In anticipation of a visit to San Francisco’s Coit Tower (pictured), here are some penetrating thoughts on phallic buildings. A firmed-up, expanded version of this entry appears in the forthcoming Cultural Encyclopedia of the Penis, edited by Michael Kimmel and Christine Milrod (2015).
Phallic architecture has existed as long as humans have been building, and it continues to be built now, often on an unprecedented scale. The world’s tallest structures are widely understood as phallic ones. However the phallic tower is one of a number of distinct forms of phallic architecture: many buildings are demonstrably phallic, but they connote the phallus in different ways. The different types can be summarized as follows: (1) Literal representations of the penis: typically for the purposes of phallus-worship in pre-modern and/or non-western cultures. (2) Phallic towers: buildings understood the connote the phallus in its outward form In its proportions, it resembles the penis in its erect state. Its outline may be further bolstered by allusions (intended or otherwise) to a glans, scrotum, or even foreskin. (3) Buildings as Freudian phallic objects. Freud identified certain objects as ‘phallic’ for their unquestionable connotations of masculinity. Pipes, cigars, walking sticks, overcoats and furled umbrellas are examples of metonymically phallic objects. In architecture, steel, chrome, dark glass, and leather may similarly be construed as phallic in themselves, as well as typically exposed structures and plant of any kind. (4) Buildings with a phallic purpose. These are buildings designed (or adapted) explicitly for penile functions or use. There may be more types of phallic architecture, but these are the main categories.
Buildings that represent the phallus in literal form abound in non-western and pre-modern cultures. Among the best known examples are the large statues (‘herms’) of the messenger of the Gods, Hermes, erected all over in Greece in the 6th century BC, depicting a bearded man with an erect phallus. Herms were integral to all major public buildings. Hindu, Khmer, and Malian cultures also have traditions of monumental phallic sculpture on public buildings.
In modern cultures, the high-rise tower is routinely, and popularly understood to connote the phallus, regardless of the intentions of the architects. In recent years, technological advances have made it possible for architecture to take organic, rather than rectilinear, forms. The most striking contemporary examples include Foster and Partners’ 30 St. Mary’s Axe building (2004) in the City of London, Jean Nouvel’s Torre Agbar (2005) in Barcelona, and the Oriental Pearl TV Tower in Shanghai (1997). Rem Koolhaas’s Shenzen Stock Exchange (2013) is rectilinear in form, but has a notably cock-and-balls profile in silhouette. American towers have very frequently been considered phallic. Key examples include Robert Mills’s Washington Monument (1848-85), Harold van Buren Magonigle’s Liberty Memorial in Kansas City (1926), Halsey, McCromack and Helmer’s Williamsburg Savings Bank in Brooklyn (1927-9), and Edward Durell Stone’s Florida State Capitol (1973-7). In 2003, the readers of Cabinet, an influential US culture magazine, voted the William R. Coats’s water tower in Ypsilanti, Michigan (1890) the world’s most phallic building. Known locally as the Brick Dick, it is a smooth cylinder with a highly pronounced glans.
Some buildings are also phallic objects in the Freudian sense. Among the clearest examples are the works of the German-born architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, with their fetishistic concern for engineering precision. His Seagram Building on Park Ave, New York is not phallic in form, but its precision, restraint, and treatment of surface gives it the air of a well-cut suit. Mies was himself powerfully built, and always immaculately dressed. Interviewers often made a connection between his highly masculine physical presence and that of his buildings. The work of so-called High-Tech architects in the 1970s and 1980s had similar characteristics: see for example the exposed structure of Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano’s Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (1977) or the luxuriously polished stainless steel of Rogers’s Lloyds Building in London (1985. The architect publicly delights in stereotypically masculine machinery and engineering, airplanes and fast cars especially.
Buildings with a phallic purpose are varied. On the grandest scale – though unbuilt – is Claude Nicolas Ledoux’s Oikema (1773-9), a scheme for a ‘house of pleasure’ on a phallic groundplan to educate young men in the mysteries of sex. Entering via the schematic scrotum, initiates would proceed along the shaft to the ‘glans’, a semicircular chamber where they would be met by women employed for the purposes of sexual initiation. On a much lower level is the contemporary phenomenon of the Glory Hole, a hole bored in a wall through which a penis may be inserted, and anonymously fondled. A small scale, usually informal, adaptation of public restrooms and private saunas, it has become a staple of queer architecture. It was celebrated publicly in a 2006 exhibition at London’s Architecture Foundation, called simply Glory Hole. Other examples of architecture with a phallic purpose include the work of the British architect Nigel Coates; his installation Hypnerotosphere for the 2008 Venice Architecture Biennale included highly anthropomorphic furniture that seemed to invite penetration. Finally, Foster and Partners’ Commerzbank tower in Frankfurt includes a notorious urinal, at which the user, dick in hand, pisses over the city. The commerzbank is not only a symbolic phallus, but very nearly a functional one.
In all forms of culture, phallic architecture is widely understood, resulting in the popular naming of prominent towers (‘the erotic gherkin’, ‘Pereira’s Prick’, the ‘Brick Dick’ and so on).
Betsky, Aaron. Building Sex: Men, Women, Architecture and the Construction of Sexuality. New York: Harper Perennial, 1997.
Cabinet Magazine event, ‘Which Building is the World’s Most Phallic?’ (July 2003) http://cabinetmagazine.org/events/phallic/contest.php. Accessed online 05.23.13.
Rand, Ayn. The Fountainhead. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1943.
Williams, Richard J., Sex and Buildings: Modern Architecture and the Sexual Revolution. London: Reaktion Books, 2013.