Two New Reviews

Two new reviews of Sex and Buildings, courtesy Building Design and the Daily Telegraph. 

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Designing fantasies. An offbeat analysis of how 20th–century architecture has liberated our libidos tickles the fancy of Keith Miller

Keith Miller

Sex & Buildings: Modern Architecture and the Sexual Revolution
by Richard J Williams

If we were to personify publishing houses as our predecessors did republics, rivers and so on, Reaktion Books would be a groovy former–polytechnic lecturer with a beard, accoutred in beret and polo–neck, nodding along to a free–jazz set. There’s a lot to be said for the house’s output, and a certain amount to be said against it. Well designed and finely produced, their books offer characterful, often offbeat essays in art history, cultural theory or the snappier end of philosophy. Only they can, and often do, achieve the distinctive feat of being at once obscure and glib.
For these reasons, I wasn’t expecting much in the way of jouissance from Sex and Buildings. A dour theoretical tract hiding, I assumed, behind a thigh–flashing title; an assault on my innocent right to take pleasure in my environment, a bucketful of jargon. I was surprised. It’s all those things (to some extent) but in this case, the tutorial is interwoven with personal reflections and recollections that make the project more coherent, as well as more humane.
Kicking off with the endearing revelation that the book was triggered by a midlife crisis in Morningside, Edinburgh’s notoriously purse–lipped southern suburb, Richard Williams unrolls a brisk summary of the 20th century’s attempts to liberate our dreams and desires through design.
To take the domestic arrangements of small human groups in isolation from the broader social goals identified by progressive architects of the period is maybe to narrow the scope of inquiry a little; but then architecture is an impossibly wide discourse to start with.
Not many architects anyway get to design a whole city or change a whole culture.
You’ve got to be willing to play the long game – to change the world, one open–plan living pod at a time. Our tour begins in California, where Rudy Schindler and Richard Neutra built houses for quack physician and amateur bodybuilder Philip Lovell, and other forward–thinking patrons.
In these houses the fluid arrangement of living and sleeping spaces, reflected – and facilitated – an elastic attitude to marriage. From here we hop across America to the “Orgonon” complex in Maine, where the Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, fired up with the early Soviet Union’s experiments in communal living (of which Lenin was not a fan), set up shop in the Forties. There’s a rather melancholy photograph of what I take to be Williams sitting in one of Reich’s “Orgone Accumulators” – boxes that supposedly allowed one’s libidinal energies to build up, with wide–ranging benefits.
Subsequent chapters investigate hippie–type communes such as the Grateful Dead’s ranch at Olompali near San Francisco (a five–year–old Courtney Love is photographed here on the cover of the Dead’s Aoxomoxoa album – look how well she turned out) and a semi–legendary community known as Drop City, the main sensorium of which was a Buckminster Fuller–inspired geodesic dome of a kind one often sees on posh campsites.
There’s a chapter on the “phallic skyscrapers” of New York, and one on the “pornomodernism” of the Seventies. All are well stocked with pop–cultural collateral, though there might have been more – Neutra’s “Health House” features in LA Confidential, as does John Lautner’s Elrod House in Diamonds are Forever; and Mad Men is played out against an impeccably “phallic” backdrop – but Lautner’s Sheats–Goldstein house is more germane than any of these, thanks to a guest slot as arch–sleazeball Jackie Treehorn’s pad in the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski (another Lautner house, the Chemosphere, also serves as Troy McLure’s pied–à–terre in The Simpsons).
Indeed, it’s in the nature of the subject that there’s always more that can be said – Richard Rogers’s house in Chelsea has, or had, an open–plan platform where everyone had to sleep together.
n the middle chapters there’s a certain confusion between the broad church of Freudian phallic symbolism, which extends to things like hats, overcoats and even the number three, and what you might call the Looking like A Penis sense of the term – though obviously several skyscrapers are both.
But Williams is right to pick out a certain doleful refrain through these failed utopias.
Partly, it’s the patriarchy’s fault: “The truth is, this so–called sexual revolution was something made up by guys and for guys,” said one Drop City resident; another asked why women had to do all the cooking. The guys might have made headway on the first part if they’d applied themselves to the second.

Copyright: Telegraph Group Ltd

Book Club Review: Sex and Buildings, Richard J. Williams

17 September 2013 | By Jon Astbury

Sex and architecture have long shared an uneasy relationship. Considering it is architecture that defines where, how and when we have sex and how we physically define and express our sexuality, there is very little in the way of serious discussion on the subject. It is frankly, as Richard J. Williams states in his new book Sex and Buildings, “odd”.

In a bold study spanning the 20th Century, Williams goes looking for answers to the questions that evaded Freud and others and continue to evade us today. Or perhaps we are simply not looking?

In Morningside, Edinburgh, we are told, there is no sex- “Sex, the joke went, were what you carried coal in”. Whether Williams’ self confessed and sex obsessed mid-life crisis had coloured his view or whether Morningside was indeed actively working to destroy the sex lives of its inhabitants, provided the basis of much of the book: ‘What exactly is the role of the built environment as far as sex and the libido is concerned?’ The analysis falls into three distinct modes – the psychological, the social and the cultural. Despite each carrying the risk of countless digressions, the deft choice of case studies maintains a fast pace that is more concerned with asking than answering, and this is exactly how such a topic should be approached.

The introduction gives a brief look into the extensive existing work on sexuality, from the repressive nuclear bourgeoisie lifestyle to the gradual transformation of sex into what is seen today as practically a human right. Through works by Havelock Ellis, Auguste Forel and others, architecture makes an appearance, yet it is normally through wide accusations that rely on nonexistent objective evidence. Avoiding this determinist trap, Williams work is approached almost as a study of personalities and cultures rather than the architecture itself, and there is certainly an interesting variety of personalities here.

Richard Neutra and Rudolf Schindler create the perfect bridge between the psychological to the sleek, hygienic steel and shotcrete ‘pads’ of the 20s and 30s. Both architects shared a close relationship with the self-confessed quack ‘Dr’ Philip M. Lovell, whose column Care of the Body promoted a virile and pure lifestyle. Such strict views on human behaviour soon found a home in the International Style aesthetic. Fast forward to the 1970s and these pure modernist creations are completely undermined by the rise of what Williams terms ‘Pornomodernism’, almost solely due to visual representation in films and photographs. A backdrop for everything from Playboy photo shoots to James Bond wrestling with Bumpy and Bambi in Diamonds are Forever (John Lautner’s Elrod House, 1968), we are left with the sobering thought of what Neutra himself lived to see his architecture achieve: “There, a house with a distinctly libidinal dimension in its design was the frame for much of its existence of the most dysfunctional marriage imaginable.”

The values held by the likes of Lovell all take on an even more explicit spatial dimension when we are introduced to Wilhelm Reich’s Orgone Accumulator, a completely unerotic box, barely big enough for a person, designed to condition the libido. Despite the Reich Foundation despising comparisons with the ‘Orgasmatron’ from Woody Allen’s 1983 film Sleeper, it is hard to imagine such a space being anything other than parody. Again Williams shows us the naivety of these attempts to control the libido shot down by an increasingly open view on sex in popular culture. That being said, anyone willing to spend a few thousand on Orgonics can find out for themselves.

So much for the architecture of the early 1920s but what of the architectures that attempted to cope with developing sexual attitudes? These prove to be just as unsuccessful, with ‘free love’ in hippy communes like Drop City – whose Fuller-inspired domes saw a Ballardian transformation from liberation to dystopian hedonism – simply amplifying the problems sexuality was facing in the outside world. With Greenham Common Woman’s Peace Camp we see such a devolved, ‘foul mess’ that Williams questions if not all architecture has a duty to contain the libido, perhaps becoming too obsessed with manipulating and controlling it.

Gradually these attempts at ‘sexy’ architecture seem increasingly seedy and unerotic. One can perhaps forgive the purity of Neutra and Schindler’s temples to the body, but by the time we are introduced to the shameless theatricality of Lautner’s Sheats-Goldstein house the architecture’s attempt to be erotic falls into the realms of try-hard. Despite all of the glamorous scopophilia of Neutra, the confused eroticism of Portman’s Western Bonaventure, the prosaic runnings of the Japanese Love Hotel – even Michigan’s ‘Brick Dick’ water tower – humans and their sexual lives simply adjust and make do. Even Morningside, it is revealed, hides a rich variety of sexual lives behind its repressive exterior, more so than any place one outwardly views as a libidinal paradise.

The impression we get from ‘Sex and Buildings’ is that almost any attempt to make a building sexy results in the complete opposite; analysing, preparing and catering for the erotic destroys much of what is. In this sense Williams is careful not to over analyse and completely destroy the charm of his own case studies. They withstand the analysis untarnished as naive, bold, thought provoking and, more often than not, sexy buildings that still have much to teach us.

Jon Astbury is a Part 1 student of architecture


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