‘Architects always seem pretty uncomfortable with feelings…’ Interview with Richard J Williams

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Interview text first published in Building Design, August 2013

BD: What made you want to write a book about sex?

There is a quite an intellectual history to it, I suppose. The first piece I ever published on architecture (1996, I think) was about photography, and I was aware then that architecture could have rather bloodless quality. I had a fat file of quotations by architects complaining about “people” in photographs. Architectural photography has changed quite a lot since them but there’s still a general problem around the body, unless it’s highly abstracted.

I did some more thinking about the problem in 2004 in the book The Anxious City, which argued that the kind of civilised urban life we being offered by Richard Rogers et al was oddly desiccated. It seemed to cut out all the stuff that makes us human. I spent a lot of time in Brazil around then, and the next book Brazil (2009) explored the way that country seemed to provide some alternatives.

They certainly seemed to have an idea that modernism and modernity could be sexy, rather than utilitarian. In practice, I’m not sure what it means. I don’t think Brazilians necessarily have sex more than the rest of us. But sexiness is an important part of the natural myth, and it runs right through architectural practice. It seemed obvious after that to do a book on sex. Of course there was a mercenary aim too – I thought people might actually want to read a book with ‘sex’ in the title.

BD: How much of the book is based on your personal experience?

Quite a bit, as it happens. I developed my architectural interests at the same time as moving to Edinburgh. In a short period, I was married with kids, settled in a comfortable corner of the city and a professor at the university. There’s a photograph of my street in the first chapter.

A lot of growing up had happened in that period, and inevitably kids, and work, and life in general displace sexuality, or it gets sublimated into work. My wife and I reflected on it a lot, as did everyone we knew. It’s a classic human narrative, intensified these days by the fact that we live such bloody long lives.

The twist in my case was the city. Edinburgh’s a fantastic city, but it’s socially very conservative. It tends to wear its morality on its sleeve, and that morality is more clearly built in stone than anywhere I can think of, certainly anywhere I’ve ever visited. In the bourgeois city, the domestic architecture represents a sexual morality with real clarity.

People really do keep rooms for “best”, ask you to RSVP, and invite the minister round for tea. And they really do tell you off if they think your behaviour isn’t up to scratch. There’s remarkable pressure to keep up appearances. As a result, it’s got a remarkable number of psychotherapists, who spend most of their time dealing with the fallout. Dig below the surface and it’s a screwed-up place. I really started to understand Freud in Edinburgh. It sometimes feels like you’re in his Vienna.

There’s one other thing in the background. I lived in Manchester during the 1990s, a brilliant time to be there. I did most of my drinking on Canal St, which was very educational… Apart from all that al fresco sex going on round about, it really showed how a different approach to sex might change a city. It really felt like I was witnessing some kind of liberation.

BD: Can architecture limit procreation? If so, how?

That’s a very good question! The straight answer is no. Buildings can’t stop people having sex any more than they can stop them breathing. But buildings have always been put up in the belief that they can limit sex. I’m not wild about Foucault, but his History of Sexuality is good on that question. He talks about the design of schools and hospitals and prisons, the physical separation of the sexes and so on. That idea will always be with us in some form. I’m sure we’re due a revival in schools. I think it’s nonsense, of course, but there will always be folks who believe in it.

BD: Do you think modernism – rectilinear forms, clean lines, classic proportions and so on – can be sexually repressive?

It depends where you live, and when.

I had an office for years in Basil Spence’s David Hume Tower (1963) which of itself didn’t have any sexual connotations. But it’s remarkably like the modernism you get in the centre of Brasília, and those buildings are somehow easier to understand as erotic. It’s the climate, partly. But it’s also the sense of a city created de novo which has an eroticism all of its own. There’s still a sense that anything is possible there. In Edinburgh, anything modern happened against enormous resistance.

In the States, Mad Men  is brilliant at showing how a Miesian office building can be eroticised. In many ways, Mad Men is the most important piece of American architecture of the last ten years – it’s an amazing piece of work. And it’s not even a building.

BD: You have a chapter dedicated to communal living which sounds pretty grim . But isn’t co-housing the most sexually progressive form of housing?

I do believe that co-housing has the potential to let people have the sexual lives they deserve. One of my favourite books is Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity. She repeatedly argues that sex is profligate and wasteful – it ‘loves to waste time’. Well, if that’s the case, you need to find ways of making time for it, and it seems obvious that shared facilities and labour would help. Then co-housing can provide all sorts of facilities that are normally out of range.

Swimming pools, for example. I often think if we all had access to a decent outdoor pool where we lived, we’d all be better off. But co-housing is very difficult in the present climate when housing is an investment. If it wasn’t. I’m sure we’d be more inclined to experiment. The funny thing is we all accept co-housing on holiday – resorts based around pools and childcare and so on. I’d happily live like that all the time if it were actually an option.

BD: Did you visit any buildings outside the UK for your research. If so which?

I think most of the research was done outside the UK for the simple reason that most of the ideas about sexuality and space seemed to have been explored elsewhere (that might be different if the book had been about the contemporary situation – the UK has changed). The key buildings were American. There IS a big chunk on California, the work of Schindler and Neutra in particular, and then the Case Study houses.

I also looked at a few big public buildings there. The cover is the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in LA by John Portman, who proper architects tend to loathe, but I really admire. Playboy’s attempts to imagine a modern town house were important too.  America IS important because that was where our (western) ideas about sex were most enthusiastically developed.

BD: What’s your view on the smaller homes we’re building – is this going make people cuddle up or have the opposite effect?

I’d suspect it’ll have the opposite effect. If you go back to Perel again, her idea of sex as an inherently wasteful force suggests that you need space, room to play. Efficiency is a bit of a turn-off, especially if it’s the only concept in play. The UK has some remarkably small living spaces now. It might be worth comparing our recent experience with that of (say) Spain, which had exactly the same problem in the 80s and 90s.

I lived in Madrid, 1990-3. The pressures on space did (anecdotally) seem to produce some inventive use of public space, but also a hell of a lot of frustration, and family conflicts. All my Spanish friends hated their parents. One useful outlet was the love hotel, just like in Brazil and Japan. Madrid had quite a few. You know, rent a room by the hour. They’re an excellent idea. If I had the money, I’d set up a UK chain without any hesitation.

BD: Could the concept form follows emotion take off?

I like that. Why not? It might re-engage the client. After all, talk to people who use buildings, and all they want to talk about is how buildings make them feel. Architects always seem pretty uncomfortable with feelings. They shouldn’t be; they’re all we have as human beings.

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