Thru’ These Architects Eyes


Thru’ These Architects Eyes.
Thru’ These Architects Eyes (live, 1995).

Effect before everything.

Philip Johnson.

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).

54 Responses to Thru’ These Architects Eyes

  1. humanizingthevacuum says:

    This and “Strangers When We Meet” are my favorite tracks. This one is a marvel: those crushing riffs (Gabrels and Alomar at their best, each doing completely different work), those beautiful synth pads undergirding the “It’s difficult, you see” section, the architectural lesson that 20-year-old HTV appreciated.

    • col1234 says:

      yes–this was a bit of an odd, digressive entry, so to be clear: this is one of the latter-career Bowie masterpieces for me.

      • Cansorian says:

        I’ve been waiting patiently for this one, as I couldn’t agree more, this song is an absolute masterpiece. Not sure why it never got the attention it deserved, it’s just amazing on every level. I especially like the way the vocals move from desperation in the first half to anger in the latter section. That and Gabrels’, Armstrong’s, and Garson’s playing really give this song a sense of motion so you so you feel as though you are “Stomping along on this big Phillip Johnson”.

        Great write up for a well deserving song.

      • CosmicJive says:

        Hey Chris you might want to add this to the vids. Its a video of Bowie in the studio watching Kevin Armstrong recording his parts for the song. Its very short but features some nice alternative lyrics:

      • Rob Thomas says:

        A wonderful write-up of a brilliant song. You make it look easy, Chris.

  2. Jasper says:

    Somehow I always heard it as Stumbling along on this big Philip Johnson, and really liked that. My favorite on the album. Great write up thanks.

  3. gcreptile says:

    This piece of writing is a revelation. It’s so impressive what you managed to discover in this song.
    I agree it’s a good one. There’s so much going on, Bowie’s exhaustion, the riffs, the piano… The way you describe the city and its buildings reminds me of the video for ‘Jump They Say’. The metaphor of a broken building to represent the failed concept of te album – fascinating.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I think an influence on this song may be Ayn Rand and in particular her “architect” novel The Fountainhead. Her philosophy of objectivism may be a lesser known influence on DB than Crowley’s but its emphasis on the ego is in some ways similar.

    • Michael says:

      Please, God, no. I can’t live in a world where Ayn Rand and David Bowie are in the same sentence (damn! I just did it!).

      • Mikael says:

        “Someone to lead us, someone to follow
        Someone to fool us, some brave Apollo
        Someone to save us, someone like you”
        I like them both, Ayn and David, and the song is not only one of best on 1.Outside, but one of the best of all of his songs, imho.

      • fluxkit says:

        Strongly agreed, I’d prefer to not hear that name associated with DB.

      • julian says:

        Listen to some interviews. Bowie doesn’t consider himself an idol to be worshipped. He hates that suggestion. He see’s rock star as his job and he’s serious about doing the best job he can. He gets up early and creates great stuff, experimenting with new techniques and using other great craftsmen and women in the field. They get paid. He clearly doesn’t care what others think of his output, otherwise he’d still be Ziggy. He doesn’t sacrifice himself or his work for others. For proof you can listen to Brian May talk about the arguments between him and FM over Under Pressure. Also look at the way he dispatched with the Spiders form Mars. He does his work for himself and we are all better off for it. If that’s not a description of a Randian hero I don’t know what is.

      • julian says:

        And surely you must know that the lyric, “I think about a world to come, Where the books were found by the Golden ones” is a reference to Ayn Rand’s novel “Anthem”?

    • King of Oblivion says:

      I think not.

  5. Anonymous says:

    We are not what we are. A young DB watches Quatermass and the Pit and discovers we are all Martians. We know where that led him.

  6. Michael says:

    Wow. Thank you! My favorite track on the album, but it always left me wondering.

    Looking forward to Earthling on the Dame!

  7. Diamond Duke says:

    But first…I Have Not Been To Oxford Town (the great David Bowie single that never was)!

    To be sure, one of my favorite songs from Outside, as well as from Bowie’s entire “late” period (let’s say from ’95 to the present day). A brutally killer, yet bedazzled and delirious musical groove which, true to the lyric, stomps along (but with such finesse, mind you!). And once more we get a Bowie vocal at his most artfully histrionic. And very informative as per your usual, Chris! I don’t think there are many other blogs about rock musicians out there which contain mini-essays on modern architecture!

    BTW, I always heard that opening vocal chant as “Digging for gold and that’s the goal and that’s the goal”, not “We’re living in the golden age, the golden age”. But I suppose either works!

    • col1234 says:

      I think you’re right about “digging for gold.” Still, as you said, same ballpark as “golden age”

  8. s.t. says:

    Another fabulous vocal performance. You know, as happy as I am that Bowie’s let himself be nasty again on The Next Day, there’s no song there that comes close to the best vocals on Outside. It makes me a little worried/sad that such feats are no longer possible for Mr. Jones. But, it has to happen some day. At least he’s making tunes well suited for his voice, unlike poor Whitney Houston, who really should have shifted her style to something grittier and bluesier.

  9. Maj says:

    Great post, great song. Funnily enough even though I’m always curious about things in songs I never bothered to look up those two guys (I don’t care for modern architecture much), so this was a very interesting read. Thanks Chris!

    • Maj says:

      When I say great song I mean one of my favourites on the album/the 90’s/ever when it comes to Bowie. Just to be clear.

  10. Sofa Head says:

    Another great write-up, which more than does justice to a fabulous song. I don’t feel the need to qualify it as a later-period Bowie classic. It’s a Bowie classic, full-stop.

    Perhaps he didn’t add an apostrophe to architect simply because he couldn’t decide where to place it? (Architect’s? Architects’? Nah, I just won’t bother…). I do prefer your more-poetic explanation, though!

  11. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    In one of the many reviews of the V&A Exhibition that I’ve read, somebody described Bowie as being like a walking Google search. Certainly over the years he has referenced musicians, painters, writers and philosophers, and now even architects. This is certainly one of my favourite songs on my favourite post-Scary Monsters Bowie albums.
    The music contains the same awe-inspiring sense of grandeur that one would experience looking up at the soaring architecture in one of the world’s great cities. The (infuriating) fact that it, like Outside, and most of Bowie’s 90s/00s work, was completely overlooked by the tastemakers in the music press, confirms the often repeated notion that most people don’t look up in the city anyway.
    Incidentally, when this album came out, I was working in a mind-numbing Public (Civil) Service job that I absolutely hated, and the line, “It’s difficult to give up, to leave the job, when you know the money’s from day to day”, really resonated with me.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Fab article. Pedant’s note – just to be be helpful: You can’t see the South Bank (with capital letters) area on the south bank of the Thames from anywhere near the Millennium Dome.

  13. Mother says:

    Best song on the album. Great review as always.

  14. Momus says:

    1. Aha, you’ve embraced my favourite style, numerical asyndetism (a series of numbered speculative propositions not necessarily connected or cumulative in any way, but thought-provoking)!

    2. The bitchiest piece I ever wrote about Bowie was about why the house he was building in upstate New York “wouldn’t be by Bow Wow”, and lamented that DB seemed to embrace “chintzy hotel baroque” or “pomo rental villa” style rather than anything cutting-edge. (Later, film director Mike Mills was the first American to commission Atelier Bow Wow to build him a house.)

    3. The closest DB has come to being an architect was when he designed Hunger City for The Diamond Dogs tour. The skyscrapers in that set were crumbling and even bleeding, suggesting that for Bowie (as for much of the Western cinematic imagination), Modernism has always been somewhat dystopian. In films like Metropolis, A Clockwork Orange, Sleeper and Fahrenheit 451, Modernist architecture has been associated with totalitarianism, ultra-violence, injustice.

    4. Which is odd, because architecture (like design) is inherently utopian, suggesting a cleaner, better, more progressive world. Personally, I think the reason films depict architecture as sinister is a purely structural one: in a perfect world, all stories stop, and films need problems to power their plots.

    5. This song is for me very “meh”, proving that when you throw away the Verbasizer and make a relatively straightforward statement on a specific theme, the results aren’t always more interesting (or significant) than relative randomness.

    6. Sometimes bad punctuation is just bad punctuation. See the Where Are We Now? video, which misspells Potsdamer Platz as “Potzdamer Platz”.

    7. Gordon W. Bowie, bass trombonist, composer and conductor, was director of the Montgomery Village Community Band in Montgomery County, Maryland. He was bass trombonist for the Virginia Grand Military Band, Legacy Brass and other DC area ensembles. In addition, for the 1999-2000 school year he served as band and orchestra director for St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes Schools in Alexandria, Virginia.

    8. 7 was just inserted to restore the disconnectedness required of true numerical asyndetism. But now I’ve ruined it by adding 8.

  15. Steve Mallarmy says:

    Lack of apostrophe may be bad grammar but may also be a sort of art signifier – after all we have Finnegans Wake, Howards End… (not to mention Dexys Midnight Runners, Lifes Rich Pageant and I’m sure many more in the music world)

  16. Scarymonster says:

    Sorry Chris, but I’ve listened to the track on repeat several times since reading your excellent critique, having of course heard it many times over the years, and I can’t see the latter-career masterpiece at all.

    I find the histrionic vocal wearing and irritating. And musically, it sounds muddy and undercooked. Perhaps an unplugged version might reveal some hidden quality to the song – certainly, the live version is more tolerable (but totally pales next to the fantastic version of DJ). But I can’t help feeling it’s been hidden and (hitherto) uncelebrated for good reason.

    Now Oxford Town on the other hand….


  17. david says:

    As an artist lost in the mundane of making a living whilst striving to make a life-the lines “its difficult you see…. to leave a job when you know the money’s from day to day”, seemed like a brutal manifesto to me, even though they came ironically tumbling from the lips of a millionaire. He does give it some gusto though.

    Bowie the artist is such an odd dichotomy, isn’t he? Afforded as he is the critical plaudits to allow him the privileged of perusing his absolute artistic whim, and yet seeming continually in conflict with the needs of commercial acclaim.

  18. Dr. Urk says:

    Great piece, really lovely. I’d forgotten how much I love this song.

    • michael says:

      Agree that it’s a fine song, and post. The old line about music writing and dancing architecture doesn’t really warrant any comment except to say that it makes this an even better post.

  19. V Delay says:

    I agree with many others here that this is a crackerjack song. For me it will always be in the top eschalons of his best post-70s work but in many ways it’s the equal of anything in that period: the scudding guitar; the theatrical vocal phrasing; the lyrical eclipses that let in just enough light to allow meanings to unfold.

    And what a superlative analysis.


    • V Delay says:

      PS I should also say that I used to work in the Philip Johnson illustrated here (well, in the building opposite the chapel – the whole campus is by PJ). There is an excellent modernist frieze of the stations of the cross inside the chapel itself, and it always brought Bowie to mind whenever I set eyes on it. Gnosis indeed.

  20. MC says:

    What can I say, great thrilling stuff, with a vocal impassioned enough to rival Heroes and beautiful, crystalline production. Everything comes together beautifully on this one. Definitely the highlight of the second half of the album(with We Prick You a distant though respectable second).

  21. Mr Tagomi says:

    There’s a run of fine songs during the closing stages of Outside, and this is definitely one of them.

    But for me it’s missing something. In fact that applies to all those songs, No Control, I’m Deranged, We Prick You.

    I can’t shake the feeling they’re all potentially great songs that haven’t quite got there, that with a slightly different treatment they would have been classics.

    • s.t. says:

      I think a mix that brought the guitars out would help this track quite a bit. And maybe get rid of that staple trip hop beat in favor of something more supple and interesting. But I do like ti quite a lot.

    • i got the spirit, but lose the feeling says:

      “with a slightly different treatment they would have been classics”… what does it mean??? this album belongs to its epoch & has a lot to share with the mid 90’s new deal sound (bands like NIN, Portishead, Tricky, PJ Harvey…)

  22. i got the spirit, but lose the feeling says:

    “The weave of guitar tracks is a secret Tin Machine reunion—Kevin Armstrong and Gabrels, battling each other one last time.” to me not the highlight of the album but such a good song.
    My favourites from Outside are still:
    – The Motel
    – A small Plot of Land
    – Hallo Spaceboy
    – I’m Deranged
    – The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (as Beauty)
    – Wishful Beginnings
    – No Control
    – Outside….. Heat, Sleepwalkers Woman…. eh eh !!!!!

  23. Jeremy says:

    All the Outside write-ups have been so enjoyable. What we are really connecting with is a brilliant album that should be recognized as such. Thanks to Chris for doing just that.

    Since the new LP has been out I’ve been listening to Bowie’s (or should that be Bowies?) work between 93 & 03 and seeing it with fresh eyes and really enjoying it.

  24. NeilC says:

    Another small correction : This song was also partially recorded in UK at Clive Langer’s Westside studio in London. There’s no mention of it on the album because Bowie tax affairs meant he had to sneak in and out of the country.
    This unfortunate result is that I was never credited for playing drums on the track that you hear. Really annoying.
    Cheers, Neil Conti.

    • Michael says:

      Great little footnote to the tale.

      Could you tell us more about that recording session? I’d love to hear some first hand experiences.

      • steven says:

        wow late to this but I had no idea someone from one of my favourite bands ever played on one of my favourite songs ever.

  25. Greg says:

    Hello all. Like some other post-1/10 newcomers here, I’m just now starting to comment, clearly having missed the party. But if anyone’s still listening…

    First, I love this blog, as everyone has noted, and I’m reading it chronologically, re-listening to each album/track as I go (in some cases, listening for the first time, which iTunes will appreciate).

    So, Architects Eyes. Here’s my take, which is somewhat different than Chris’, largely because I’m not really convinced that the Richard Rogers here is the composer rather than the architect, nor do I think the singer/narrator is, in any way, Bowie — this is simply yet another character, a poor city-dweller with big dreams and no payoff. He’s wandering the city — getting away from his miserable summer scum hole of an apartment and his low-paying job — and viewing the city through the eyes of the men who created it, the successful men, the winners. He sees the city in its majesty, through the eyes of the men who built it. Thru the architects’ eyes (note my apostrophe).

    The rather brilliant twist comes in the second verse, when he is watching the city no longer from the street, but from the top of one of these buildings. Perhaps he’s a construction worker, literally stomping on a Philip Johnson, watching the city from a girder on this tower of Babel. Like Quasimodo, he’s likens himself to a stone boy, a gargoyle and he looks down on the street below to see the people, the “rings of flesh” circling the great buildings, and he believes he could be every bit as great as Johnson and Rogers, but his dreams will lead nowhere. He’s a worker stuck in a tedious life, even as he sees the world through what he and he alone knows are an architect’s eyes (note my apostrophe).

    So there are three architects in this song, even if one can only daydream about it resentfully. No apostrophe needed.

  26. chi70 says:

    I Have Not Been To Oxford Town is indeed beautiful but Thru’ These Architects Eyes is powerful, it reaches a very deeply hidden place inside, it strikes unspeakable chords

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