Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP
Erotic Architecture: the Sexual History of Great Buildings
Erotic Architecture

Erotic Architecture: the Sexual History of Great Buildings

By Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

Bricks and Mortals: Ten Great Buildings and the People They Made 
Tom Wilkinson
Bloomsbury, 352pp, £25

Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture 
Justin McGuirk
Verso, 288pp, £17.99

At first glance, the only visible connection between these two lively books is a bridge between Rio de Janeiro and Rocinha, the South American city’s biggest favela, shaped in the guise of a woman’s G-stringed bottom. This, however, proves to be revealing, for both Tom Wilkinson’s revisionist passeggiata through architectural history and Justin McGuirk’s hike through the slums and outer suburbs of Latin American cities seem bent, provocatively, on turning accepted notions of architecture and the values of the profession that serves it upside down and inside out. Wilkinson quotes Oscar Niemeyer, the long-lived Brazilian architect who designed some of the most sensuous buildings of the 20th century: “Life is more important than architecture.”

As for that curvaceous footbridge, Wil­kinson quotes Niemeyer again: “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.” Despite what he calls Niemeyer’s “Palaeozoic sexual attitudes”, Wilkinsona young architectural historianhas written a book that is as much about bodies and sex as it is about buildings. Indeed, you might call Bricks and Mortals a guide to the sexual understanding of great buildings.

As he gleefully sets out to undermine previous generations of historians and critics, Wilkinson revels in the perceived “unnaturalness” and “structural dishonesty” of Nero’s Golden House in Rome, a decadent labyrinth where exotic sex was the imperial order of the day. He thrills, too, in what he sees as the “queasily pulsating geometry” of Borromini’s San Carlo church in the same city; in the provocative profile of the Djenné mud mosque in Mali (“a baroque temple dedicated to the god of suppositories”, according to the French critic Félix Dubois); and in the orgies, open to every sexual persuasion, organised by Charles Fourier in the “courts of love” of his idealistic French revolutionary communes. And, via a discussion of “glory holes” in the cubicles of gents public lavatories, we are led to the E.1027 house on the French Mediterranean coast, built by Eileen Gray for her younger male lover, celebrated in a chapter subtitled “Architecture and Sex”.

And yet, although Wilkinson seems obsessed by sex, the combination of perceptive architectural observation and licentious historical analysis makes him seem more of a latter-day Francis Kilvert, the bright young Victorian curate with a roving eye, than a hip architectural historian out to shock. When Wilkinson focuses his eyes on architectureas he does, say, with Palazzo Rucellai, a muscular 15th-century Renaissance town house in Florencehe backs into the territory of the old-school historians he seems so keen to depose.

Here is proof that Wilkinson has looked at buildings honestly and can write about them well. What he wants, I think, is to provoke readers into thinking of architecture as a subject concerned with much more than stones and proportions, famous names and revered monuments. He uses sex to imply that life is, as Niemeyer said, more important than his subject. He even ends up calling for an end to architecture built by “developers, speculators, landlords and corrupt bureaucrats who profit from it” in favour of a discipline in service of slum-dwellerswhich is why he includes that bridge to Rocinha.

While this seems a slightly curious finale to a book that uses some of the world’s most memorable buildings to make its case for an ambivalent, ambiguous and discursive new history of architecture, it does link Wilkinson to McGuirk, an author who gives short shrift to architects before those of his own generation. McGuirk favours those who are social activists rather than pure designers, and therefore morally superior to mere form-givers such as Niemeyer, Le Corbusier or Leon Battista Alberti.

Radical Cities waves a reddish flag for South and Central American architects and activists dedicated to building well for the rapidly increasing urban poor. On a fast-paced trip through the regionairports, motorbikes and taxis “tearing along” highways abound – McGuirk contrasts the largely failed architect-designed estates of the 1960s and 1970s that he finds on the edges of sprawling cities with recent attempts to reinvent the favelas of Rio and the barrios of Caracas.

His activists prove to be larger than life: Mostly handsome, dynamic and muscular young men bursting from their shirts as they take on barrios and favelas. “Luciano” shows the author around the “ruins” of Piedrabuena, a vast 1970s housing estate south of Buenos Aires. This 28-year-old guide has a “stevedore’s build” and a tattoo of Piedrabuena across his lower back. “This place is not just his second skin,” observes McGuirk. “It is his skin.”

When he zips up the machismo, McGuirk is good at uncovering and explaining Latin American settlements that are truly different and have something positive to say to slums and cities in the rest of the world. Two examples stand out. These are Alto Comedero, “a Latin Coronation Street” in north-west Argentina, and Torre David, a Caracas skyscraper transformed into an improbable and beguiling vertical shanty town.

Pioneered by Milagro Sala, an indigenous Kolla and leader of Tupac Amaru, a social movement named after the 18th-century Inca rebel chief, Alto Comedero is a “gated community without the gate”, a settlement of neat, suburban homes (albeit with images of Che, Evita and Tupac Amaru on their chimney pots) complete with a communal swimming pool and a dinosaur theme park.

A bold attempt to offer a semblance of a middle-class, “country club” life to those who might otherwise live in shanty towns, Alto Comedero is, McGuirk writes, brave and intriguing but ultimately no solution to the problem of urban slums. What could be, however, is Torre David, an empty office tower in downtown Caracas that, in 2007, became the world’s tallest squat.

It is a dangerous and exhausting place to live. Yet, McGuirk argues, why not allow people to come in from failed estates such as Piedrabuena to live in redundant city-centre skyscrapers? Here is an example of the “diagonal city” of the 21st century, cutting across social divisions, as well as an instance of the “iconic” design that McGuirk so despises working to the benefit of the urban poor.

Both of these young authors have something to say, although perhaps they and their readers should be reminded that architecture is an ancient discipline, a continuum that absorbs and rejects new ideas, conjectures, philosophies and aberrations. In the end, what remain when life, slums, sex and the architects have gonewhether those of ancient Rome, or Renaissance Florence, or modern Rio de Janeiroare the stones themselves. We can read anything into these that we like. At their best, these books keep us from complacency, while provoking us to look again at both historic monuments and exotic slums. 

This article orginially appeared at Newstatesman.com.

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