Architecture (Phallic)

In anticipation of a visit to San Francisco’s Coit Tower (pictured), here are some penetrating thoughts on phallic buildings. A firmed-up, expanded version of this entry appears in the forthcoming Cultural Encyclopedia of the Penis, edited by Michael Kimmel and Christine Milrod (2015).   

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Phallic architecture has existed as long as humans have been building, and it continues to be built now, often on an unprecedented scale. The world’s tallest structures are widely understood as phallic ones. However the phallic tower is one of a number of distinct forms of phallic architecture: many buildings are demonstrably phallic, but they connote the phallus in different ways. The different types can be summarized as follows: (1) Literal representations of the penis: typically for the purposes of phallus-worship in pre-modern and/or non-western cultures. (2) Phallic towers: buildings understood the connote the phallus in its outward form In its proportions, it resembles the penis in its erect state. Its outline may be further bolstered by allusions (intended or otherwise) to a glans, scrotum, or even foreskin. (3) Buildings as Freudian phallic objects. Freud identified certain objects as ‘phallic’ for their unquestionable connotations of masculinity. Pipes, cigars, walking sticks, overcoats and furled umbrellas are examples of metonymically phallic objects. In architecture, steel, chrome, dark glass, and leather may similarly be construed as phallic in themselves, as well as typically exposed structures and plant of any kind. (4) Buildings with a phallic purpose. These are buildings designed (or adapted) explicitly for penile functions or use. There may be more types of phallic architecture, but these are the main categories.

Buildings that represent the phallus in literal form abound in non-western and pre-modern cultures. Among the best known examples are the large statues (‘herms’) of the messenger of the Gods, Hermes, erected all over in Greece in the 6th century BC, depicting a bearded man with an erect phallus. Herms were integral to all major public buildings. Hindu, Khmer, and Malian cultures also have traditions of monumental phallic sculpture on public buildings.

In modern cultures, the high-rise tower is routinely, and popularly understood to connote the phallus, regardless of the intentions of the architects. In recent years, technological advances have made it possible for architecture to take organic, rather than rectilinear, forms. The most striking contemporary examples include Foster and Partners’ 30 St. Mary’s Axe building (2004) in the City of London, Jean Nouvel’s Torre Agbar (2005) in Barcelona, and the Oriental Pearl TV Tower in Shanghai (1997). Rem Koolhaas’s Shenzen Stock Exchange (2013) is rectilinear in form, but has a notably cock-and-balls profile in silhouette. American towers have very frequently been considered phallic. Key examples include Robert Mills’s Washington Monument (1848-85), Harold van Buren Magonigle’s Liberty Memorial in Kansas City (1926), Halsey, McCromack and Helmer’s Williamsburg Savings Bank in Brooklyn (1927-9), and Edward Durell Stone’s Florida State Capitol (1973-7). In  2003, the readers of Cabinet, an influential US culture magazine, voted the William R. Coats’s water tower in Ypsilanti, Michigan (1890) the world’s most phallic building. Known locally as the Brick Dick, it is a smooth cylinder with a highly pronounced glans.

Some buildings are also phallic objects in the Freudian sense. Among the clearest examples are the works of the German-born architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, with their fetishistic concern for engineering precision. His Seagram Building on Park Ave, New York is not phallic in form, but its precision, restraint, and treatment of surface gives it the air of a well-cut suit. Mies was himself powerfully built, and always immaculately dressed. Interviewers often made a connection between his highly masculine physical presence and that of his buildings. The work of so-called High-Tech architects in the 1970s and 1980s had similar characteristics: see for example the exposed structure of Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano’s Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (1977)  or the luxuriously polished stainless steel of Rogers’s Lloyds Building in London (1985. The architect publicly delights in stereotypically masculine machinery and engineering, airplanes and fast cars especially.

Buildings with a phallic purpose are varied. On the grandest scale – though unbuilt – is Claude Nicolas Ledoux’s Oikema (1773-9), a scheme for a ‘house of pleasure’ on a phallic groundplan to educate young men in the mysteries of sex. Entering via the schematic scrotum, initiates would proceed along the shaft to the ‘glans’, a semicircular chamber where they would be met by women employed for the purposes of sexual initiation. On a much lower level is the contemporary  phenomenon of the Glory Hole, a hole bored in a wall through which a penis may be inserted, and anonymously fondled. A small scale, usually informal, adaptation of public restrooms and private saunas, it has become a staple of queer architecture. It was celebrated publicly in a 2006 exhibition at London’s Architecture Foundation, called simply Glory Hole. Other examples of architecture with a phallic purpose include the work of the British architect Nigel Coates; his installation  Hypnerotosphere for the 2008 Venice Architecture Biennale included highly anthropomorphic furniture that seemed to invite penetration. Finally, Foster and Partners’ Commerzbank tower in Frankfurt includes a notorious urinal, at which the user, dick in hand, pisses over the city. The commerzbank is not only a symbolic phallus, but very nearly a functional one.

In all forms of culture, phallic architecture is widely understood, resulting in the popular naming of prominent towers (‘the erotic gherkin’, ‘Pereira’s Prick’, the ‘Brick Dick’ and so on).

FURTHER READING

Betsky, Aaron. Building Sex: Men, Women, Architecture and the Construction of Sexuality. New York: Harper Perennial, 1997.

Cabinet Magazine event, ‘Which Building is the World’s Most Phallic?’ (July 2003) http://cabinetmagazine.org/events/phallic/contest.php. Accessed online 05.23.13.

Rand, Ayn. The Fountainhead. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1943.

Williams, Richard J., Sex and Buildings: Modern Architecture and the Sexual Revolution. London: Reaktion Books, 2013.

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The Cake and The Couch

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On Friday 28 February, we held a meeting at the Edinburgh College of Art about psychoanalysis. I spoke mostly about cake. Not any cake, but one in particular: the Sacher-Torte, the famous Viennese chocolate sponge. It was invented in 1832 by the then sixteen year old Franz Sacher for Prince Wenzel Von Metternich, and then popularised by Franz’s son, Eduard who founded the Sacher Hotel in 1876. A rich, dark sponge, it is covered in a distinctively thick layer of dark chocolate icing. Its richness has two vital counterpoints: a layer of astringent apricot jam between the chocolate and the sponge, and (when served) unsweetened whipped cream as an accompaniment.

The Sacher-Torte is an essential part of a tourist itinerary in Vienna. It’s an unhappy cake, though. Just look at the thing (see above) and its sheer formality is overwhelming. The chocolate exterior melts easily, so to achieve that clean presentation requires a lot of care. The way the thing looks demands a kind of respect. Then there’s its very density and sweetness. There’s no way you can enjoy it quickly. Wolf it and you’ll throw up. It’s a cake that has to be taken in small measured bites, mixed with the cream. It needs discipline to eat; it’s a thoroughly grown-up cake, not at all something for children. And it isn’t cheap. A piece in the Sacher Hotel with the appropriate melange (milky coffee) will set you back €20 or so.

The Sacher-Torte is certainly a refined pleasure – if indeed pleasure is the right word, for when things are as refined as this, the potential for embarrassment is huge. I remember yearning for a slice as a child on a family holiday in Austria, and finally, after much persuasion getting one. But on achieving the goal, it was made clear that this was a one-off, a treat that was to be prolonged as far as possible in order to extract the maximum value. Any pleasure was calculatedly forestalled.

The individual misery of the cake which I experienced (and which I suspect is far from unusual) has a strange parallel in the social history the cake. In 1934, the Sacher Hotel went bust, and a version of the cake was produced by the rival Demel bakery. Back in business in 1938, the hotel reintroduced its product, and tried to stifle the upstart by all manner of tactics, resorting to legal action in 1954, a case that was not resolved until 1963 with an out of court settlement. Demel’s version had (indeed has) plenty of adherents who appreciate its more robust sponge, and the extra layer of apricot jam. But it was a nasty business. Each side had its advocates, and it pitted families and friends each other in what was an already one of Europe’s most traumatised cities

I did not know about the controversy until long after I had eaten my first piece. But I knew from my first bite that Sacher-Torte was much more than a cake. Not only was it surrounded by a whole set of rituals and expectations for which as a child I was wholly unprepared, its material richness was like a physical assault. It sat like a rock my stomach and made me feel sad and guilty for hours. Sad, because what I thought should have been a simple pleasure, wasn’t. And guilty because I had been treated to something that I couldn’t, in the event, fully enjoy.

So what does any of this have to do with psychoanalysis? Well, the location to start with: this is the emblematic cake of the home of the discipline. How much cake Freud consumed is unclear, but he was an enthusiastic participant in the city’s bourgeois rituals and there’s nothing to suggest he avoided this one.

But more importantly, it shows how complex our psychological lives are. We might conventionally understand cake eating as just a simple pleasure of civilised life. But I’d wager (admittedly without a shred of evidence) that the consumption of Sacher-Torte is routinely accompanied by dark and complex feelings, with their attendant pathologies. Take that as you will, but it is a small reminder that what the way we consume things is often far more complex than we like to believe, and that pleasure rarely occurs when and where we believe it should.

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.