‘Difficult Men’ – extracts from a talk at Glasgow School of Art


Edited extracts from a talk given at Glasgow School of Art on 11 October 2013. The talk was originally called ‘Sex and Buildings’. The term ‘Difficult Men’ I borrowed from Brent Martin, whose book of the same title was published in June this year by Penguin.

‘(…) Sex and Buildings was an attempt to deal with a basic question – during a century when there was ever more talk about sex, when sex for people in the industrialised world had come to be considered a right, and had been more or less completely separated from reproduction – why was architecture so coy? Our sexual lives are, I wrote, framed by buildings, and rooms in buildings. If we seek sexual encounters outside of buildings (on, for example Hampstead Heath) it constitutes a social, and often a legal transgression. Sex and buildings are intimately connected, and in the category of buildings itself, the relationship is further limited to certain kinds of interiors, typically bedrooms, which are sealed and private. That may well be how we like it. But the long public conversation about sex in the twentieth century suggested we might be entering a more enlightened and liberal phase; that we could put away Victorian sexual morality. Why therefore were we all still living in boxes that either were Victorian (in my case) or were often pastiches of Victoriana (everyone else)? The book was a search for alternatives. There was a broad sweep through history, encountering a gang of sexual mavericks along the way. The conclusion was downbeat, though – the sexual promise of the twentieth century was an illusion, and architecture’s failure to represent that promise was reflection of reality. We aren’t all living in polyamorous communes shaped like crystals because our social reality has failed to keep pace with theory (…)


(…) Writing in the Times Higher, Annemarie Adams noted how unusual it was to have  declaredly straight man write about sex; that most of the chatter about sex in the academic world in recent years had come from people anxious to define their own experience against heterosexuality. So if you have a an academic interest in sex, invariably you get to know a great deal about homosexuality, especially male homosexuality. If you have an interest in architecture and sexuality, queer theory is really the place to start. The literature on cruising, on queer spaces in cities, on campness is extraordinarily thick; it is arguably a queer sensibility that has made the American suburb such an object of psychological fascination. It is telling that the only major architectural exhibition to link sex and buildings did so from a decidedly queer perspective: ‘Out There’, an archly camp take on the Venice Architecture Biennale staged in 2006, curated by Aaron Betsky. Very good it was too – but also emblematic of the extent to which the discourse about sex had been captured by noisily queer voices.


‘It wasn’t always like this, or course. Go back to the 1970s and we would probably have been preoccupied with the future of the normative family, wondering how, under pressure from Marx and Freud and Masters and Johnson, it could possibly survive. We might have been flirting with polyamory or polygamy in some limited form ourselves. We would probably have known people who either did live in communal settings, or who were attracted by the idea. We might not have been too bothered by what women thought The sexual revolution had to come first. This was the subtext to Malcolm Bradbury’s brilliant, and much-misunderstood novel The History Man, the story of a rabidly libidinous sociologist in a fictional early-70s English university. It is a book about sex and politics, and both are powerfully conditioned by the spaces they occupy. An early scene in the book has Kirk arranging his rambling Victorian house for the party; every intervention, however slight, is meant to communicate: a door ajar here, a cushion there, a strategically engineered power cut in a corridor, all meant to engineer as much erotic action as possible. Kirk sets the architectural scene, and manages it periodically, a Lord of Misrule filling glasses with wine and making constant adjustments to ensure the maximum possible interaction (…)

Kirk is a monster, but his struggle is an age-old one between the libidinal and the social, sex and civilisation. And it hasn’t gone away, even if it has gone out of fashion in the university (replaced the rather dessicated politics of identity). It has re-emerged in the portrayals of ‘difficult men’ who have appeared in recent long-form American TV (Difficult Men is in fact the title of a recent book on the topic by the journalist Brent Martin). ‘Difficult Men’ are by definition straight men, caught in a web of social and family responsibilities. They take those responsibilities extremely seriously, and they carry them out with dedication, attention to detail and selflessness. But that creates huge tension. The narratives of each of these dramas revolves around the tension between the public role and the private desire, order and chaos, between civilisation and sex. Breaking Bad, the now concluded HBO series is a case in point: its central character, Walter White is a mild-mannered family man who turns to the manufacture of methamphetamine in order – superficially – to cover his medical bills. Literally and figuratively emasculated in season 1, by season 2 he has proved himself not only adept at the business of cooking meth, but also surprisingly good at the business of killing people who get in his way. His moral decent is also a libidinal awakening – and it is this, Walt’s emergence as a man that kept viewers rooting for him, even as the bodies pile up. (I was one of them. I loved Walt to the end) (…)


‘The reviewers of Sex and Buildings were mostly intrigued by another difficult man, however, namely its author. The reason was the confessional tone of the early pages in which I located the architectural history in a context of my own experience. There were some eye-catching remarks about the trials of family life, and an account of Morningside as a Victorian sex prison. All this got press attention, as intended (…)

‘Why did I do it? First is simply that I was asked to – Reaktion thought the first draft was boring, and wanted it sexed up. Fine, I thought (…) The second reason was one of intellectual context, or rather, tradition. Art history has retained a pseudo-objectivity for rather longer than it might, perhaps because of its residual anxieties about art criticism – or heaven forbid, art appreciation. I don’t know the answer. Other modes of writing have been readier to embrace subjectivity. So when I thought of how I might model a more open subjectivity in the writing, I thought of writers I liked. Freud was one – an intellectual subject for me for a long time, but also a writer I’d read for pleasure. And it is striking how open Freud is about his own subjectivity, how often he foregrounds his own experience as a way of giving life to theory. In a passage from ‘The Uncanny’ (1909) that is familiar to innumerable students, Freud describes getting lost on vacation in a ‘small Italian town’, where by accident he winds up in a square occupied mainly by prostitutes; deeply embarrassed, he scuttles away, only to find himself drawn back by some mysterious force; and then again, despite his attempts to escape, producing a state close to panic. It is only on a further attempt that Freud manages to escape, promising himself no further adventures, Freud uses the episode to describe the production of the uncanny (‘a special class of fear’) through repetition. What I always noted was Freud’s willingness to use his own psychological discomfort to explicate a problem. There are countless other examples – and while there is no doubt some thing performative about them, it’s worth emphasising their self-deprecating quality.

‘That performed subjectivity is a critical part of mainstream psychological literatures. It’s vital to Oliver Sacks (in fact it starts to take over); it’s in the popular psychotherapeutic work by Esther Perel; it’s also there, strongly in Richard Sennett’s work, which although strictly sociological, draws heavily on the psychological tradition. If you know Sennett’s work, you also know a great deal about him, his tastes in drink and tobacco and music, his friends, his eclectic sexuality. It’s methodologically problematical – you never know where Sennett begins and ends the research starts, but he always makes you think (…)

‘Finally, by speaking about my own experience, I was trying to find a way of speaking to a larger cultural experience. I’m not very interesting by myself – no-one is. But I’m representative of a once dominant class, now long in decline. My family, as long as I can see back, has been a middle class dedicated to public service. We ran things: sometimes big things like oil refineries and stock exchanges, but mostly the social glue: schools, university departments, doctors’ surgeries, banks, learned societies, and churches – above all, churches We didn’t have money, exactly, but we did have a bit of influence. We did it all over the UK. We were, so to speak, the middle management of empire. We chaired the committees; we held it all together. Most importantly, as I’ve come to realise over the years, our power, such as it was, derived from a perceived level of moral authority, deriving directly from the church. A liberal church by any standards, it took a hard line when it came to work. It embodied the Protestant work ethic like nothing else. We, and the society we built, had the most to gain from the disciplining of the libido. Its sublimation into work was where we derived our authority. But conversely, we had most to lose when that libido ran wild.

‘So my ‘difficult men’ in the book are all like this, driven men, work-obsessed, trapped in webs of obligation and responsibility. Their obligations, and also their desires are represented by the buildings that surround them. Ignore them – or trap them too deeply – and they explode. Their capacity for destruction is breathtaking. Recent long-form TV drama has returned time and again to these ‘difficult men’, most spectacularly in Breaking Bad, which suggests the problem remains as unresolved now as it was in Freud’s time. We still haven’t worked out what to do with these men. We ought to…’

Trouble at t’Mall

IMG_0353Something’s up with cities, as recent articles in The Economist and the FT attest. In the rich world, for decades we’ve held the notion of cities as basket cases to be endured rather than enjoyed. Few really believed in regeneration, if pushed: tidying up old docks and factories was, most of us believed, a cosmetic exercise. Our future was inexorably suburban. That set of beliefs held true until about a decade ago, underlined by relentlessly gloomy demographics, nlot just for celebrated basket cases like Detroit (61% population loss), but otherwise wealthy and successful places like London (-25% from its peak). We read Joel Garreau on the exurbs and imagined, mostly with trepidation, a Californian future. Cities were what the  developing world did – they weren’t for us.

Well, all that seems to have changed. The last set of population statistics for the UK were remarkable for what they said about cities. Greater London we knew had got bigger, but what was a surprise was how quickly it had regained its peak size. Down to 6.5 million in the 1980s, it was back up to 8.5 or so, 30% growth in 20 years. Even more startling in some way were the figures for such perennially shrinking cities are Liverpool (now up 5%), or most amazingly of all, Manchester (up 25%), with accompanying gains for their hinterlands. Across the Atlantic, as Gallagher has recently argued, the same trends are much in evidence. Washington DC hums with life these days in a way inconceivable a decade back. And in al these places, real estate values indicate a shift back to the  central city, and the decline of suburbia. However you do the maths, there is only one conclusion: cities are back.

In a funny way, no-one saw this coming. In fact the professional literature around regeneration is miserable. You can’t research the area without developing a deep sense of gloom. Academics invariably focus on the bad news; builders worry about money; policians argue incessantly about the benefits. Hardly anyone seems to believe it when push comes to shove. They should. The ‘project’ of regeneration, whether it’s through Richard Rogers’s advocacy in London, or Mike Bloomberg’s in New York, has been on its own terms, more often than not, a huge success. Cities have returned in a big way, dense, busy and vertical, just as their advocates wanted.

That success brings with it some old – basically 19th century – problems. In 2004 I speculated about this in The Anxious City, looking at Richard Rogers’s envisioning of London. It seemed (still) unattainable; it also seemed a transparently bourgeois city. Surely we would see through this (admittedly seductive) play of urban surfaces? Surely we would see it for the fantasy that it is? Well apparently not, for it’s come to pass not only in London, but New York and Washington, and with it, the embodiment in stone and glass of a most astonishing set of inequalities. The urbanist’s rhetoric from Richard Rogers to Richard Florida to Charles Landry is of equality and democracy. The built reality – just look at London – is anything but.

This leaves suburbia hanging. Suburbia will always be with us, but like the inner cities of the late 60s and early 70s, it may well become the locus of dissolution and decay. That might be good for urban innovators – we could conceivably see an exodus of poor, but creative youngsters to Metroland in search of space and time and relative freedom from the market. But those people, so prized by Florida and Landry, may choose to leapfrog the city altogether, and abandon it to the rich. Who knows. But cities have irrevocably changed this past decade, and we will have to deal with the consequences.


D.K., ‘Mapping Gentrification: The Great Inversion’, Economist (9 September 2013) http://www.economist.com/blogs/blighty/2013/09/mapping-gentrification

Gapper, J., ‘America’s Heart is in the City Once Again’, Financial Times (8 September 2013) http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/0e8cc084-1652-11e3-a57d-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2fF0L7D9Y

Happy Families

preview_america_swings_480x368_1012221505_id_403437Among the many interesting reactions to my Sex and Buildings was the observation by Ed Hollis, and separately, Annemarie Adams, that it was unusual these days to see a discussion of sexuality from a straight perspective. To anyone outside the academy, this might seem odd. But to anyone with a working knowledge of recent research on sexuality it will, one way or another, ring true. That’s not a value judgement at all. It simply acknowledges that the loudest voices in recent years have been queer and feminist ones To read about sex in any serious way is to read about the challenges to what was once thought of as ‘normative’ sexuality. So we now generally understand sexuality as a fluid continuum, rather than a set of fixed categories. We accept gender as socially constructed. We understand sexual expression as an unalienable individual right. Most Western societies, even rather conservative ones, have enshrined these things in law; no-one these days is likely to question them in public.

So far so good. However, this great sexual adjustment has inadvertently produced a lot of  left-behinds. They are the heterosexual majority struggling with one or other form of monogamy. There has been remarkably little said about them, perhaps because sexual laws and ethics were for so long constructed in their image. But these days they could probably use a bit of help. They too have developed a sense of sexual rights, and they’ve seen new communities define themselves in sex-positive terms. They might appreciate a piece of the action – or if nothing else, to be asked what they would like.

What they’re left with themselves is – ironically – a hardened, residual version of monogamy that is if anything even less well adapted to contemporary circumstances. The erosion of the ‘double standard’ – the acceptance of male transgression but not the female equivalent – was  necessary and correct, but it also removed a rare safety valve. The new condition, serial monogamy has the great advantage – contractual clarity – but that is offset by a lack of forgiveness. Transgression is easily defined, but equally easily punished. It demands high, and probably impossible, standards of conduct (its contradictions were explored in by the psychotherapist Adam Phillips in the short book, Monogamy)

The problems and opportunities of the present situation are nicely illustrated by the Canadian photographer Naomi Harris a well-known book of photographs, America Swings published in 2008 by ‘sexy books’ editor Dian Hansen of the reliably bonkers Taschen. It shows the results of a quasi-ethnographic survey of swinging parties across 38 American states. Leaving precisely nothing to the imagination, it describes an alternative universe in which America’s most conservative, God-fearing parts turn out to be the most sexually liberal. It is a book I like a great deal; Harris’s thoroughness is awe-inspiring, and the photographic results outstanding. It also shows communities taking an eminently practical approach to solving the problems of monogamy. Rather than take a sledgehammer to it, they license deviation within certain clearly prescribed community norms. And if the pictures are anything to go by, it really works. As Harris says in the text, ‘these people are definitely having better sex than the rest of us.’

America Swings also points up a serious problem. It isn’t an argument for change, but a work of art (a limited edition of 1000, retailing for $1000 or so, much more for the signed edition). The swingers it depicts are ludicrous and bizarre, and fat. Their clothes and furnishings are revoltingly suburban. We’re invited to stare at them in slack-jawed wonder, not (God forbid)  empathise. It’s a classic work of surrealism, in other words, amoral at best, indifferent to the sensibilities of its subjects. In the end, the context – the art world, Taschen – means it’s impossible to see it any other way.

Now ask yourself if there are in fact any favourable depictions of swinging out there – any depictions that don’t fall into the same trap of sniggering at the lower classes. And then ask yourself a broader question. Are there in fact any sex-positive depictions of heterosexual monogamy? Monogamy has become arguably more rigid in recent years, more idealised, and more exclusive, as if the sixties never happened. There may be good reasons for that. Equally, there may not. It would be nice to have a debate.

Notes: Ed Hollis’s new book, Memory Palace: A Book of Lost Interiors, has just been published by Portobello Books. Annemarie Adams is the head of architecture at McGill University, Montreal. The image above is from Naomi Harris’s America Swings, published in 2008 by Taschen.



The idea of ‘civility’ crops up a lot at Richard Rogers’s exhibition. It’s there right from the start in a room decked out in orange vinyl, with a series of panels laying out Rogers’s ‘ethos’. In practice, it’s most clearly represented in Rogers’s non-architectural work, such as his chairmanship of the New Labour government’s Urban Task Force (1999), his work as London’s architecture ‘tsar’ for then Mayor, Ken Livingstone, his Reith lectures for the BBC, and his books. Cities for a Small Planet (1997) is the best known of those, and it has been good business for both Rogers and Faber and Faber. All of this work pushes a beguilingly simple message: we should all stop being beastly to each other, beastly to the planet, and learn to live in cities. Until then, we are doomed. Good behaviour and armageddon are entwined: do right, and we live, he seems to suggest; misbehave and we all die. It would be an abominably Victorian message if it wasn’t delivered with such urbanity. But Rogers is charm personified, and he somehow not only gets away with it, but has got the rest of us to believe him.

In practice Rogers thinks that civility can be built. His birthplace, Florence is civil, as is Barcelona and most of Paris, as increasingly, he thinks, is London, or at least those bits which have been remade according to his preferences. More generally, coffee drinking encourages civility – here he sounds positively eighteenth century – and as if to prove it, the last room of the exhibition has a cycle-powered coffee cart from which you can purchase a latte and reflect on city life.

It’s a measure of Rogers’s success that all of this now seems so normal. In 1986, when he exhibited at the RA, his ideas (pedestrianise Trafalgar Sqaure, civilise the Embankment, make spaces for people) were rather exotic. The government of the day wasn’t interested. Twenty five years later, almost all of what he then wanted has been achieved, if rarely by Rogers himself. Moreover, London has grown hugely, adding almost two million residents, with no end in sight to its growth. Not only that, but these residents have come, by and large, to the inner city. The balance of power has shifted to the city from the suburb. Its new residents aspire, for the time being, to a city life.

The odd thing is how little Rogers’s built work expresses civility. His best buildings are really profoundly uncivil. The Centre Georges Pompidou (1977) involved the wholesale demolition of a city block, and the insertion of a building alien to anything in Paris – indeed the world – at the time. The Lloyds Building (1985) repeated the same trick in London. Both buildings celebrated the temporary and emphemeral in contexts that more or less demanded the opposite; both showed indifference verging on hostility to their surroundings; both look (like the imaginary works of Archigram that informed them) like they might just rise up on pneumatic stalks and move on, once they’d exhausted their local resources. The aesthetic has been toned down of late. But the latest building, the skyscraper at Leadenhall St in the City, has acquired a suggestive nickname, ‘the Cheesegrater’. It refers to its triangular outward form of the building, of course, but it also describes an abrasive tool made to shred things that get close.

I like this incivil character in Rogers, and there are plenty of examples of it at the RA exhibition. The Pompidou and Lloyds are fantastic buildings precisely because they don’t appear to give a damn about their surroundings, or indeed anything. I like them in exactly the same way I like J. G. Ballard, or early Hawkwind, or Blade Runner: they’re cheerfully amoral, rolling in the ruins of the apocalyptic present. They trash humanism, or so it seems.

The contradiction between Rogers’s buildings, and his rhetoric has never been properly explained. He and his advocates have tried by claiming civility for the early buildings. That’s why the Pompidou is more often these days described as an extension of the (civilised) Place Pompidou, rather than a soixante-huitard’s attack on the bourgeois city.

However, perhaps the contradiction isn’t what it seems, however. Civility tends to be expressed from a place of privilege, and in this, Rogers is no exception. The imagination of civility – of which there is copious evidence at the RA – is a life of leisure: drinking, eating and talking in beautiful city spaces. Nobody does a scrap of work. The now iconic image of Trafalgar Square from ‘London as it Could Be’ (1986 – actually a drawing by Rogers’s long-time associate Mike Davies) imagines this key public space as a de facto sculpture gallery, populated by people who have just spilled out of the National. The art museum and the public space are coterminous. Nothing wrong with that – except that this mode of being in public, the leisured promenade is the only way Rogers and his friends can imagine public life. Civility equals politeness here; it’s manners sublimated to morality. And it really helps if you’ve got plenty of cash. Rogers’s client base is rarely the ‘public’ of which he likes to speak. More often than not it’s the corporate financial sector, or the super rich, the business traveller. The Welsh Assembly in Cardiff is a rare exception.

Leaving the RA and heading north, it was striking how much Mayfair seemed to embody Rogers’s notion of civility. Its urbanity, cosmopolitanism, and sense of ease seemed to embody everything Rogers meant by civility. But it is also the most expensive neighbourhood in the known universe. Very few of us can afford to spend any time there, let alone think of calling it our own. And its civility is supported by a vast labouring army, who – like the coffee-vendor in the gallery – contribute to the spectacle, without being able to enjoy it. For those reasons, civility to me often connotes cruelty, albeit of a hidden kind. At best it’s bullshit, and I think it ultimately diminishes Rogers’s work. Architecture, like all the arts, is fundamentally amoral. If you’re going claim otherwise, you better have a pretty strong claim. This ain’t it.

Richard Rogers RA Inside Out is at the Royal Academy, London, until 18 October 2013. For more on Rogers and civility, see my book The Anxious City (London: Routledge, 2004)

‘The History Man’, Revisited

20130715-190718.jpgMalcolm Bradbury’s novel The History Man was published in 1975 and made into a highly-regarded TV series in 1981 starring Anthony Sher. It concentrates on two days in the life of Howard Kirk, a radical sociologist at the fictional English university of Watermouth. Kirk is in many ways monstrous. A serial philanderer, professional troublemaker, he is the chief protagonist in four seductions and a campus riot, and is strongly implicated in two attempted suicides, the first a close colleague, the second his wife.

I first read the book in ’81, after watching the TV adaptation. Aged 14, a  lot of the subtlety went over my head. I didn’t understand the psychosexual dynamics of Kirk’s relationship with his embittered wife, Barbara, nor the academic satire, having yet to experience the delights of a departmental meeting, the focus of the second half of the book.

I did respond to Kirk, though, especially as imagined by Antony Sher. Wiry, muscular and immaculately-dressed in a 70s-retro way, for me he was far from loathsome, but the epitome of cool (I missed the ironies of the production, of course – Kirk’s toned physique the result of long hours of hard work in the gym, rather than the life of a party animal; his rampant heterosexuality brought to life by an openly gay actor).

My second reading, ten or so years later, revealed these things more clearly. It also made obvious what a shit Kirk really was, and also how, as the cover blurbs suggested, the whole thing might be interpreted as a reactionary dissing of the sixties.

Reading it more recently I realised all that again – but I was also struck by how much the book is about architecture, or how much architecture conditions what people do in it. I really should have cited Bradbury in Sex and Buildings, for everything I was interested in in that book is there. An early sequence has Kirk arranging his rambling Victorian house for the party; every intervention, however slight, is meant to communicate: a door ajar here, a cushion there, a strategically engineered power cut in a corridor, all meant to engineer as much erotic action as possible. Kirk sets the architectural scene, and manages it periodically, a Lord of Misrule filling glasses with wine and making constant adjustments to ensure the maximum possible interaction. The Kirks’ bedroom is a key site in these episodic transitions, shifting from a private space (before the party in its early planning stages) to a place of invited transgression (the early stages of the party), to a place of a full sale orgy. Other rooms gradually acquire erotic characters as the evening wears on: Kirk’s study becomes the site of his seduction of Felicity Phee, a disturbed graduate student.

Bradbury’s interest in architecture extended to public spaces too. His account of the fictional University of Watermouth (it could be Keele, or Essex in real life, with dollops of Bradbuy’s home institution, UEA) plays with the Finnish architect’s attempts to engineer social life. Eating has its own complex erotics, played out in highly complex interiors, designed to facilitate a range of contacts depending of the formality of the space. Or teaching: Kirk’s sociology class takes place in a room whose arrangement must be thoroughly deconstructed in order to facilitate an appropriately liberated discussion.

In Bradbury’s world, the official attempts at social engineering never work. At the University, nobody eats in the right places in the shared canteen. But Kirk’s local engineering always succeeds, so his parties are orgiastic riots. In this fundamentally pessimistic book, that’s usually read as a victory for Kirk’s machiavellianism. Well, in terms of the book’s narrative arc, it is.  But read dispassionately, it shows better than almost anything else I can think of how space and erotics might be connected. I should have remembered.

Review of Adrian Forty, Concrete and Culture (London: Reaktion Books, 2012)

A version of the following review appeared in Sculpture Journal in 2013


Everybody has a view about concrete, but few of these views are exactly the same: there is no material so contradictory and complex in its application and meaning. I myself became fully aware of concrete’s contradictions in Brazil, latterly accompanied by Forty’s edited book on the country’s modernist architecture (Brazil’s Modern Architecture, 2007). I had never seen so much concrete. But equally I have never been confronted with such a disjunction between aspiration and application. Standing outside Oscar Niemeyer’s MAC art museum in Niteroí, it was impossible to square the MAC’s futuristic form (a flying saucer) with the crudeness of its execution (all cracks and, lumps, like a primary school project). That contrast was really quite disturbing, as the official photographs of the MAC depicted a building of otherworldly sleekness whose construction was a mystery to earthly folk. I was alert to concrete’s contradictions from that point on.

Concrete and Culture deals precisely with those contradictions. It expands the thesis Forty set out earlier in Brazil’s Modern Architecture about another iconic building in that country, Vilanova Artigas’s Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism (FAU) at the University of São Paulo (1968). A giant concrete box on stilts, it is both exceptionally sophisticated as engineering, and exceptionally crude in finish (its surface these days is so decayed, you can easily mistake the building for a ruin). Forty argued that this tension was uniquely bound up with concrete itself, and was wholly intentional, a way of making public a set of anxieties about Brazil’s development at the time. It is simultaneously rich and poor, sophisticated and crude, old and new. The argument about FAU is expanded here to make a thoroughly global thesis about concrete’s contradictions. It is one of the key symbols of modernisation, but found naturally, and used by the Romans; it is an industrial material, but also a natural one; it is supposed to lead to efficiencies in the building process, but is dependent on a lot of low-grade physical labour; it connotes modernity in one place, historicity in others; it is simultaneously liquid and solid. And so on.

The book is organised around five key oppositions, represented in suggestively-titled chapters (‘Mud and Modernity’, ‘Natural or Unnatural’, ‘Heaven and Earth’, ‘Memory and Oblivion’). Other chapters explore concrete’s complex geopolitics, its equally complex relationship with industrial labour, and its representation in photography. Even concrete’s fiercest detractors would be hard pressed to deny its photogenic character, especially in monochrome at high ASA ratings. And as Forty argues, there are material similarities between the processes of building in concrete and taking a photograph. Film is a key reference point too:  there is a compelling account of the dry concrete bed of the Los Angeles river as a setting in John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967). Forty is particularly good in showing how a particular material detail might represent ideology. In the case of FAU, it’s the building’s strangely attenuated column give the impression of colossal weight supported by very little, a metaphor for Brazil’s underdevelopment. On the Economist Building in St James’s, London, familiar to British readers he alights on a tiny detail: at the base of the columns holding up the Economist tower, the Portland stone cladding is intentionally stopped a few inches from the ground, a ‘Brechtian trick’ in the words of the architects, making visible the structure. It is a ‘demure lifting of the skirt to reveal a glimpse of ankle’ writes Forty, a joke (he argues) you would never find in American concrete. On BBPR’s highly eccentric Torre Velasca (1958)in Milan, Forty writes of the subversion of the modern tower form. This one, with its rough, and now weather-stained surface and its bulging upper structure recalling the form of Renaissance palazzos, suggests a building as much of the past as of the future, in marked contrast with American skyscraper design. Here again is the contradiction of concrete in relation to history: a supposedly modern material here used to signify if not antiquity, an accommodation of the past. One chapter, on labour, departs from the general focus on the aesthetics of concrete. Here Forty makes clear the sheer amount of physical effort involved in concrete constriction. Again, I had myself reflected on this in relation to Brazil, where I recalled the communist architect Sergio Ferro’s account of the building of Brasília. Ferro detailed not just the long hours, and the brutality of the organisation (both well reported) but the peculiar horror of working with the steel reinforcing rods, their tendency to scrape and gouge limbs.

Forty sets out a range of evidence to argue that the use of concrete allowed the building process to be broken down into a much wider range of unskilled tasks, which in turn meant a greater possible reliance on cheap labour. Concrete explicitly didn’t mean automation, or prefabrication, but the strange sublimation of what were essentially craft skills. He reproduces an extraordinary diagram from 1912 by Frederick Taylor and Sanford Thompson detailed every stage in the manufacture of ‘anything’ in concrete. The table reproduced covers the mixing of cement, listing the time taken to cut the string on a bag of cement (0.11 min), ‘moving the bag about 2ft.’ (0.08 min) to lifting the bag of cement to the shoulder (0.30) and several other actions. The detail is mind-boggling. Reproducing it in the somewhat effete context of architectural history gives it the whiff of conceptual art (routine process repeated to absurdity, then documented). But it also makes clear the contradictions involved in concrete construction: a process commonly thought to save on labour compared with traditional forms of building in fact does nothing of the sort; and a process equally commonly thought to be advanced turns out to be dependent on the most rudimentary skills. Taylor and Thompson’s diagram in essence is the book’s argument: what is supposed to be modern, isn’t – and its irrationality borders on the surreal.

The last chapter of the book, ‘A Concrete Renaissance’, surveys the now-familiar revival in concrete’s fortunes in the world’s rich countries as a material for buildings whose clientele both understand and appreciate its contradictions. Peter Zumthor’s extremely refined work makes use of concrete’s rough character for aesthetic effect. The images here index what’s survived: the LCC architects’ South Bank arts complex, Bo Bardi in Brazil, Alvaro Siza in Portugal, Peter Zumthor in Switzerland. What has survived, and revived in these refined contexts is concrete as aesthetic rather than structure; it’s valued for what it looks like, much less for its structural qualities. Its capacity to stain and degrade has become a value, not a flaw (see also Herzog and de Meuron’s Rudin House, which looks permanently drenched).Forty is right to point to a renaissance of concrete’s fortunes in Europe, where a taste for concrete is now, at least in some circles, an indicator of cultural refinement. Concrete’s contradictions, explored in such depth in the book, are now, in Europe, its defining characteristic. Its flaws are cultivated; to appreciate its difficulties is a sign of taste. Of course this is a minority, essentially avant-garde taste: it can only build cultural centres and privately commissioned houses, no longer mass housing, schools or hospitals (or if it does build these things it must be hidden from view).

What Forty doesn’t discuss, nor to be fair, try to, is the cultural understanding of concrete in those places where it is most physically present. The ‘culture’ of the title is the culture of the rich world; he acknowledges that most concrete building actually exists elsewhere. In rich northern places, to build with concrete is a special sort of poverty chic. But in the global South, concrete carries quite other connotations. In Brazil, a country with a particularly acute concrete habit, concrete connotes everything. In Mendes da Rocha and Bo Bardi, it’s the avant-garde material, that looks outwards and backwards to Europe and European modernism. In Niemeyer’s work, it’s modernism again – but it’s also a way of making a curve that stands up. But it’s also the material of choice for Brazil’s ubiquitous high-rise condos and equally ubiquitous favelas, in both cases simply a way of making buildings strong and cheap. The same is true of Peru, and Pakistan to greater or lesser degrees. The anxieties about concrete that Forty describes so well are largely those of a world that has a choice about whether or not to use it. For the rest of the world, it means what ever it has to.

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.