The glass and steel facade of the United Nations Secretariat Building in New York—a fragment of which occupies the center of this gallery—embodied the ideal of a transparent architecture. The image of the glazed UN tower as it rose on the east edge of Manhattan in 1950 was also meant to communicate the aspirations of a transparent institution, an intergovernmental organization that would be guided by ethical principles and unafraid to “expose” its inner workings.
Architects and artists engaged with the aesthetic potentials and symbolic pitfalls of transparency throughout the 20th century. Acutely aware of the loss of privacy that glass buildings brought about, many of them investigated the sense of voyeurism and the threat of all-encompassing surveillance of the individual. Others mobilized the multiple meanings of transparency, often using it as metaphor to uncover hidden power structures and demand accountability from institutions—from privately owned museums to multinational corporations.