Do you remember theArchisutra? When in 2017 Miguel Bolivar published his book of architecture-inspired sex positions (such as ‘Eames it In’, the ‘Platform Lift’ and the ‘International Style’) he made the news. However, behind the tongue-in-cheek appeal of the book there was a serious sentiment.
‘The idea to produce the book came about after overhearing a colleague’s consultation with a client about the design of his house,’ says Bolivar. ‘To my surprise, she blushed at the client’s request to fit a lock on the bedroom door and the thought of people having sex in a building which she had designed.’
‘It’s odd how little architects have had to say on the subject of sex’, Professor Richard Williams says. ‘If they’re routinely designing the buildings in which sex happens, then you might expect them to spend more time thinking about it.’
The relationship between sexuality and architecture, whether outspoken or not, is inevitable and has always reflected the moral and ethical attitude towards sex during different times in history.
Terence McKenna once expressed the concern that ‘if they could make sex illegal, they would’ and we came closest to that during the Middle Ages. Back then, sexuality was viewed exclusively through the prism of Christian theology and seen as one of the surest paths to perdition. Medieval architecture reflects this scorn for the erotic in its flagship building type: the cathedral.
The martyrs and holy men of the Middle Ages would suppress their sexuality by overloading their senses with powerful stimuli such as pain and starvation; Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals employ a similar strategy. Stark changes in temperature between interior and exterior, the odour of unventilated space, exaggerated acoustics, the play of coloured light and the sacred sound of choir music leave little space for erotic contemplation. Contrast this with ancient Cypriote temples of priestess-prostitutes and Indian temples with their central phallic lingam and you see that a lack of eroticism is a particular characteristic of Abrahamic temples. Even the frescoes of the Middle Ages, portraying multitudes of saints draped in loose garments, possess no erotic energy. A feat of sexual negation.
Today’s attitudes towards sex are vastly different and our rapidly changing morality is leaking in to architectural expression. For example, ‘cruising’ is a newly popular form of sexual interaction. One ‘cruises’ space to find a casual, often anonymous, sexual partner and the practice has begun to inform the layouts of spaces as various as nightclubs, bathhouses, public toilets, and parks.
Our collective sexual attitude is currently a transitional one and accompanied by much tension. Homophobic crimes are still widespread and while medieval architecture used to smother sexual urges, today’s architecture needs to create safe places for their expression. Places like gay or queer bars need to be islands of safety and anonymity for their clients and they employ various strategies to that end.
One strategy is the ancient idea of the labyrinth as a protective place for secret activity. Labyrinths and mazes have historically been linked with immorality as they oppose the ordered, chartered, and surveyed ethic of society. Today they retain some of that meaning in sheltering those who express different sexual attitudes than conservative heterosexuality. Andreas Angelidakis’ Cruising Labyrinth for the 2018 Venice Biennale explores this idea. It is a maze-like structure that leads the user on to a glory hole at its culmination, the epitome of anonymous sex.
‘Architecture is the ultimate erotic act’, Bernard Tschumi writes, being an architect himself and quite biased on the subject. Oscar Niemeyer was also never shy about pointing out that his work is informed by sexual fascination.
‘Right angles don’t attract me, nor straight, hard and inflexible lines created by man. What attracts me are free and sensual curves. The curves we find … in the body of the woman we love’.
Being a male-dominated field, architecture has been a channel for male sexual fantasies. This is all the more apparent if one considers the conspicuous presence of modernist architecture in the Playboy magazine. The 2012 Playboy Architecture exhibition, organized with the help of Professor Beatriz Colomina, shows how seamlessly architecture by Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, and Buckminster Fuller has featured in the magazine alongside the voluptuous forms of its playmates. The exhibition explores the symbiosis between the sexual and the architectural revolutions of the previous century.
‘Playboy did not simply feature architects, they advised the reader on architecture and design. And they used architecture as prop for their sexual fantasies. Indeed, Playboy could not exist without architecture. With its massive readership—7 million copies were published at the peak in 1972—the magazine did more for promoting modern architecture and design than any architectural magazines or any institution… If you look at architecture and design magazines today they are simply variations of Playboy. The only thing missing is the naked women, and it is important to realize that Playboy’s features on architecture, especially its extended series of Playboy Pads, were more popular with the readers than the Playmates, as if the spaces for seduction were actually more erotic than the woman supposedly being seduced.’
Sexual allusions in architecture are not restricted to modern culture either. Take, for example, the Vishvanatha temple in Khajuraho. As an architectural pun, the place where the temple’s two main volumes enter into each other is decorated with graphic images of copulation. British colonists were so scandalized when they discovered it that they refused to sketch it down in their reports. The local population, however, sees sexuality as a powerful source of energy. In fact, the sexual imagery decorates the temple at its weakest structural point, the idea being that it will protect it through magic. This gives us a glimpse of an alternative attitude to sexuality in which the erotic is woven into the fabric of architecture. One only wishes medieval artists could have gone on a creative sabbatical to India. It would have led to much more engaging frescoes, for one.
It is going to be curious to see how new generations of architects and designers embrace sexuality in their work. Are they going to inherit the diffidence of their tutors or champion the new moral and ethical values of modern society? In any case, sexuality is one of the realities of human life that architects cannot avoid encountering. It is important that they do so consciously, as mature designers whose work reflects the values and taboos of modern society.