This gallery contains 25 photos.
1. THE WIND RISES. The last film by Hayao Miyazaki, animated by Studio Ghibli. A sprawling epic about the designer of the Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane. Humour, tragedy, pathos, the surreal – all human life is there. The aircraft are magnificently realised too, especially the huge Junkers G. 38, whose interior spaces form one of the film’s most intriguing tableaux.
2. THE EDINBURGH SCULPTURE WORKSHOP. Designed by Sutherland Hussey, and completed in 2012 or so, it’s now into its second phase of development. A collection of studios and exhibition spaces supported by a mixture of private and public funding. It’s a very, very good building indeed. Simple top-lit spaces, robust surfaces, and spaces for reflection. An undemonstrative, deeply practical building it’s the exact opposite of almost everything built for culture these days. Brilliant.
3. ADVENTURE TIME. I came to this series late, now in its sixth season. The most mindblowingly weird programme ever broadcast on mainstream TV, it’s the visual equivalent of a nitrous oxide-LSD trip. But there’s real depth to it too. Jake the Dog is one of the all-time great cartoon characters, a classic hippy philosopher in the Jerry Garcia mould. Unlike Garcia, however, he has magical shapeshifting powers, useful in uncertain times.
4. DONGDAEMUN DESIGN PLAZA in Seoul by Zaha Hadid. I have all kinds of difficulty with Hadid and co., not least the vacuousness of their theory of ‘parametricism’. However this building is a complete triumph, because for once the formal ambition is matched by the ability of the (genius) builders. A swooping, bulging, genre-defying thing, it’s both architecture and landscape.
5. WHY THIS OPTIMIST IS VOTING NO. The referendum on Scottish independence was inescapable in 2014. The vast majority of friends voted in favour, and I could see perfectly well why they might. But after a struggle, I felt I couldn’t join them. The reasons are best explained by Carol Craig in an essay for the Scottish Review. A sensitive, beautifully written essay, it was one of the few interventions in the referendum to address its psychological complexity.
6.ALBERT SPEER: HIS BATTLE WITH TRUTH by Gitta Sereny. Published in 1995, it took me 19 years to read it after several attempts. A vast, rangy book, full of digression and repetition. Once I realised it was basically Moby Dick for the Third Reich, I was hooked. What I experienced as faults first time around now seemed necessary to express the moral complexity of the subject.
7.SUBARU IMPREZA I needed a cheap car quickly towards the end of the year and found myself with an ’07 Impreza with 85k on the clock. By comparison with modern cars, it’s tinny, unrefined, and pumps out far more Co2 than it should. It’s not even very fast. But it’s built to last decades, and has an engineering integrity that few designed objects have these days. In other words it is almost the exact opposite of Apple’s i-phone, which has the feel of integrity that it, in reality, lacks. (The car, needless to say, has no USB socket).
8. ARE YOU LOCATIONALIZED? by Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan. A two-part art installation in Portree, Skye and Lochmaddy, North Uist which turned public buildings into giant cartoon characters Part of the experience was getting there, of course, but this was also robust, funny work of real quality. The Lochmaddy part was a wall painted with a cosmic scene, babbling poetry through a trumpet-like beak. ‘Look’ said a beaming O’Sullivan, when he showed it to me, ‘it’s the Master of the Universe.’
9. THE LEGO MOVIE. Overlong, flabby and the closing live action is a mistake. The opening 15 minutes is however complete genius. The theme song is ‘Everything is Awesome’ by the Canadian duo Tegan and Sara. With the accompanying scene setting in the Lego City, the sequence is simultaneously completely stupid and totally profound. I showed it to awestruck students at every available opportunity.
10. HAWKWIND PLAY THE SPACE RITUAL. A one-off benefit gig at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire for badgers (yes, badgers). An average age of 68, the band played for over three hours. According to the Guardian’s Ed Vulliamy who was also there, somehow during the night they lost all the money they raised. If you know Hawkwind, you’ll know this sort of disaster goes with the territory. But it was a magnificent occasion, every bit as convincing as the ’73 original, and only £20.
There are a few things you should know about this book. First, it is a republication of a doctoral thesis that appeared in book form in Spanish in 2010. Second, its author is responsible for the genre-defying Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era, an account of her transformational experiences under the influence of high doses of testosterone. And third, I really wish I’d read it when it first came out. But better late than never.
The literature around pornography in general, and Playboy in particular, has become very rich in recent years, especially from a feminist perspective: Elizabeth Fraterrigo’s Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America (2011) is an outstanding example of what has become, in a way, a genre – an open-minded but still principled take on something that is too complex and too popular to be simply dismissed. What Fraterrigo did was to show how Playboy had, confusingly for its detractors, no shortage of liberal character. It’s obscured by the loathsome Bunnies, and Hugh Hefner’s general weirdness, but Playboy consistently supported a right to pleasure regardless of gender and sexual orientation (…)
This book inhabits the same territory, but with the focus on Playboy’s architecture. The architecture is both real and imagined. The real stuff, the mansions in Chicago and Los Angeles, and the clubs worldwide, are familiar enough, if only in hearsay. The imaginary stuff is less well known and includes plans for bachelor pads of various kinds, incorporating designs for erotically assisting furniture. In between these things, Playboyassiduously kept abreast of architectural trends, seeing in the work of John Lautner, Charles Moore and others a vehicle for articulating the magazine’s erotic programme. Pick up any copy from the 1950s or 1960s alert to this, and it is startling how much architecture there is. It really is more Homes and Gardens than Hustler.
Beatriz Preciado has really done her homework. She goes into far more detail than anyone else on Playboy’s spatiality, exploring the mansions as well as the unbuilt townhouse with (I am sure) unprecedented thoroughness. She constantly turns up revealing details: a fireman’s pole that deposited female visitors abruptly into the downstairs level of the original mansion; Hefner’s predilection for horizontality, to the point where he and colleagues would “crawl” on all fours around office papers spread on the carpet; the presence of surveillance technology everywhere imaginable in the mansions; and, in a brilliant piece of description, the austere fourth floor of the mansion where the Bunnies slept, ate and were instructed in their trade. This last, with its description of nakedly manipulative space, is worth the price of the book alone.
Pornotopia works best in these things where details make the argument. Preciado’s feeling for architectural space is acute; she understands implicitly what matters, and how, particularly, power operates in space. She is admirably open-minded too, something she shares with Fraterrigo. To Times Higher Education readers, Playboy will now seem irredeemably sexist, where it is not simply absurd. Preciado understands, however, the threat that Playboy undoubtedly posed to 1950s American sexual ethics. Its role in turning a somewhat puritanical nation into the sex-obsessed one we now know is key. It is one of the great American stories, and Pornotopia tells it extremely well (…)
The book concludes with a fascinating coda on the difficulties Preciado experienced with Playboy’s organisation, something she shares with many, including this reviewer. Playboy, in short, wouldn’t cooperate, as usual seeing anything that isn’t hagiography as a threat. Preciado turns this problem into a strength. Revelatory of Playboy’s internal politics, it makes it more, not less, worth studying (…)
This is an edited version of a review in Times Higher Education. For the full review, click here: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/books/pornotopia-an-essay-on-playboys-architecture-and-biopolitics-by-beatriz-preciado/2016350.article
Peter Hall, who died last week aged 82 was a planner, but also one of the most lucid writers about cities in any language. I routinely give my humanities students his Cities of Tomorrow (1996), an encyclopaedic account of the twentieth century’s attempts to rethink cities from England’s industrial north, to Berlin, to Le Corbusier’s Paris, to 1960s Hong Kong, and countless places in between. Its key argument is that cities need to be thought of as dynamic regions, rather than collections of historic monuments. It was published too early to say much about China – but as an account of what has most preoccupied Western planners and architects, there is nothing better. Not only comprehensive, it’s a funny, humane book that shows planning, fundamentally, as a discipline of ideas.
Cities of Tomorrow also shows how impoverished our conversations about cities can be. In the humanities, academics (and students) tend to despair change in general, and urban change in particular – which is why in places where their influence is strong, conversations about cities tend to revolve almost entirely around questions of surface. Europe’s historic cities fall into this category, and have become trivial places as a result.
Shortly after reading Cities of Tomorrow for the first time, I moved to Edinburgh to work. I arrived on a bright late summer’s day where the Firth of Forth and its coastline described (I thought) a big, complex urban region not unlike Bay Area where Hall had a professorship during the 1980s. I was instructed later that day by colleagues that Edinburgh was in fact the Old and New Towns, and to a civilised person, nothing else mattered. Edinburgh has been disappointment ever since. That said, rather influenced by Hall, I’ve always tried to inhabit it as an urban region, living its peripheries as much as its centre, and all points in between. Perhaps one day its leaders will think along Hall’s lines, and celebrate its regional character.
In context, Hall’s most provocative text remains the New Society essay he wrote with Reyner Banham, Paul Barker and Cedric Price, ‘Non-Plan’. Superficially an anti-planning diatribe, it’s in reality an argument for freedom, underpinned by the belief (shared by all the authors) that the relatively unplanned landscape of southern California had produced a better living environment for more of its citizens than the English equivalent. After many visits over the years to California, I still believe on almost every count they are right – and I still give ‘Non-Plan’ to students as a corrective to their highly aestheticised, conservation-minded view of cities. A few of them get it every year. Most don’t, it has to be said, although they appreciate its humour and optimism, and the accompanying cartoon-like sketches.
It’s not surprising my students don’t generally get ‘Non-Plan’., for they have a lot invested in what it attacks. They hope to make lives around conservation and history, and enough of them have the wealth and connections to make this refined life a possibility. But if anything, ‘Non-Plan’’s prescription seems more urgent than ever. Those cities of the world that have wished to restrict growth for aesthetic reasons have become cities of the rich. San Francisco’s average house costs $1 million London’s real estate is so highly valued, it has mutated from housing to become a global reserve currency. That can’t be right in the long term – and slowly governments in places
where this has become a problem have started to look at regional solutions. In the UK, that means devolution of power to metropolitan regions, and the development of a series of New Towns, both policies Hall had advocated for at least 40 years. Perhaps even ‘Non-Plan’ will get another run too. In any case, Hall’s marvellous work lives on.
Paul Barker, Reyner Banham, Peter Hall and Cedric Price, ‘Non-Plan: an experiment in freedom’ New Society 338, (20 March 1969)
In anticipation of a visit to San Francisco’s Coit Tower (pictured), here are some penetrating thoughts on phallic buildings. A firmed-up, expanded version of this entry appears in the forthcoming Cultural Encyclopedia of the Penis, edited by Michael Kimmel and Christine Milrod (2015).
Phallic architecture has existed as long as humans have been building, and it continues to be built now, often on an unprecedented scale. The world’s tallest structures are widely understood as phallic ones. However the phallic tower is one of a number of distinct forms of phallic architecture: many buildings are demonstrably phallic, but they connote the phallus in different ways. The different types can be summarized as follows: (1) Literal representations of the penis: typically for the purposes of phallus-worship in pre-modern and/or non-western cultures. (2) Phallic towers: buildings understood the connote the phallus in its outward form In its proportions, it resembles the penis in its erect state. Its outline may be further bolstered by allusions (intended or otherwise) to a glans, scrotum, or even foreskin. (3) Buildings as Freudian phallic objects. Freud identified certain objects as ‘phallic’ for their unquestionable connotations of masculinity. Pipes, cigars, walking sticks, overcoats and furled umbrellas are examples of metonymically phallic objects. In architecture, steel, chrome, dark glass, and leather may similarly be construed as phallic in themselves, as well as typically exposed structures and plant of any kind. (4) Buildings with a phallic purpose. These are buildings designed (or adapted) explicitly for penile functions or use. There may be more types of phallic architecture, but these are the main categories.
Buildings that represent the phallus in literal form abound in non-western and pre-modern cultures. Among the best known examples are the large statues (‘herms’) of the messenger of the Gods, Hermes, erected all over in Greece in the 6th century BC, depicting a bearded man with an erect phallus. Herms were integral to all major public buildings. Hindu, Khmer, and Malian cultures also have traditions of monumental phallic sculpture on public buildings.
In modern cultures, the high-rise tower is routinely, and popularly understood to connote the phallus, regardless of the intentions of the architects. In recent years, technological advances have made it possible for architecture to take organic, rather than rectilinear, forms. The most striking contemporary examples include Foster and Partners’ 30 St. Mary’s Axe building (2004) in the City of London, Jean Nouvel’s Torre Agbar (2005) in Barcelona, and the Oriental Pearl TV Tower in Shanghai (1997). Rem Koolhaas’s Shenzen Stock Exchange (2013) is rectilinear in form, but has a notably cock-and-balls profile in silhouette. American towers have very frequently been considered phallic. Key examples include Robert Mills’s Washington Monument (1848-85), Harold van Buren Magonigle’s Liberty Memorial in Kansas City (1926), Halsey, McCromack and Helmer’s Williamsburg Savings Bank in Brooklyn (1927-9), and Edward Durell Stone’s Florida State Capitol (1973-7). In 2003, the readers of Cabinet, an influential US culture magazine, voted the William R. Coats’s water tower in Ypsilanti, Michigan (1890) the world’s most phallic building. Known locally as the Brick Dick, it is a smooth cylinder with a highly pronounced glans.
Some buildings are also phallic objects in the Freudian sense. Among the clearest examples are the works of the German-born architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, with their fetishistic concern for engineering precision. His Seagram Building on Park Ave, New York is not phallic in form, but its precision, restraint, and treatment of surface gives it the air of a well-cut suit. Mies was himself powerfully built, and always immaculately dressed. Interviewers often made a connection between his highly masculine physical presence and that of his buildings. The work of so-called High-Tech architects in the 1970s and 1980s had similar characteristics: see for example the exposed structure of Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano’s Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (1977) or the luxuriously polished stainless steel of Rogers’s Lloyds Building in London (1985. The architect publicly delights in stereotypically masculine machinery and engineering, airplanes and fast cars especially.
Buildings with a phallic purpose are varied. On the grandest scale – though unbuilt – is Claude Nicolas Ledoux’s Oikema (1773-9), a scheme for a ‘house of pleasure’ on a phallic groundplan to educate young men in the mysteries of sex. Entering via the schematic scrotum, initiates would proceed along the shaft to the ‘glans’, a semicircular chamber where they would be met by women employed for the purposes of sexual initiation. On a much lower level is the contemporary phenomenon of the Glory Hole, a hole bored in a wall through which a penis may be inserted, and anonymously fondled. A small scale, usually informal, adaptation of public restrooms and private saunas, it has become a staple of queer architecture. It was celebrated publicly in a 2006 exhibition at London’s Architecture Foundation, called simply Glory Hole. Other examples of architecture with a phallic purpose include the work of the British architect Nigel Coates; his installation Hypnerotosphere for the 2008 Venice Architecture Biennale included highly anthropomorphic furniture that seemed to invite penetration. Finally, Foster and Partners’ Commerzbank tower in Frankfurt includes a notorious urinal, at which the user, dick in hand, pisses over the city. The commerzbank is not only a symbolic phallus, but very nearly a functional one.
In all forms of culture, phallic architecture is widely understood, resulting in the popular naming of prominent towers (‘the erotic gherkin’, ‘Pereira’s Prick’, the ‘Brick Dick’ and so on).
Betsky, Aaron. Building Sex: Men, Women, Architecture and the Construction of Sexuality. New York: Harper Perennial, 1997.
Cabinet Magazine event, ‘Which Building is the World’s Most Phallic?’ (July 2003) http://cabinetmagazine.org/events/phallic/contest.php. Accessed online 05.23.13.
Rand, Ayn. The Fountainhead. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1943.
Williams, Richard J., Sex and Buildings: Modern Architecture and the Sexual Revolution. London: Reaktion Books, 2013.
This very readable piece by Peta Meyer just appeared in Australian’s Arts Hub magazine. It’s an interview with me about the book Sex and Buildings and some more general thoughts on sexuality and architecture. For more about Arts Hub, click here: http://architecture.artshub.com.au/ For Peta Meyer’s blog site, click here: http://www.petamayer.com/ You can also follow her on twitter: https://twitter.com/petamayer
‘Built for sex: how architecture dictates bedroom habits Looking back over the rumpled bedsheets of our lives, most of us can identify certain times when sex was better than others. We might credit the honeymoon period of a relationship, the energy of the season or a period of rude (so to speak) health. We rarely credit the style of house we choose with an upswing (or decline) in amatory fortunes but it might be time to look around. In Sex and Building: Modern Architecture and the Sexual Revolution, Professor of Contemporary Visual Cultures at University of Edinburgh, Richard J Williams, contends that architecture not only frames and houses our sex lives but also sets up an image of how we should be doing it.
‘I’m amazed families manage to reproduce at all,’ Richard J Williams says. ‘Unless the home is big enough, and supplied with enough supportive domestic labour, it’s a naturally suppressing force on the sexual drive.’ The solution may be a place to escape. Williams points to the short-stay love hotels of Brazil, Japan and South Korea where couples can couples can rent rooms for sex. Seoul is home to the ‘DVD-bang’, literally ‘DVD-room’ where couples can go and watch movies and make out in peace – wipe-down sofas and tissues all-included. ‘We could do with this kind of thing in western cities,’ Williams says. ‘It doesn’t seem to be at all seedy in Korea – just an honest response to problems of space and privacy.’
The Apartment Typically associated with Playboy magazine, the bachelor flat iconicised a form of 60s masculine consumer pleasure and desire. However, with the advent of feminist and gay liberation, as well as the move to high-density urban living, the single-person’s dwelling has become a serious alternative to suburban family life for a range of genders, sexual orientations and life stages.
The one-bedroom residence places a premium on sexual experience by reducing needless distractions. Open the door to the bachelor flat and you’re more or less in the bedroom anyway. Who cares if it’s the office and kitchen as well? Apartment living also puts you nearer the centre of the action, facilitating multiple, spontaneous sexual encounters. The relative anonymity afforded by the generic façade of the apartment complex repels messy emotional bonds. Easy access also means easy exit when the sun rises and the hangover sets in. With a quick glimpse at TramTracker, you can let your new friend know their ride is just five minutes away.
The Share House The share house is the anomaly of architecture and sex. The living room may reek of garlic, the shower drain may be filled with pubic hair and the kitchen home to cockroaches, yet it inspires a frenetic level of copulation. The share house’s multiple bedrooms and its mobile and transitory population enables polyamorous arrangements. Students in share houses may also be inclined towards experimental behaviour, and, in lieu of an entertainment budget, create their own leisure activities.
By appropriating the site of family home, and transforming it into a space which accommodates alternative financial, social and sexual needs, the share house reflects the way in which our use of space often precedes the inventions of architects and urban planners. The gaybourhoods of Melbourne, Sydney, Manchester and San Francisco, where gay communities have transformed inner-city spaces, reflect a similar phenomenon.
Lecturer in Interior Architecture at Monash University, Nicole Kalms, contends that in the last 10-15 years architecture has become more engaged in ‘”bottom-up design” which is where we involve the people who are ultimately the recipients of architecture.’ Kalms references Melbourne’s architectural magazine Post which is concerned with issues of post-occupancy, or what happens when the architect leaves.
‘More architects are working with participatory architecture,’ Kalms says. ‘This kind of research would be appropriate for thinking about how the domestic space is co-opted by different kinds of living.’ The enemy of share house style sex? Employment. Sex loves to waste time, writes Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence. Share houses may lack luxury carpet but a lifestyle that doesn’t have career goals – or a cleaning schedule – leaves time for pleasure. Williams believes well-run houses are not good places for sex. ‘Efficiency’s a big turn-off. You need profligacy and waste and—thinking of the Victorians—places in which to hide.’
The Retirement Village No longer is it acceptable to see sexual desire and reproductive capacity as interlinked. A proliferation of films about mature-age sexuality signifies the issue’s entry into mainstream discourse. ArtsHub film critic Sarah Ward listsCloudburst, Meet the Fokkens, Away from Her, Irina Palm, Bright Days Ahead andLe Week-End as examples.
Like a university college for the graduates of life, the retirement village’s closely linked bedrooms, communal spaces and focus on leisure provides residents with the means to increase the opportunity for intimate encounters. Sexual contact has physical and psychological benefits for the elderly. To what degree does the retirement home acknowledge that people continue to be sexual beings in old age? ‘My guess is not at all, which if true, seems a terrible shame,’ says Williams. ‘After all, this might be a good time to gently reactivate the libido.’
As a model for retirement accommodation that promotes a good sex life, Williams suggests vacation-style accommodation such as the large-scale complexes in the Mediterranean might just be what the doctor ordered, regardless of age or infirmity. ‘They bring lots of people together, give them lots of leisure time and sunshine so they can take their clothes off, and some interesting, playful spaces. The question is why don’t we live like that all the time,’ he says.
The Mansion Williams acknowledges that Sex and Buildings focuses mainly on the homes of the wealthy. ‘There did seem to be a correlation between wealth and sex, which isn’t to say the wealthy have more sex, but that they have an ability to invest in staging it in their homes,’ he says. Not on the cards for many of us, but broadcasting the message that sex doesn’t just belong the in the bedroom is the luxury dwelling tailor-made for sexual activity. When the sexual libertarian needs a bigger space for the mirror there’s the bachelor pad writ large, recognisable from the movies. John Lautner’s classic Elrod House in Palm Springs is an example featured in the James Bond movie, Diamonds Are Forever. Another is the Sheats-Goldstein residence in Beverley Hills, home of fictional pornographer Jackie Treehorn from The Big Lebowski. LA. Both boast sumptuous wet-areas predisposed to encourage dishabille, massive comfortable couches and a premium on the sensory that acts as continuous environmental foreplay. A touch of these techniques might bring a bit of spark into your sex life. Closer to home, you only have to look at Cassandra Fahey’s Sam Newman House, with its giant patterned glass mural of Pamela Anderson, whose mouth opens to allow access to the garage, to wonder what sex means for the monied.
Future plans New housing styles are developing to meet the range of family types and sexual behaviour now commonplace in western societies. Ricardo Bofill’s Walden 7 project in Barcelona is a large-scale private housing development that identifies as ‘a proposition for a new mode of life’. The flats subvert traditional boundaries between spaces with mirrored walls, futons instead of beds and large public bathrooms.
Architecture as a profession is beginning to address these issues too. Currently Kalms says that the theory component of an Australian architecture degree includes only a ‘very, very small’ amount of gender, sexuality and body theory.But Stockholm’s KTH has introduced a gender component embedded in the architecture school. At Monash, Kalms discusses the way in which public-space imagery generally depicts young, white, hetero-normative subjects and sexualised and objectified images of women. Reminding us of the statistics of female homicides which show that ‘most women are killed in their homes’, Kalms argues that the architecture of public space also impacts on our private experiences in the domestic home. In this sense, it’s impossible to separate public/private spheres.
Richard J Williams believes that we’ll see architects paying greater attention to sexual behaviour in the future. ‘The reemergence of cities will change things,’ he says. ‘It might take a decade or so, but it’s on the agenda globally. If that happens, and we get cheaper housing, then we’ll see some changes. I’m generally optimistic in the long term.’
This gallery contains 23 photos.
The Museum of Anything was an installation at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh on 31 May 2014. A revised version of the earlier Museum of Everything at the University of Edinburgh, it followed the same principles. An imaginary museum created from … Continue reading
The Scotsman’s take on my Times Higher piece on Edinburgh produced some loud guffaws this morning. http://m.scotsman.com/news/scotland/top-stories/academic-blasts-edinburgh-s-modern-buildings-1-3335514
In the original piece, I wrote (as I have often done previously) that the Scottish capital is a weird case of arrested development. There’s very little to show for the oceans of money that have washed through the city in the last decade, and little sense of a plan. It’s oddly out of step with the political reality of a city that could well soon be the capital of an independent state. Whatever happens in September 2014, Edinburgh’s political status is assured. It will get more power. But on the ground, it’s timid and risk-averse, the very opposite of what you might expect. Anyway, you can read the piece here: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/features/culture/edinburghs-arrested-development/2011724.article
Brian Ferguson’s Scotsman piece paints me as the mouthpiece of the heritage lobby: I ‘blast’ modern development, excoriating the university’s George Square and the proposed Caltongate project.
It’s flattering, as always, get the attention. But I should probably make a few things clear:
(1) I’m temperamentally about as far from the heritage lobby as you can get. I’d happily demolish the New Town tomorrow; (2) I think cities are processes, not monuments, and to believe otherwise is just silly; (3) Edinburgh’s obsession with its past is terrible; (4) its most reviled modern buildings are actually some of its most interesting. Everyone says they hate the St James’s Centre, but I’ve spent many happy hours pottering around its recesses. Brutal and impolite, it has a straightforwardness I much prefer these days to the phoney openness of the Parliament. It also works.
The Scotsman’s take was the usual one, and unsurprising. And – much to my amusement – it actually confirmed my original argument. I wrote that Edinburgh couldn’t deal with the modern, and right on cue, here was an article that said just that.
The problem is that I was enlisted into this anti-modern argument. On a personal level, I don’t mind at all – it’s good knockabout fun and grist to the mill. But it represents just about the opposite of what I actually think.
On Friday 28 February, we held a meeting at the Edinburgh College of Art about psychoanalysis. I spoke mostly about cake. Not any cake, but one in particular: the Sacher-Torte, the famous Viennese chocolate sponge. It was invented in 1832 by the then sixteen year old Franz Sacher for Prince Wenzel Von Metternich, and then popularised by Franz’s son, Eduard who founded the Sacher Hotel in 1876. A rich, dark sponge, it is covered in a distinctively thick layer of dark chocolate icing. Its richness has two vital counterpoints: a layer of astringent apricot jam between the chocolate and the sponge, and (when served) unsweetened whipped cream as an accompaniment.
The Sacher-Torte is an essential part of a tourist itinerary in Vienna. It’s an unhappy cake, though. Just look at the thing (see above) and its sheer formality is overwhelming. The chocolate exterior melts easily, so to achieve that clean presentation requires a lot of care. The way the thing looks demands a kind of respect. Then there’s its very density and sweetness. There’s no way you can enjoy it quickly. Wolf it and you’ll throw up. It’s a cake that has to be taken in small measured bites, mixed with the cream. It needs discipline to eat; it’s a thoroughly grown-up cake, not at all something for children. And it isn’t cheap. A piece in the Sacher Hotel with the appropriate melange (milky coffee) will set you back €20 or so.
The Sacher-Torte is certainly a refined pleasure – if indeed pleasure is the right word, for when things are as refined as this, the potential for embarrassment is huge. I remember yearning for a slice as a child on a family holiday in Austria, and finally, after much persuasion getting one. But on achieving the goal, it was made clear that this was a one-off, a treat that was to be prolonged as far as possible in order to extract the maximum value. Any pleasure was calculatedly forestalled.
The individual misery of the cake which I experienced (and which I suspect is far from unusual) has a strange parallel in the social history the cake. In 1934, the Sacher Hotel went bust, and a version of the cake was produced by the rival Demel bakery. Back in business in 1938, the hotel reintroduced its product, and tried to stifle the upstart by all manner of tactics, resorting to legal action in 1954, a case that was not resolved until 1963 with an out of court settlement. Demel’s version had (indeed has) plenty of adherents who appreciate its more robust sponge, and the extra layer of apricot jam. But it was a nasty business. Each side had its advocates, and it pitted families and friends each other in what was an already one of Europe’s most traumatised cities
I did not know about the controversy until long after I had eaten my first piece. But I knew from my first bite that Sacher-Torte was much more than a cake. Not only was it surrounded by a whole set of rituals and expectations for which as a child I was wholly unprepared, its material richness was like a physical assault. It sat like a rock my stomach and made me feel sad and guilty for hours. Sad, because what I thought should have been a simple pleasure, wasn’t. And guilty because I had been treated to something that I couldn’t, in the event, fully enjoy.
So what does any of this have to do with psychoanalysis? Well, the location to start with: this is the emblematic cake of the home of the discipline. How much cake Freud consumed is unclear, but he was an enthusiastic participant in the city’s bourgeois rituals and there’s nothing to suggest he avoided this one.
But more importantly, it shows how complex our psychological lives are. We might conventionally understand cake eating as just a simple pleasure of civilised life. But I’d wager (admittedly without a shred of evidence) that the consumption of Sacher-Torte is routinely accompanied by dark and complex feelings, with their attendant pathologies. Take that as you will, but it is a small reminder that what the way we consume things is often far more complex than we like to believe, and that pleasure rarely occurs when and where we believe it should.