Watch me watch you
People who live in fishbowl houses almost dare you to peer in. So go ahead, be nosy. They're cool with it. And guess what? They're peering back.
Jeremy and Michell Kaplan survey their Echo Park neighborhood from their glass living room. The appeal of such houses is both internal and external, experts say. (Iris Schneider / LAT)
A couple talking inside their loft apartment in an arts complex in Santa Monica are watched by gallery-goers as if their picture window were a flat-screen TV. A Hollywood Hills bachelor absent-mindedly moons hikers when he walks from the shower to the kitchen, past floor-to-ceiling glass doors. Party guests along the Strand in Hermosa Beach struggle to deflect the lusting looks of outsiders spying frosty pitchers of margaritas. "When's dinner?" they hear with every new crowd wave.
It is, says a Newport Beach resident, like living in Disneyland.
The perks of inhabiting a scene are the view — of water, hills, lush urban life — and the parade of people drawn to it.
The flip side to being in a glass house: Passersby can see you snoring in the recliner, sneaking a spoonful of ice cream from the freezer, arguing with your spouse.
The fishbowl home, where it's really easy to look inside, is becoming more common as buttoned-up cottages buffered with frontyards are being replaced by glass-paneled homes that press up to the property line. Meanwhile, the people peering in have become even more curious about what goes on in these houses, say behaviorists who study those on both sides of the window.
Even if it were illegal to stare inside someone's home from a public area — which it isn't — we'd still be compelled to do it. And if there is action on the other side, our pace slows down. What are they doing? Eating? Wearing? Do we like the architecture? The artwork? The dog? We make split-second "American Idol" judgments with Simon Cowell smugness.
But it's not our fault.
Homeowners who don't shield themselves or their possessions from us want us to look, says Sam Gosling, a psychologist working with the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Stanford. They want us to be impressed with their window dressing and for us to know they have status, affluence, taste.
"They didn't put those objects there because they had no other place for them," says Gosling. "The message people want to send is best described this way: Learned, sophisticated books are usually displayed in rooms where guests can see them. Trashy novels are hidden in the bedroom."
How else to explain homeowners who beckon us to look inside by styling their front rooms like those in home magazines and blasting them at night with vanity lights that rival a Hollywood makeup room?
Neighborhoods of Craftsman houses — from Orange to San Jose — have dining tables in the foreground that are set with vintage crockery and linens as if guests were on their way. A condo on a marina in San Francisco draws eyes away from the water with a big, glinting statue of Buddha. A home near the sand in Manhattan Beach has a speck-free motorcycle on display as if it were a showroom floor.
"I never get the sense that they don't like us to look," says June McKinney of Aliso Viejo, who gathers decorating and gardening tips during her weekly two-mile strolls around Balboa Island.
"I start off looking at the water but find my eyes going toward the houses, looking to see what's new, what they've torn down, what they've built," she says. "When I stop in front of the houses the owners are friendly and say hello."
To some homeowners, however, the invasion is too much. They retreat from their front rooms to small-windowed dens in the back where they can scatter the newspaper and eat takeout from the containers. Or they learn to ignore the human chain dragging by their porches. But it's hard to muffle the caffeinated conversations of dawn joggers and moonlight walkers. Or the fact that bikes, surfboards and furniture are pinched from patios. Hand-painted signs stuck in flowerbeds that read "Where Doggy Goes Flowers Won't Grow" can't keep sniffing pets and their owners away.
But despite the noise, the traffic, the reluctance to linger in the living room in pajamas, they stay.
That's because dwellers of show-it-all homes aren't bothered by revealing moments, says Allison Arieff, the editor of Dwell, a modern-design magazine that celebrates glass, acrylic and all things transparent. She says people who live in fishbowls pay the premium because they enjoy interacting with strangers.
"They know what they're getting into," says Arieff. "It's definitely a sort of reciprocal voyeurism."
On warm days and weekends, strollers, skaters, tandem riders and vendors stream by Jim and Noel Johnston's condo a toe away from the Venice Beach boardwalk. But they don't care. They're willing to share the sunset, sand and setting with the nonstop whirl.