Arts Hub interview about ‘Sex and Buildings’

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

9781780231044‘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.

The Family Home If the family home sat down to reveal the sexual secrets of its occupants, there might be a long awkward silence. Unfortunately this space not the hotbed of sexual passion that its fertile environment suggests. With its exalted master bedroom typically separated from the kids’ bedrooms, the family home was historically designed around the heterosexual reproductive couple. But whether it’s just a double bed with matching Ikea bedside tables or a lavishly appointed parents’ retreat, the message of the master bedroom is that sex is regular and predictable, to be organised around parenting, work and household chores. Yawn.

‘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 listsCloudburstMeet the FokkensAway 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.’

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POSTCARD FROM GOOGLE

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I recently spent a morning at Google headquarters (‘the Googleplex’) in Mountain View, Califonia, at the northern end of Silicon Valley. It was a Sunday, so eerily quiet. I had half a dozen leads from Edinburgh, itself a minor tech pole, and I’d written to all of them requesting a visit. As it turned out, so ineffable is the company, and its campus, I might as well have been requesting an audience with God. So I just went alone and unannounced.

The place was certainly a physical reality. As Wired journalist Andrew Blum points out in an entertaining new book, the internet is a material thing as much as an idea. Internet companies love you to believe in their insubstantiality, in their cloud-ness – but all that data has to be stored somewhere, and the work of managing it likewise.

It was an easy enough trip from SF. I got into my rented Prius and whirred down route 101 to the Rengstorff exit, crossed the highway, and there I was. The campus wasn’t strictly a campus per se, but a constellation of campuses, each anchored by one or more Google buildings. Bordered by route 101, it has an artificial lake for boating, miles of hiking trails, and a huge amphitheatre like the Hollywood Bowl. In the distance to the south, across drained swampland punctuated with electricity pylons I could see NASA’s Ames facility. Defined by three of the world’s biggest buildings, arched sheds made for building airships during the Second World War, it’s one of California’s great architectural sights.

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The Google campus it must be said, isn’t. It’s a sprawling complex, at a guess 300,000 square feet shaped like a C-clamp, comprising half a dozen interlinked pavilions. Clive Wilkinson architects designed it; based in Culver City, one of the centres of the LA film industry, they specialise in ‘Building Creative Communities’. It’s not a statement building of the kind that Facebook are currently contriving with Frank Gehry. You could drive past it and notice (I did, at first). But in the open plaza that defines centre of the complex, there are some deconstructivist Gehry-like elements, as if the façade of an ordinary office pavilion had been taken apart and shaken about. There’s a great curved beam, arching into the sky, emblazoned with the Google logo, like a piece of model railway track.

For the most part, it’s unspectacular, however and your eyes are drawn to the details. An organic garden occupies a northern corner of the plaza (a sign offers advice about seasonal planting, and a recipes – Organic Shephard’s (sic) Pie). A notice in the pavilion next door advertises the Google Film Club, whose carefully balanced, global programme looked the work of a genuine connoisseur.

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Of the details, though, it’s the G-Bikes that are most striking. Old-fashioned, sit-up-and-beg clunkers, they’re fitted with baskets and bells, and painted the corporate red, yellow, green and blue. There’s a useless rim brake, as well as a Dutch-style crank, so if you backpedal, you slow down. I don’t know why the two brakes. Safety first, I suppose. Anyway, they’re everywhere – hundreds of them, free to use for anyone who cares to. The abundance is really quite charming. I took one for a while. It felt like stealing at first, and the first few minutes felt deliciously transgressive (I had visited Apple the same day, and within seconds a security guard pulled up and yelled at me). But after a while, it was clear this seeming transgression wasn’t anything of the sort, but Google’s way of performing its generosity. These days Google may be ‘evil’, but it still has a lot invested in seeming not.

I soon grew tired of the Googleplex and pedalled over to an adjoining campus where a giant cupcake guarded the entrance. A handful of like-minded tourists milled around here, taking pictures – it was obviously what you did. They’d arrived on G-Bikes too, and like me were enjoying the perverse pleasures of the campus, before heading on to Facebook, Linked-In, and Yahoo! It was clearly the beginnings of a tourist trail, like Rome would have been for the eighteenth-century Englishman. Google seemed to have cottoned on already, hence the bikes. So, go while you still can. Google is waiting for you.

PS: Google – if you’re reading this, I put the bike back where it came from.

Niemeyer: the future is LUMPY

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I’m standing in the middle of the Caminho Nimeyer in Niteroí, just outside Rio de Janeiro. The Caminho is one of the architect’s last big projects, and remains unfinished. It’s a great concrete parade ground on the waterfront overlooking Rio, punctuated with (so far) three buildings that are unmistakably Niemeyer’s: a theatre with an undulating roof and angled walls; a small dome set at ground level, and a larger one with a serpentine ramp leading to an entrance above ground. All could have been built at any point since 1945. The theatre revisits the iconic chapel at Pampulha. The domes are Brasília. The ramps nod to the celebrated Museu de Arte Contemporânea a mile down the road. There are a couple of other less spectacular elements: a pretty gatehouse that could have been done by Richard Neutra in 30s Hollywood. And there’s a little information centre in black glass, a simple drum of a kind that you bump into all over Brasilia. From the ocean it looks fantastic, especially the theatre: crisp and bright against the industrial confusion of Niteroi (the city is a tangle of breaker’s yards, half-dismantled ships and oil rigs: a wonderful, dynamic chaos that is never the same twice).

If you actually make it through Niteroí’s traffic to the Caminho, however, the problem starts. It’s a familiar one for Niemeyer followers, namely the disjunction between the idea and the execution. At Brasília you rarely feel this is an issue, such is the quality of construction and maintenance. But here, it’s the main thing you feel. The ramp leading to the larger dome is a case in point. The idea is clear enough, a drawn line translated into concrete. It’s sweeping gesture in pen turned into 3D (I saw Niemeyer draw in 2001 or 2 and he signed a book for me – he was a wonderfully fluid draftsman). But the execution in concrete is all lumps and bulges which can be seen from a distance. Close up, the ramp has a highly irregular quality, and is in parts quite angular, a representation of the building process. The same is true of all the big buildings here: a pure form on paper in turns into a botched exercise in reality. It’s the future remade as a primary school art project.

The question is, does it matter? As far as I could tell in my conversation with Niemeyer it did not. To focus on the details was to misunderstand the scale of his imagination. His architecture was a representation of an ideal world that would come to pass at some indeterminate time in the future, and in which such minor details would be taken care of.

here’s another possible view, which is that the tension between idea and execution is actually part of the aesthetic, in the same way that (say) punk cultivated a wilful amateurism. You come to enjoy it, because it gives your imagination something to do.

I’m not sure this is the case with Niemeyer, though. Having seen just about everything he did in Brazil, my impression is of the most extraordinary variation in quality. If there’s a ‘punk Niemeyer’, you never know when you’re going to get it. The Niteroí project, prominent, state supported, built in his home town: well, it ought to be good, But it’s one of the worst, quality-wise, and incomprehensible in its present state to any other than hardcore fans.I enjoyed it, though. Its contradictions give you plenty to think about, and its air of shoddy decay produces some hilarious moments. There’s a funny ramp up to the theatre, half-finished and ambiguous in purpose. Was it for wheelchair access, we wondered? But it was angled at 30 degrees, suggesting, if anything a disposal chute. For unloved relatives? A wheelchair would reach quite a speed if let go…There are plenty more instances like this. In the sun, it’s a bizarre, inhumane place, treeless and baking. But its very inhumanity makes you laugh out loud (well, it did us). You have to admit that not much architecture does that. IMG_6083

Richard J. Williams, Brazil: Modern Architectures in History  (London: Reaktion Books, 2009) is still available at around £15.00. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Brazil-Architectures-Richard-J-Williams/dp/1861894007

Forbidden Pleasures

The following are extracts from a talk given at the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina in Florianopolis, Brazil on 7 November 2013. 

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‘I mainly work on architecture and the experience of architecture. Increasingly I have been interested in the way the architecture of film and TV conditions the way we experience real buildings. So this talk is about the representation of architecture in two recent American TV series, Breaking Bad and Mad Men both of which have attracted huge interest from architects and designers in the English-speaking world, and in some ways, they represent some of the most imaginative architecture built in the last ten years or so – although they do not, as I say represent real buildings, but rather fantasies (…)

‘I was as surprised as anyone to find myself talking about TV. But as soon as I had discovered Mad Men (directed by Matthew Wiener, 2008 to present) I realised that TV could express things that were not being properly expressed anywhere else. TV seemed to be able to express in more detail, and with more subtlety, the complexities of modern family life, and how it was housed. I wanted architecture to have something to say about that, but about architecture, as always, seemed mostly to want to talk about itself. TV seemed to show the lived experience.

‘The TV I refer to is sometimes known as the ‘third golden age’. It is different from previous ‘ages’ in that it is exclusively produced by and for cable networks. So it is not subject to the usual forms of censorship, or self-censorship that apply on mainstream TV (and American TV is, as you probably know, unusually censorious). What else? It is extremely well funded. It is technically of a very high quality, certainly as good as mainstream Hollywood. It allows long-term character development of a kind only known previously in (say) the nineteenth century novel (…) 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. There are invariably secrets; those secrets invariably threaten to reveal themselves at any moment. Just as Alfred Hitchcock’s classic movies of the 50s an 60s played out themes from Freudian psychoanalysis, so these long-form TV dramas revisit psychoanalytical themes: eros and civilsation, the death drive, the return of the repressed – they are all there, just as they were in Hitchcock.

MAD MEN ‘It concerns the changing fortunes of a New York advertising agency, starting in the early 1960s. It allows viewers to experience – albeit vicariously – a whole range of pleasures that are now more or less forbidden. These include smoking (the US has some of the toughest anti-smoking legislation in the developed world); drinking (the US is strikingly puritanical when it comes to alcohol, certainly compared with western Europe); extra-marital sex (American marriages are strikingly intolerant of transgression). Mad Men allows viewers to experience all of these things safely from the comfort of the home. And  architecture frames these things, and in so doing provides us with a different reading of the modernist city.

‘The city is undoubtedly that of Mies van der Rohe. His architecture communicates restraint and good taste, characteristics of civilisation, you might say, not eros. It tolerates well-behaved humans, but only just. Mad Men subverts all that, introducing bodies to a modernist environment, bodies with all kinds of desires, bodies which are frankly incapable of behaving. Where Mies demands restraint, Mad Men goes for excess. So, smoking, now so powerfully discouraged in the US, punctuates absolutely every activity. Everyone smokes, all of the time (…) So it is with drinking (…)

‘And, inevitably, sex. When we see the office Diva, Joan Harris set against the regular grid of the open-plan desks, we know there is going to be trouble. By the end of series one, we know that the open plan is a kind of arena, a space largely occupied by women who parade for the entertainment of the largely male partners who occupy the translucent offices surrounding the centre. And we know that the parading is not just for show. Often something happens in the open plan which leads to something else happening the private offices. So towards the end of season 1, Pete Campbell has sex on his office couch early one morning with a colleague, Peggy Olson, an act that – to great comic effect – is visible in silhouette through the glass. The janitor’s blasé attitude says it all. He’s seen it plenty of times before: it’s simply what goes on in this place. In summary, Mad Men turns a place of restraint, order and efficiency into its opposite; the Miesian office becomes a machine for the free reign of the libido. We can never look at it in the same way again (…)

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BREAKING BAD ‘Neither can we look in the same way at the sunny, suburban city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, the location of Breaking Bad. The narrative, for those of you who have not seen it, concerns a mild-mannered gifted high school chemistry teacher, Walter White. Walt is faced with not only an unexpected child (his wife) but also his own diagnosis of terminal cancer. Unable to bear leaving his family with debt, he turns to the manufacture of the highly addictive and dangerous drug methamphetamine. He turns out to be extremely good at this. He also turns out to be extremely good at killing. It is one of the strengths of the series that it is sufficiently complex to allow our sympathies to remain with Walt far longer than they should; even after the bodies start to pile up, we still want Walt to ‘win’. The reason for this is, in a way, simple. Walt’s descent into criminality is also a libidinal awakening. In other words, as he becomes a criminal, he also becomes a man (…)

Breaking Bad parades a whole range of transgressions, but all of them can be defined in terms of the libido. In the first episode of the first season, Walt is depicted in bed with his wife, Skyler at the end of a day celebrating Walt’s 50th birthday. It is a dismal scene: an overdecorated, dark bedroom, Skyler distracted with a laptop (she is bidding for items on e-Bay) while she gives Walt a desultory handjob; she’s far more interested in what’s going on onscreen than she is in Walt’s pleasure – he loses whatever interest he had. He is both figuratively and literally emasculated. But later in that episode, through a series of extraordinary turns, Walt has started to construct a new, and libidinally charged identity.

‘Here he is in a composite image used for publicity purposes, but which beautifully summarises the early stages of his transition. The location is the New Mexico desert on the outskirts of Albuquerque, a place (we learn quickly) where Bad Things Happen – a lawless zone, where civilisation literally and figuratively does not exist. In the background is the 1986 Fleetwood Bounder, a large RV that serves for the first half of the series as a mobile laboratory. To Walt’s right lies a discarded breathing mask, necessary attire for cooking meth, but also (in terms of the symbolism of the series) an important uniform. Walt himself stands half-transformed. His residual clothing (the green shirt and the desert boots) is that of his old identity of chemistry school teacher – but he has lost his pants, he stands legs apart, glaring at the camera, and he holds a pistol, with intent. He looks absurd – but also menacing. What is certain in this image is that he is decisively more in control in this by all accounts crazy environment than he ever was in the relative security of home  (…)

‘Now Walt’s solution is an almost perfect realisation of the Freudian death drive, a will to destruction that we all to greater, or lesser degrees, have. Enacting that drive is not an option for most of us, so the function of dramas like Breaking Bad is to stage it, so it can be vicariously consumed. Walt is a fictional character, as are the characters in Mad Men, but there are many Walts out there, angry white men, harbouring the same fantasies of destruction. American TV drama may not have any answers, but it is certainly asking the right questions.

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

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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 (…)

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(…) 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.

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‘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) (…)

LET’S TALK ABOUT ME 

‘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.

Sources:

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

Two New Reviews

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

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14 Sep 2013 DAILY TELEGRAPH
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

 

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.

EXHIBITION REVIEW: RICHARD ROGERS, ROYAL ACADEMY, LONDON

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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.