Aeon magazine – can architecture improve our sex lives?

Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation complex in Marseilles (1952) was designed around the display of the body, its pools and terraces, meant for inhabitants to show off. Photo by Stephen Burrows. Courtesy Aeon Magazine.

Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation complex in Marseilles (1952) was designed around the display of the body, its pools and terraces, meant for inhabitants to show off. Photo by Stephen Burrows. Courtesy Aeon Magazine.

Aeon magazine have just published this piece on Sex and Buildings:

It summarises the book’s argument, but adds a little at the end on an alternative future. It argues for a ‘commune-lite’, in essence, not far of what Le Corbusier imagined in Marseilles in 1948, or Ricardo Bofill in Barcelona in ’77. Bofill’s ‘Walden Seven’ is one of my favourite buildings, whatever Robert Hughes said about it. A visionary place that also seems to work for its residents. Now if some friendly developer would like to do the same here…

Incidentally, the piece has a few snippy remarks about Morningside, as does a forthcoming feature by Teddy Jamieson in the Herald. I should say I still live there, and despite its maddening character, have no plans to move. My complaints are those of  someone who know – for better or worse – he’s in it for good.

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.