins Ave. and Ocean Dr. by the name of Ocean Ct, where the buildings, be it residential or commercial, have windows all towards this alley. So many activities happen in this alley - anything from innocent walks home from the beach or vice versa as well as dumping out the trash from the nearest apartment or restaurant to illicit activities such as drug trades and prostitution. All the windows around this alley can see everything. The person doing the act, however, is not aware they are being watched. Although there are many security cameras along this alley, the place still feels like an Orwellian nightmare: always being watched with a very mysterious output in the atmosphere.

It is important to understand this interaction between architecture and urban life. There is a very fine line along the two. When studying the relationship between voyeurism and architecture, we can understand that there are different types of viewing. Viewing such as observation and surveillance have an effect on the design of the architecture. For instance, the alley's primary function is not to be used as an observatory watch tower, however; the type of architecture that CAN be placed inside of the alley though, can have those types of effects. For example, creating an architecture that is curved, with weaving pattern-like elements and columns, will give many advantage points to the voyeurs. A type of architecture where you can survey other people from a vantage point that allows the voyeur to view the others but without being seen themselves. A parallel line that makes the voyeur a "secret" and a part of the architectural elements close by (walls, columns, light posts, etc...)

Another realistic voyeuristic instance that is found in SoBe are on top of the bars and clubs overlooking the alley. The roof terraces that act as an intermediate level between two floors. Where the person is not really on floor 1 or floor 2, but more like floor 1.5. These types of mezzanine levels and voids that are surrounded by circulation are tools for shoppers, tourists, clubbers and bar-goers, to watch. Unconsciously, people who are not in these mezzanine levels are aware of the others above them, but with the crowd, music, and distractions completely forget to look up to see the others staring down at them. At this moment, the voyeur has complete control of the situation and can stare for long periods of time to a defensive voyee. This floor 1.5: the half-level, will become the "secret", the screen of anonymity. Other elements such as bridges connect two buildings together and the worst of them all, windows, bring about the fear of being watched.

This alley in SoBe has something special to it. I have noticed that as people walk through it, they walk fast in long strides, or while listening to music, or looking suspicious/looking at all sides nervously. Could be because they are hiding something/but also because they have a fear of being watched by something they cannot see. The alley is full of windows and doors, but more importantly, window blinds and curtains that are a tad open, meaning that there has been a voyeur watching from the high skies before. It is the absence of something we cannot see that projects our fears onto architecture and onto buildings and situations. In this case, the narrow 14-ft alley. It is a mental psychosis that comes over individuals. Even during the day, the alley looks mysterious and shadowy. Since buildings are around 3-4 floors in height, certain parts of the alley do not get any sunlight at all and have semi-opened doors and creaking from the upstairs window. During twilight hours people would be the most vulnerable, it is as if they start turning blind and as the night sky darkens, the objects you make out to be inside of the property turn malignant and the sudden flicker of light scares the living hell out of you.

My recommended film for this type of act would be Rear Window, by Alfred Hitchcock. An instant classic for those who voyeur and feel guilty of it. But in conclusion, architecture does play an important role in the act of watching and being watched. Architecture sets the stage for such actions to occur. It is extremely clear to me that voyeurism cannot occur without architecture, but more importantly, architects must be aware of these elements. Because creating a certain type of space can also vary during day/night but it can also bring fear to individuals. In any way, our unconscious minds as young learners or architecture must have this in the back of the brain, to create rich and interesting urban spaces and scenarios. Our experience of the city is very important in how we perceive situations and moments, so it is an important technique to acquire and understand: voyeurism in architecture.