Watch me watch you

People living in glass houses accept this: They're part of the scenery.

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.

From their second-story terrace, they can wave at the teeny-bikinied woman wrapped in a boa constrictor and the jazz musicians on skateboards. Sometimes, revelers get too loud or fast-wheelers collide on the bike path, and the Johnstons race over with a first-aid kit or call 911. But that's not too often.

"We were used to being around lots of people," says Jim. He and his wife moved from New York to a gated neighborhood in Venice a decade ago, then to their condo-in-the-vortex. "We're back to living in a community with an amicable feeling that we never got behind a gate."

Action central, however, isn't for everyone, says Noel.

"My mother can't take it and stays with my sisters," she says. "It can be intimidating, seeing this mob coming toward you. You have to be a person with a sense of humor."

Some of their neighbors left because they didn't like the exposure. One, concerned about security, hung razor barbed wire on windows. After the homeowners association took it down, the neighbor took off.

When the carnival becomes too much, the Johnstons duck behind their soundproof walls and draw the shades. They're forfeiting their front-row view, but there's a bigger payoff: privacy.

It's something we all need. Irwin Altman, a social psychologist, says every culture has mechanisms for people to open up, then close off from the community. Without these, we're stressed and anxious.

"We are social beings but we can't be in contact with people all the time," says Altman, who has written five books on the subject. "The design of the home regulates its openness and how much access the residents are permitting. You rarely walk into a home and enter a bedroom. The occupant has control."

Architect Glen Irani put this sentiment to work on Scott Burns' house on the Venice canal, which can be invaded by foot, car, boat and the occasional paparazzi-occupied helicopter. Irani maxed out the glass on the first floor but designed a low wall surrounded by windows upstairs to hide the bed.

Jeremy Kaplan also relishes his fishbowl existence, but contains it to the living room of his modern home in Echo Park. From this room, he returns waves from strangers walking their dogs or drivers who get out of their cars for a closer look.

Kaplan and others who live in pedestrian-friendly places don't want to feel secluded, says Hsin-ming Fung, a Los Angeles architect and the director of graduate programs for the Southern California Institute of Architecture. "These people like the people-watching as much as the ones on the other side of the window," she says. "It's a lifestyle."

Women, however, says Fung, may be rattled more than men by strangers standing outside and pointing or taking photographs. Men can shake it off as the price they pay for living there, while women might feel pressure to keep their home in "company's coming" condition. Women, says Fung, have grown up being more aware of being looked at and judged. "We have a stronger sense of wanting intimate spaces so we don't feel vulnerable," she says.

Irv Siegel and Leslie Seppinni live in a second-floor loft at Santa Monica's bustling Bergamot Station arts center. Siegel worked with Santa Monica architect Lawrence Scarpa five years ago to create a Soho-type loft with 20-foot-high exterior glass walls and an uninterrupted floor plan (there's only one interior door and it's a translucent glass one for the powder room).

When Seppinni moved in, she had to make adjustments that Siegel never considered: Neighbors knowing her comings and going, friends dropping by unannounced — "they can see you're home," she says — and strangers trying to follow her in the front door thinking they were entering the Santa Monica Museum of Art, a gallery or the hair salon next door.

Now Seppinni and Siegel feel that there is no other place better to live. They have breakfast with neighbors at the center's cafe, keep five types of cheese in the fridge to bring out when an unplanned party breaks out and enjoy the ever-changing scenery.

Neighbors Oron and Rebecca Kotlizky also feel at home in Bergamot Station. They were single when they moved in five years ago, but now they are married and have son, Diego; a daughter, Senna; and a schnauzer named Chucky. All are entertained by the setting.

Diego, 3, is already a practicing artist, inspired by the galleries around him. Senna, 9 months, sits in her swing in front of a tall window with a view of the complex and is lulled to sleep by the movement outside. Chucky is walked leash-free around the large parking lot when there's not a lot of activity.

Strangers have wandered into their house, thinking the toys and picnic table seen through the window are part of a gallery display or a play center for kids. But that's not enough to dim the family's enthusiasm.

"It would be tough to live in a traditional neighborhood," says Oron Kotlizky, who moved here from an apartment near Santa Monica's pedestrian-packed Third Street Promenade. "If we wanted privacy, we could hang drapes. But when we have friends over and we're sitting on the couch looking out, we watch the people outside who don't know who's looking at them."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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