Review of ‘Sex and Buildings’ in Architecture Today

Republished from Architecture Today.

‘Sex and Buildings: Modern Architecture and the Sexual Revolution’ Richard J Williams Reaktion Books, 224pp, £25

Sex and the city

Cranks, creeps and control freaks populate a study of architecture’s erotic drivers, finds Philippa Stockley.‘In 2003,’ says Richard J Williams in his new book, Sex and Buildings, ‘Cabinet Magazine, a respectable academic journal, held a competition to find the world’s most phallic structure, the winner being an 1890 water tower in Ypsilanti, Michigan, known locally as the Brick Dick.’ A thrusting phallic tower: there’s a surprise. But the necessary part on tall towers is a mere sliver in a study that makes a very thorough fist of exploring twentieth-century connections between sex and buildings. From psychologists to modernists,communards, hippy free-thinkers, novelists, and film-makers, there’s a big cast, plus queer-space makers, hotel designers, feminists and –of course –architects. Williams disarmingly accounts for his interest (whichmust be the reader’s too) by saying that when he started researching, he was suffering ‘a sex-obsessed mid-life crisis in a part of Edinburgh [Morningside] that felt like a prison.’ The book’s early chapters look at psychologists: professional or self-appointed. A dash through Havelock Ellis, Margaret Mead and Alfred Kinsey, with a nod to Le Corbusier and the Modulor, comes out at ‘Dr’ Philip Lovell (real name Morris Sapperstein; real title ‘Mr’). LA-based Lovell wrote a column on healthy living, and became friends with architects Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra. All three had strong ideas about living and sex (Lovell thought masturbation was triggered by constipation). Schindler’s own Kings Road house (1911) is one of the earliest examples of indoors-outdoors modernist living, with sleeping balconies and promiscuity built in to the two-family open-plan design. The Schindler marriage soon broke up. In 1929, Neutra built America’s first steel-framed house, for Lovell celebrated in the film LA Confidential as the home of posh pimp Pierce Patchett. Neutra’s obsessive design process was confessedly psychological to the point of intrusive. In his own house he lived like a spider, aware of everyone’s activity in any part of the building: ‘There was no darkness, no mystery, no place to hide.’ The next loon we meet is Wilhelm Reich, inventor of the ‘Orgone Accumulator’, a person- sized box in which, immured in darkness, one was supposed to have intense sensual experience, rather than a screaming freakout. However, as Williams writes with relish: ‘Reich was brought down as a fraud by the FDA in 1955. He was jailed, his books burned.’ The author notes that his study is one of men; men with controlling ideas about how people should inhabit space and how it should affect them, whether a box, house, office block, hotel or city. He looks at the failure of set-ups designed to facilitate male-oriented fantasies of living that, generally, combined lifestyles set around plentiful free love, with women doing the cooking. As he says: ‘Men build and women inhabit the results.’ Some of those results have been unequivocally sexy and successful, such as Lautner’s Elrod House (1968), immortalised by James Bond in Diamonds are Forever. Others, such as the Farnsworth House, in which the client feltexposed by curtain-less windows, less so. The fact that much sex certainly happens within structures that inspire,facilitate, or even enhance it has led to pioneering buildings such as John Portman’s Regency Hyatt Hotel in Atlanta, with its soaring scopophilial atrium, as well as novels such as Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and TV series likeMad Men. One is left to deduce that women’s idea of an ideal sexual space may be more enclosed and private than the flamboyant, open, outdoorsy fuck-pad of a heterosexual male. Nevertheless, that female trope is here too, in a wistful communard’s letter to her husband: ‘All I want is a bit of simple, personal happiness. I long for a quiet cornerwhere we could be together undisturbed.’

Philippa Stockley is a critic, writer and painter. Her novel A Factory of Cunning, a sequel to Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liasons Dangereuses, is published by Littlebrown. 

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