LA’s Forties – a talk for Salon London

noirHere is an edited version of a talk I gave on 7 November for Salon London‘s ‘The Century’ event: 

So which city is 1940s Los Angeles, ‘sunshine or noir’ as Mike Davis put it? The great beach metropolis, light-soaked and perpetually optimistic? Or the dank, furtive city of Cain and Chandler that in the movies looks more like Engels’s Manchester than anything else (it’s always raining for a start, a trick Ridley Scott borrowed for Blade Runner). Well it’s both, of course, but at different times sunshine wins out over noir, at least in cultural terms. In the 1940s it’s certainly noir (…)

It is the Freudian city par excellence, a city defined by its unconscious. Whether or not you buy into Freud doesn’t matter: it’s literally a city full of Viennese emigrees who absolutely did. The compelling and influential culture of noir was an explicitly Freudian culture, produced by artists and writers and film-makers for whom psychoanalysis was alive. Knowing that, and knowing just how much of LA’s distinctive culture in the 1940s was produced by middle-European Jewish intellectuals explains a great deal: it’s noir rather than sunshine and couldn’t have been any other way.

Noir is sometimes produced intentionally and self-consciously, in the case of the novels of Raymond Chandler or the films of Billy Wilder. Or it may be unintentional, but no less affecting. My introduction to LA noir came through one of these unintentional products, a building, the Kings Rd house by Rudolf Schindler, a Viennese, who collaborated with the better known Richard Neutra Built in 1922, it is, you could say, emblematic of a set of typically Californian desires: to be modern, to suck up influences from anywhere, and most of all, to be outdoors. It consists of two interlocking, L-shaped pavilions. The structure is cast concrete, the walls and roof wood. It’s more than a little Japanese.

What struck me about it when I first saw it ten years ago was was the architecture, than its sexuality. Built for two couples, the Schindlers and the Chaces, it built on the memory of camping trips the two couples had taken together, and although nowhere it is suggested they shared sexual partners, the house nevertheless alludes to their sexual frankness (Schindler’s sexual appetites were well known. A notorious womaniser, no Southern Californian woman was safe). So the house is largely open to the elements. The living room is really an open patio with a fireplace, and the bedrooms are two sleeping platforms on the roof. You get the idea – everything is open to everything else, everything can be seen and heard. There is no privacy.

So why mention the house in the context of the 1940s? Well – it’s at this point that the sexual dream of the house well and truly soured. It never worked anyway: the Chaces moved out after only a few months, and then the Schindlers split, Pauline Schindler moving out of town. And then, having separated, she came back to live in the house in the 40s. The now divorced couple lived in separate parts of the house, communicating only through their respective lawyers. It was an appalling sexual standoff that lasted the whole decade and beyond, until Schindler’s death from lung cancer in 1953.

To me this story says it all about LA in the 40s. A utopian dream soured, light turned to darkness, sex gone bad. Of course it’s one house and one story in a vast city, but it is the kind of story that became increasingly popular with writers and film-makers. In Hollywood it became arguably the dominant trope.

ADORNO/HORKHEIMER

Noir LA was also the subtext to a notorious, or celebrated (depending on your point of view) piece of cultural theory by the exiled Germans Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’. It’s relevant because it was published bang in the middle of the decade (1944) and its authors were resident just a few miles from Schindler’s house. Cultural studies people love this essay. I’m never quite sure why, because it is possibly the angriest piece of writing you are every likely to come across, outside of a Daily Mail editorial (to which it bears a passing resemblance). All aspects of popular culture are dismissed: mass-produced trash, popular culture is also they write, borderline propaganda that makes independent thought impossible. Their LA is by inference as controlling as Nazi Germany.

It all seems a little unfair given their comfortable duplex in Brentwood (to be fair they were under effective house arrest). And their critique, dismayingly, shows no evidence of their actually having consumed any of the things that make them so angry. So they write if the whole of Hollywood, despite the fact that at precisely the same moment it was producing film after film in a highly critical vein. Why let facts get in the way of a good story? Most depressingly they dismiss jazz, all of it. And worst of all, Donald Duck.

But the piece is nevertheless interesting for its psychosexual dimension, a running theme through 1940s culture. Sex, they write is everywhere in popular culture, citing the way it suffuses the movies. It’s perhaps the only topic in the movies. But while it’s everywhere, it’s also compromised: it only ever appears as promise, never actuality, for to let it be, as it were, would be to satisfy desire, and satisfaction of course curtails consumption. The culture industry, they write, must never satisfy desire; it must inflame it, but always leave its customers wanting more. Precisely how culture might deal with sexual desire more authentically isn’t made clear. They weren’t looking at pornography, which is a pity: that might have challenged their views of popular culture. But what is interesting is how they understand the field of sexuality in 1940s LA as fundamentally perverse. The desire is there, but it can never be satisfied; it’s always compromised and corrupted; always bad.

DOUBLE INDEMNITY

Well there’s certainly some truth in that. By the1940s, this perverse view of sex has starts to become a major topic in cinema. There remains an open question about its ethics: for Adorno, perverse sex was represented to moral ends. In other words, bad behaviour gets punished, typically female bad behaviour. But I think this is too simplistic. In the films I’m going to describe, the protagonists are perverse in terms of what they do. They have sex for pleasure, often with multiple partners. They care little for family. Their sexual activities often get them into trouble. And sex and death are inescapably connected. That said the characters in these films are among the most attractive in cinematic history, and through that attractiveness, and our identification with them, we have – in the best films – a sense of the complexity of human existence.

‘Noir’ is a slippery term, one that didn’t appear in usage until sometime after its key films were made, and it was used in the first instance (1946) by A French critic, Nino Frank who to some extent projected his desires onto what he saw. There wasn’t a consumer category of ‘noir’ in 1940s LA: you didn’t, for example, set out deliberately to see a ‘noir’ in the same way as you would choose to see a romance.

Nevertheless a distinct style of film-making emerged at the time. Amomg the many definitions of noir, the most useful I’ve found is Paul Schrader’s from 1972. He says (I paraphrase) the following: (1) it’s always night; (2) horizontal lines are out; oblige angles are in; (3) the actors and their settings are of equal importance; (4) ‘compositional tension is preferred to physical action’ (i.e. no explosions); (5) ‘there is an almost Freudian attachment to water’; (6) there is an attraction to hopeless romantic scenarios, temps perdus etc; (7) chronologies are messed up. Almost all of these are relevant to the perverse LA that emerges in the 1940s. This is, in popular culture at least, a city that is made to resist the story of progress.

Double Indemnity, directed by the Austrian émigré Billy Wilder. The script was originally a James Cain novel, adapted by a grumpy Raymond Chandler (Chandler thought Cain was rubbish). It’s a great noir film, perhaps the greatest – and also a great LA film. It tells the story of an insurance salesman Walter Neff (played by Fred MacMurray) who finds himself entangled with an amoral, psychopathic housewife, Phyllis Dietrichson (played by Barbara Stanwyck), who is bent on murdering her alcoholic husband for the payout. Neff, a cynical tough guy, calls on Dietrichson in response to her request for a quote. When it transpires she’s out for the money, Neff backs off – only to become ensnared when she calls on him later and seduces him into complicity. Out of a feral attraction to her, and (one senses) his own boredom, he takes on the task with relish, embellishing the murder to ensure it takes place on a train – that unusual site of death results, he points out, carries a double indemnity, meaning a double payout. They carry out the task, and subsequently, through an increasingly anxious narrative it becomes clear Dietrichson has no feelings for Neff; in the penultimate scene she shoots him, only to be shot herself in by her lover. The final scene has Neff expire in the arms of his boss, Barton Keyes (played by Edward G Robinson) as he dictates his version of the story to tape.

There is a striking visual quality to the whole film, that is true of noir in general, but well advanced here. It’s always dark, for starters: a city of more or less perpetual sunshine appears in the movie in more or less perpetual darkness. Daylight, where it appears at all, refracts though venetian blinds, or rain. It rains far more in the movies than in reality: LA is technically a desert city, under constant threat of drought, then as now.

As well as dark, it’s always inside. The sunnier accounts of LA, for example Reyner Banham’s amazing book on the subject I mentioned earlier, portray a city constantly out of doors, never far from contact with nature: Banham’s TV film Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles depicts a city of the beach, of the freeways and of expansive views from the Holywood Hills: the sense of light and space and nature is infectious and seductive. Double Indemnitys action invariably takes place at close quarters. Interiors are dark, stuffy and claustrophobic. You never get a view out. The city dissolves into a set of dark fragments.

This perversion of atmospheres, this making the familiar uncanny occurs repeatedly, turning ordinary spaces into extraordinary ones. Nothing – in the great cliché – is as it seems. Perhaps the most imaginative example of this defamiliarisation occurs in the supermarket. Its role in Double Indemnity is to provide, post-murder, the safe space for Neff and Dietrichson to meet. Their encounters are excruciating: avoiding each other’s gaze, they hiss through pursed lips, distractedly pawing cans of baked beans, trying (but failing) to avoid engagement with the other customers. The safe space of the supermarket becomes an ever more anxiety laden one, the space where they come to talk about things that cannot in reality be talked about; the abundance of groceries, meant by the store to represent a benign freedom of choice, comes to be just overwhelming. A middle aged woman’s request to Neff for a package of baby food is not, as it ought to be, an opportunity for kindness; it is the last straw.

That perversion of the city leads us to the question of sex, for this is a film that is motivated by pursuing and having sex, but ultimately to its perversion. Neff first meets Dietrichson at her home, where he first catches sight of her as she emerges from a bath (exploiting the sense of her recent nakedness for all it is worth). That is a straightforward sense of sex. More perverse is what happens next, as she descends a spiral staircase, revealing her ankle bracelet as she does; the camera (and by implication Neff’s gaze) fixates on this piece of jewellery, which by the time she has reached ground level, has become, without doubt a Freudian fetish object – which is to say a stand-in for sexual experience, an object that is associated with a particular sexual experience and can produce feelings of arousal because of that association, to the point at which it displaces the real sexual experience altogether.

I think Billy Wilder knew his Freud well enough. He was a Viennese after all. I wonder if he knew Freud’s essay ‘Jensen’s Gradiva’, an account of a bizarre Danish novella in which the protagonist, a male archeologist becomes obsessed with the exposed ankle of a Roman girl, illustrated on a Pompeian mosaic. The girl’s ankle becomes an obsession, a fetish – to the horrifying extent that the archaeologist finds the girl come to life. Nothing so bizarre happens to Neff, but in a way, his fetish has more terrible consequences. It is his memory of Deitrichson’s ankle bracelet that softens his resolve; his palpable arousal leads him to murder.

Well, the Neff/Dietrichson relationship winds its perverse course through the rest of the film. Each moment that contains the potential for resolution finds subversion instead; as the pair remove obstacles to their being together, they find themselves paradoxically further alienated from each other; what should be moments of intimacy are moments of shocking estrangement. We slowly come to realise that the only true moment of intimacy, the seduction scene in Neff’s stuffy apartment, is in fact the pretext for the murder conspiracy – and Dietrichson turns out to be a sexual double agent, responsible ultimately for Neff’s murder. So it goes – towards the end of the film, it becomes clear that the only true relationship is in fact a homosexual one, between Neff and his boss, the tenacious, neurotic Keyes ‘I love you too’ ne says to Keys more than once, a piece of banter exchanged at moments of routine stress. But the final scene turns it – almost – into a reality: Keys cradles a sweating Neff as he sinks into death; they look like, and effectively are, lovers.

Wilder went on to refine these themes in Sunset Boulevard (1950) a tale of perverse love affair between a failing young scriptwriter and a forgotten screen actress (William Holden/Gloria Swanson), set in a semi-derelict mansion on the upper reaches of Sunset Boulvard: like Double Indemnity it portrays a city of interiors, or perpetual night and sexual perversity in which desire and death are never very far from each other, and no-one ever really gets what they want. These films also describe a precarious and anxious city, full of transients pitching for opportunities, and rarely getting them. The forties are arguably the decade this perverse culture crystallises as part of the city’s culture, and I would argue, makes the city all the better. Great cities sustain complexity and contradiction, and it’s striking to anyone who knows LA how contradiction is a part of the city’s everyday culture: it’s both/and, not either /or and all the better for it. LA’s 40s are a terrible decade, you might say, but also a beautiful one.

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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.

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.’

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 (…)

DFFICULT MEN

(…) 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.

HOWARD KIRK

‘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…’

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.

‘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.

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:

http://www.aeonmagazine.com/living-together/can-architecture-improve-our-sex-lives/

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.

Sex and the ‘normal’ city

Morningside, Edinburgh, 2013

Morningside, Edinburgh, 2013

Edinburgh, where I live, has just published some remarkable new statistics. (http://www.edinburgh.gov.uk/downloads/file/10548/edinburgh_by_numbers_2013_14) This bastion of social propriety actually isn’t very proper at all. Of all households in this city of half a million measured in the survey, just 3% could be described as a conventional family unit, that is two adults with one or more children. That’s right: three percent of the total. Single parent households accounted for 9%. By far the largest proportion (41%) of households consisted of a single adult living alone. The remainder was taken up by adults living together in various combinations.

Edinburgh is an exaggerated case. If ‘normality’ is defined by two adults together with kids, then Manhattan is about 10% more ‘normal’ than the Scottish capital. But Edinburgh’s experience does parallel that of cities in the rest of the industrialised world. They are getting older and greyer, and more people are choosing to live alone.

So what? Well stats like these contrast abruptly with the nature of the built environment itself. Edinburgh is strongly defined by four-floor tenement buildings constructed between roughly 1820 and 1920, and home construction in the city in private and public sectors, continues to take a lead from the tenement form. What’s interesting in this context is that it defines the city in terms of the normative family. In effect, the tenement is the normative family in stone. So there are clearly defined private and public spaces, rooms clearly intended as bedrooms for a married pair, smaller rooms for children, public rooms to be kept for ‘best’ (traditionally for receiving the minister of the local church) and so on. The built image of the city doesn’t any longer represent its lived reality.

Arguably this doesn’t matter. Our housing has been remarkably good at adapting: in Britain’s university towns, middle-class Victorian family homes have proved ideal for groups of cohabiting students. These buildings won’t last forever, however, and neither will the social trends that currently sustain them. Sooner or later, we’ll have to build in our own image again.

In terms of sex, all this is important. Compared to previous generations, we can expect extremely long lives, and increasingly healthy ones. Because they’re long, we can also expect increasing degrees of sexual complexity; only a small part of our overall lives is going to be lived out in what might be termed normative surroundings. And there is increasing recognition that permanent monogamy is unrealistic (we may, most of us, still believe in monogamy, but the statistics suggest we act otherwise). So – shouldn’t we start to imagine different ways of building for life? In Sex and Buildings I describe a series of attempts to make buildings that better represented our sexual lives as lived. They mostly failed, sometimes spectacularly so. That shouldn’t put us off, however. We will have to build again sometime, and better to do so realistically, with our eyes open, than to insist on nostalgic fantasy.

For me, the ideal would be some sort of co-housing, the best-known example being Sættedammen in Denmark, established in 1967 (founding creed: ‘Children Should Have One Hundred Parents’. I didn’t write about co-housing in Sex and Buildings, but on reflection it seems to occupy the right space between the wilder forms of intentional community, and market-dominated individualism. It doesn’t explicitly challenge sexual norms. However, by providing shared facilities (childcare, gyms, swimming pools, saunas, party rooms) it provides time and space to play, starting to address the deficits that inhibit our sexual lives (sex ‘loves to waste time’ in the words of the psychologist Esther Perel). The odd thing is that we already strongly value co-housing, albeit in an occasional and time-limited form. University students live like this, and as adults, we do the same thing on holiday; both forms seem to provide a better environment to explore and develop primary relationships including sexual ones. Now if we can accept that some of our lives, why not the rest of the time?