Effect before everything.
1. Reeves Gabrels urged Bowie to scrap a revision of “Hearts Filthy Lesson” that had a lyric about English landscape painters. An undeterred Bowie got his art history piece onto Outside anyhow with “Thru’ These Architects Eyes,” where he name-checks the architects Philip Johnson and Richard Rogers.
Johnson was an American Modernist: the man who imported the International Style to the US in the Thirties, the man who built a glass house in a Connecticut suburb. The British Rogers savored interiors: take his Centre Pompidou or Lloyd’s Building, where the “guts” of the building, its pipes, elevators, gas lines and cables, form a barricade against the street. By the time Bowie wrote this song, Johnson and Rogers had entered the red giant phase of their careers, forever winning commissions, being flattered for worn-out designs, their buildings seemingly cropping up everywhere you looked in a Western city.
Bowie may have recognized a fellow traveler in Johnson—a brutal aesthete who was dedicated to his whims. Johnson’s biographer Franz Schulze wrote that Johnson’s “genius was that of a singularly gifted harlequin who forever changed the masks of style on his own work and conducted his personal relationships with comparable whimsicality.” Johnson had been in a Bowie song before, indirectly: recall the “Manhattoes” jumping from the roof of Johnson’s AT&T Building in “Goodbye Mr. Ed.” A building that was, according to architecture critic Carter Wiseman, “a unique fusion of aesthetic rebellion and corporate commerce… less architecture than it was logo, less work of art than hood ornament.”
2. Consider the title’s odd punctuation: the superfluous apostrophe after “thru,” the lack of apostrophe in the (apparently) possessive “architects.” The song’s title is a tiny piece of architecture. The apostrophe after “thru” ornaments that word. The lack of punctuation on “architects eyes” means to hook the eye, like a glass door that leads nowhere: you feel that “architects” should own “eyes,” but instead the two words just stand together alone, their “natural” relationship denied.
3. Bowie walks through a city, past great steel and glass towers designed by great architects for great multi-national companies. He feels like a stowaway. A city has great reserves to humble you or to drive you mad with inspiration. The character that Bowie sings here believes he’s a greater designer than either Rogers or Johnson, than any of the faceless men who had drafted the grid he walks along. Like Bowie’s old Starman, he’ll blow our minds if only we met him.
This is the Nineties. Capitalism has won out, history is over: all that’s left is a long revel. We’re living in the golden age, the golden age, as the song begins [edit: or it's digging for gold and it's the goal..."]. There’s so much galling promise lying around. The singer’s working in a job he hates but he doesn’t have the guts to quit. His cowardice makes him boil with envy: These summer scumholes/This goddamned starving life. The song is bled through with resentment. It has the clammy taste of insignificance; it’s a man cursing while he walks in the shadow of Johnson’s Lipstick Building (which housed Bernie Madoff’s office), upon seeing Rogers’ Millennium Dome blight his view of the South Bank.
4. What city is he walking in? If you take the lyric literally, you’ll need a Johnson and a Rogers within eyeshot of each other. So it’s not New York, where there are no Rogers buildings, nor London, where there are no Johnsons (one guess is that it’s Madrid, where you could look out from Johnson’s Puerta de Europa towers and spy Rogers’ terminal at the Barajas Airport). Also, Bowie is “stomping along on this great Philip Johnson,” but Johnson never designed a bridge or a walkway. Perhaps Bowie’s gone King Kong, swaying with menace atop a skyscraper.
5. “Richard Rogers” is not the architect, but the composer. The creator of Oklahoma! and Carousel is Bowie’s ally against Johnson, as “Architects” concerns Bowie, songwriter, fitfully comparing his mental landscapes, the Hunger Cities and Suffragette Cities, the Crack Cities and Oxford Towns of his own imaginings, to the concrete (a word that Bowie puns on later in the song) realizations of mere architects.
Bowie, the architect who took his cities on tour with him. This goddamned starving life: the life of an artist, insatiable, constantly having to feed on the word and to spew out new ones.
6. “Architects Eyes,” along with “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town,” is the implosion of the Outside storyline, where the anti-narrative consumes itself. Everything breaks down. See the stagehands flailing, trying to hold up the collapsing backdrops, while the cast walks off in disgust. Even the prompter’s booth is empty. “Oxford Town,” as we’ll see, is a character’s rebuttal. “Architects” is an author’s requiem for his failed work, of which he’s still defiantly proud. Bowie is like Buster Keaton in One Week, staring at the crazed house that he built by trusting to his wayward sense of direction. He thinks it’s beautiful.
7. If Bowie is the most Gnostic of rock musicians; this is one of his most Gnostic songs (see “Station to Station” for another one). A core Christian Gnostic heresy, to boil it down to a sentence, is that the world we live in was not created by God, but by a lesser being—that man is a fallen god himself, that gnosis (literally “knowledge”) will reveal this condition. This is the underground stream that fed the 20th Century. Bowie came to it through Buddhism and his obsession with Aleister Crowley. The unlocking of the self, the knowledge that we are not what we are, is the key that Bowie played in since he began writing songs, his changing costumes merely outward manifestations of this. It’s the promise he’s always offered his fans. But he was always aware of the darker implications of this promise: how the search for God within oneself can lead to the fascist will to power, the bewitching cult of mass celebrity, the Thatcherite liberation from “society” in favor of the “socialism of the self.”
Philip Johnson, who built great glass towers for capitalists to play in, had a long infatuation with fascism in his youth. He went to a Nazi rally in Potsdam and got turned on (“all those blond boys in black leather,” he later recalled). He wrote an admiring article on “Architecture and the Third Reich” in 1933 and even once the war had begun in 1939, he was still writing pro-Hitler articles for American magazines: “Hitler’s ‘racism’ is a perfectly simple though far-reaching idea. It is the myth of ‘we, the best,’ which we find, more or less fully developed, in all vigorous cultures.”
We, the best. Who else is an Architect? Ask St. Thomas Aquinas: “God, Who is the first principle of all things, may be compared to things created as the architect is to things designed.” But in Bowie’s song this is a lesser god, a poor architect. A bungler, a god who left tectonic plates to crack against each other, who condemned vast swathes of the globe to ice and desert. The steaming caves, the rocks and the sand. Note the shoddy workmanship.
8. There’s an old legend in which an architect has his eyes gouged out upon finishing his work. It happened to the designer of the Strasbourg astronomical clock, they say. Or the designer of Prague’s astronomical clock, who had his eyes ripped out upon the cathedral’s unveiling. Ivan the Terrible used a poker to put out the eyes of the man who built St. Basil’s Cathedral. None of these stories seem to be true, but they served our purpose. The designer of something beautiful deserves to be maimed for it, to be denied the chance to build something colossal for another. There’s a sadistic pleasure in knowing that a maker will never see his creation again.
9. What city is this? The man walks alone through it, barely visible when seen beneath the great structures that some other, grander figure designed. He’s estranged from a shoddy creation, which houses the strong at the expense of the weak. Is it a city he made? Is he planning another one? Mind your eyes.
All the majesty of a city landscape
All the soaring days in our lives
All the concrete dreams in my mind’s eye
All the joy I see
Thru’ these architects eyes
There’s contempt and anger in how Bowie sings these lines, a man screaming that everything he sees, even the very filaments of his dreams, have been wrought by some other power, who he resents (see Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet”: “I was born here and I’ll die here—against my will“). Bowie’s voice sounds strained in the chorus, it’s a muscular push against the song’s harmonic movement, the track’s busy arrangement of guitars and synthesizers. But there’s also pride and grandeur in his phrasing, the way he seems entranced with the bounding melody he’s written: it’s a songwriter listening to the final run-through, the happy end of a weary task.
“Architects” hangs between the bright youth of A major (the verses) and the weariness of B minor (the bridges), clashing the two keys in the chorus (the choruses closes in A major, but it’s a tentative victory). The weave of guitar tracks is a secret Tin Machine reunion—Kevin Armstrong and Gabrels, battling each other one last time. Mike Garson closes the show, ending his solo with a decelerando three-note figure that, if it wasn’t for the fade, sounds as if it would’ve slowed to an utter crawl, each note sounded alone, not linked by any melody, like the “architects eyes” of the song’s title.
10. Is there concrete all around, or is it in my head?
Recorded possibly late 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, and January-February 1995, at the Hit Factory, NYC. Only performed during the Outside tour in 1995-1996.
Top to bottom: Pedro Ramos, “MOMA, New York, November 1995.”; Richard Rogers, Channel 4 Headquarters, London (1994); Philip Johnson, Chapel of St. Basil, Houston (1992).