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Sex in Architecture

Has urbanism become too polite? Richard Williams explores the concrete evidence in Richard Rogers’s work

Place Pompidou from Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (Rogers & Piano, 1971-7) Photo: Richard J Williams

Place Pompidou from Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (Rogers & Piano, 1971-7) Photo: Richard J Williams

What happened to all the sex in architecture? Where did it go? The Richard Rogers retrospective at the Royal Academy, London, is a case in point. Rogers’s early work is undoubtedly sexy: think of the Pompidou Centre, Paris, designed with Renzio Piano in 1971. No intellectual, Rogers still picked up on the intoxicating mixture of Marx and Freud that fuelled the May ’68 events in Paris. Why not do it ‘in the road’, as the philosopher Herbert Marcuse suggested in Eros and Civilization? After all, the street was only a thin surface of civilisation covering the beach: (‘sous les pavés, la plage’, was a popular, ’68-era poster). The Pompidou, and a slew of unbuilt schemes from the same time offer space for the free play of the libido, where anything and everything might be possible. Rogers photographs beautifully at this stage too—a louche, tousled figure, both on the barricades in Paris and in his studio.

 

Rogers pulled off the same trick in 1985 for a previously staid and risk-averse City institution, Lloyds. His headquarters for them turned the building inside out, putting private functions on display. It caused a huge fuss in the then conservative City, but it also got plenty of fans. More than one couple was said to have copulated in the glass elevators on the outside of the building, reaching a climax in time to exit at street level. Who knows the truth of these stories? But that we want them to be true is indicative of what we want to believe about these buildings; they’re sexy because we want then to be.

 

But after Lloyds, he discovered urbanism. The vehicle for this was nearly academia, and in the late 1980s he came close to being head of the Bartlett school of architecture. Instead, he became a committee man. In an intense period during the 1990s, he chaired the new Labour government’s Urban Task Force, and the Tate Gallery’s Board of Trustees, acted as architectural advisor to Ken Livingstone when Mayor of London, and did the same for the city of Barcelona. Amidst it all, he gave the Reith Lectures for the BBC and published a pile of books, co-authored with friends and colleagues: A New London (1992) with Mark Fisher, later a New Labour Minister of the Arts; Cities for a Small Planet (1997) and Cities for a Small Country (2000).

 

Rogers’s urban message throughout is beguilingly simple. Let us stop being beastly to each other, and to the planet, and learn to live with each other in compact cities. If we do not, he warns, we face certain doom. This positively Victorian message, linking good behaviour and survival, would have got nowhere without Rogers’s considerable charm. Such is his success, London has been remade largely in his image.

 

It is a strangely disciplinary image, however, a sharp contrast with the architect’s early seventies libertarianism. The RA exhibition contains a now iconic sketch of Trafalgar Square, drawn (beautifully, it must be said) by Rogers’s associate, Mike Davies, in 1986. It depicts a reformed, pedestrianised square populated by stick figures spilling out of the National Gallery. It makes public space and the promenade coterminous. Nothing wrong with that per se, but in the Trafalgar image it is given to us as complete and ideal. Think about what it excludes: almost everything that makes us human. It certainly excludes sex, so strongly alluded to in the early architectural works. Rogers’s urbanism speaks primarily of civility, a word he often uses, and which in many ways seems to have caught on. It means decent public behaviour, and can, Rogers thinks, be built. Florence, the city of his birth, is civil; so is Paris; so is (in theory at least) Barcelona’s Ramblas; so is some of London; so is the Italian passegiata, a ritualised early evening stroll. And so now is the Pompidou centre, described as emerging from the Place Pompidou as a space for promenading.

 

Rogers would say that these public rituals are sexual, and of course in an important way, he’s right. They’re highly coded forms of display and socialisation, which may lead—via a series of publicly recognised steps—to sex. However, it’s sex in the conjugal bed, properly consecrated by marriage, for the purposes of procreation, overseen by the church. That is after all what the urbanism of Rogers’s favoured places actually says about sex. It’s the opposite of the libertarian free-for-all implied by the Pompidou.

 

I think we can do better than this. After Freud, and Kinsey and the Joy of Sex, we ought to be able to make architecture that embodies a slightly more modern set of sexual attitudes. Only a tiny fraction of our urban populations live in what might be regarded as conventional set-ups yet we continue to build in the image of what is for most, an outmoded model. In Edinburgh at the time of writing, only 3% of the city’s households consisted of two parents with children, yet almost all of the city’s housing stock assumes this model. Try finding accommodation that isn’t built as a single family dwelling, and that contradiction becomes clear. [1] Rogers’s early work, along with that of his European contemporaries Superstudio or Ricardo Bofill suggests another way of living and building. Our sexual lives are now so long and complex, a return to the architectural experimentation of the early seventies seems long overdue.


Richard Rogers RA: Inside Out
is at the Royal Academy, London until 18 October 2013


Richard J Williams is Professor of Contemporary Visual Cultures at the University of Edinburgh. His latest book Sex and Buildings: Modern Architecture and the Sexual Revolution was published by Reaktion Books in June 2013

 
http://www.richardjwilliams.net

[1] City of Edinburgh Council, Edinburgh by Numbers 2013-14 https://www.edinburgh.gov.uk/downloads/file/10548/Edinburgh_by_Numbers_2013_14