Leaves of Glass

A glimpse inside the contemporary American workplace finds a solitude eerily reminiscent of Edward Hopper.

Jay Chiat, the legendary adman behind Chiat/Day, had a passion for developing workplaces. He dreamed up and built many fabulous utopian spaces that failed in practice. He once told me that, even for the most creative people, offices and work spaces eventually boiled down to two details: providing a way to look outside and supplying a place for displaying cat pictures. “It’s all about the cat pictures,” Chiat said. “It’s something I learned the hard way.” It was a frustration for a man who abhorred the generic and loved working free of constraints in one-of-a-kind spaces.

Like the black Ford Model T of yesteryear, today’s urban workplaces come in only one color: one of a kind. A mass-produced illusion of nonconformity is now the industrial brand of the American workplace. Offices have become stacks of boxes for people who get paid to think out of them. They’re factories for making to-do lists, writing ­e-mails, and uploading quarterly reports. These office spaces are increasingly indistinguishable from urban residences. In some homes, office work happens in every room because electronic devices for generating doc­uments and staying connected can in­vade any space. In today’s megacities, built to accommodate the roughly three billion new people who have joined us in the past five decades (it took thousands and thousands of years just to get to two and a half billion in 1950), we aren’t addresses as much as nodes on a network.

Today the wide, deep canyons of the 20th-century industrial city are overgrown and backfilled—not with trees and weeds but with more city. Postmodern hyperdensity has replaced the majestic ornamented density of stone Deco spires and wide-shouldered glass boxes. From the ground, megacities have trouble conveying a distinctive skyline. Shape and texture are best appreciated from the air. From the foreground, sheer density trumps all other qualities. Viewing a city like Chicago or Hong Kong from its rooftops is like zooming into a digital image until it shows the eye only distortion. The more you look, the less detail you see; similarly, the urban dioramas behind office-tower glass yield little about the lives inside, no matter how long or how closely you look. Urban workplaces are but pixels in a vertical landscape of windows and mullions stacked like mass-produced posters or rolled out like industrial fabric. Looking through the porous skin of a contemporary city, you want to believe the cat pictures are in there, but you can’t quite find them.

The photographer Michael Wolf has documented this extreme density in a body of work that picks up where his celebrated images of China over the past decade left off. His new book, The Transparent City (Aperture), grew out of a year as the artist-in-residence for U.S. Equities Realty, a high-powered commercial real estate firm in Chicago. He was given access to numerous rooftops in downtown Chi­cago, where he set up his camera and long lens to capture images of humanity stacked in rows and columns. He shot at dusk, when interior lights begin to merge with exterior lights—in that moment when it’s unclear if a building is vanishing into darkness or about to glow white with the incandescent energy of the night shift. He deliberately chose what he calls a “no-exit composition,” where the eye never leaves the overlapping building surfaces. There’s no way to find a comforting horizon that might give the building some context. “You can never go off the building surface and find the sky,” Wolf says. “I make these images so that the only escape is to peer into one of the windows.” This creates an odd mix of modernist texture and powerful voyeurism when people can actually be seen inside working and going about their lives unaware of a camera.

Wolf’s work feels authentic, but it’s also surprisingly provocative, as though his scenes were staged. “Edward Hopper was my inspiration,” he says, recalling the painter’s famous voyeuristic freeze-frames of urban America from an earlier time. Wolf insists that his photos are completely candid and that they share Hopper’s interest in architectural detail. His images of Chicago’s cylindrical Marina Towers, which is something of a landmark residential address, convey an oppressive urban density and at the same time an intense nostalgia for a vision of the future long gone. “They look like rockets from comic books of the 1930s,” Wolf says. “I love them.”

There is much not to love here. It is frightening how utterly homogeneous the workplaces and even some of the residences seem in this context. At least the dehumanized factory floors of a century ago conveyed a diversity of function. The steel mill can’t be confused with the meatpacking plant or the typewriter-assembly factory. But here one has no idea of what goods or (more likely) services emerge from these cub­­icles and boardrooms. The situations are rendered in high resolution but lost in a wash of windows that suggests there is no way in. The eye wants to scale the building and smash through the glass, but the mind is forced to imagine the elaborate steps it would actually require to find the room where any of these people are. By the time you ran down to the street and took the elevator up to the floor to find the boardroom, the meeting around the table would have been long adjourned. Stopping time like this conveys remoteness, not the usual intimacy. Each individual human form and face feels alive but completely ephemeral. As in Hopper’s work, these faces and people cannot be saved. We can only yearn for their redemption from afar.

These offices are familiar—we’ve all been in such places—yet they still convey an exotic industrial gothic of the remote and inaccessible. In one image, three identical floors couldn’t be more different, but the dark­ness of one empty floor, the sparse stacks of drywall and carpet rolls (apparently part of a renovation in progress) on the top floor, and a brilliantly lit con­ference room (with a meeting actually under way) on the middle floor feel like the pupal, larval, and adult stages of a butterfly caught in the wild. Wolf’s telephoto lens captures people with perfect clarity, yet the imagination can still barely conjure what is going on. All we can say is that they’re sitting around tables, conducting meetings, or staring into space. “There was a lot of boring stuff, endless standing around doing nothing.” Wolf began to wonder about the viability of places where so little productive work seemed to be taking place. “One of the things I loved about this project is how, the longer I watched a window, or the more magnification I used, the less information it yielded about what was going on.” There were two exceptions. Once he was excited to find a woman standing with her bare back to the window. Over the course of an evening, it became clear that she was not a woman at all but a cardboard cutout placed in the window. Another time, he stared at a man looking out of a window only to realize suddenly that he was giving Wolf the finger.

Some of the strongest images in The Transpar­ent City put wide-angle rows of windows next to cropped human forms printed at extreme magni­fi­cation, where the distortion itself becomes another kind of window. The faces are disembodied, separated from humanizing bobble-headed dolls and other familiar desktop detritus. One pixelated man swings a putter on a carpet. The comforting cat pictures are lost in the blur. There is a full page of lit offices that are all nearly identical: 12 random floors of eggshell white, computer screens on brown desks, and wall-hung bookshelves. This iden­tical conformity is frightening. Wolf seems fascinated by the idea of the window as a barrier. Beyond it, we can learn nothing about the people inside. Perhaps the windows themselves ultimately represent a kind of bar code denoting work as simply the negation of leisure. People have become their own cat pictures, a meaningless inventory of random lives, completely unique and utterly gen­eric at the same time.

In the end, these pictures end up conveying the world of exposed privacy that office workers live in every day. With headphones on or cell phones dialing, they can be seen at the center of their individual orbiting distractions. You hunt these images and ask yourself why these lights are on and these other windows are dark, what these peo­ple are listening to, and what she might be saying. There is sadness here on both sides of the glass. As with the somber portraits of an abstract yearning in Hopper’s most famous paintings, we stand outside the frame watching and hoping for a tender word or a simple human touch that never comes. In the end, the transparency is opaque.

Recent Programs