Sometimes an obelisk is just an obelisk. But throughout history, buildings and monuments have often doubled as erotic symbols. And in more ways than we might realize, the spaces and structures around us reflect and perpetuate our attitudes toward sex.
After a “textbook mid-life crisis” while living in buttoned-up Morningside, Edinburgh–a neighborhood “every bit as repressive as Freud’s Vienna”–author Richard J. Williams set off in search of architecture that’s sexually progressive rather than restrictive. The result of his research was Sex and Buildings: Modern Architecture and the Sexual Revolution, an entertaining meditation on how changing ideas of the body and sexuality have influenced the design of our living spaces.
Williams spoke to Co.Design about the five most erotic buildings he discovered. He tastefully left out the winner of the Most Phallic Building contest (yes, that exists): Michigan’s Ypsilanti Water Tower, aka the “Brick Dick.” No building erection jokes here.
1. The Playboy Townhouse, 1962.
This fantasy Chicago bachelor pad seems straight out of Austin Powers. Designed by architect R. Donald Jaye as a “modishly swinging manor for the urban man,” it was sadly never actually built. Lush illustrations in the May 1962 issue of Playboy depict a swimming pool in the living room, a sun terrace, a rabbit-escutcheoned teak door, and a rotating circular bed. “Everything here is designed around sex,” says Williams.
2. The Orgone Energy Accumulator, by Wilhelm Reich, mid-1940s.
This therapeutic pleasure box inspired Woody Allen’s fictional Orgasmatron in Sleeper. Supposedly, sitting inside the magical vibrating wardrobe charges you up with cosmic energy and increases sexual potential. J.D. Salinger, William S. Burroughs, and members of Devo were among its proponents. “My experience of it was decidedly unerotic,” says Williams, “but I find Reich fascinating.” Instructions for building your own can be found here.
3. The Kings Road House by Rudolf Schindler, Los Angeles, 1922.
Austrian-born Rudolf Schindler, whose work became synonymous with mid-century modern L.A., designed an iconic, Japanese-style house with rooftop “sleeping baskets” sheltered by canopies instead of bedrooms. Interlinking L-shaped apartments were built for two couples, encouraging cooperative living. “A complete failure in practice, but a beautiful place,” Williams tells Co.Design.
4. Ricardo Bofill’s Walden Seven, Barcelona, 1977.
Named after B.F. Skinner’s utopian sci-fi novel Walden Two, this labyrinthine apartment complex has seven interconnecting interior courtyards. Starting from a small pod-like apartment, residents can, uh, couple with neighbors as relationships develop. “A completely utopian idea, but a good one nonetheless, and an astonishing-looking building, like nothing on Earth.” The residents’ association website once featured a quote by poet Pablo Neruda: ‘Procreate, procreate!'”
5. John Portman’s Bonaventure Hotel, Los Angeles, 1977.
Often called a city-within-a-city, the Bonaventure has been criticized because it’s so damn hard to find your way around, especially after visiting its dizzying revolving cocktail lounge. But Williams says, “I love the way you can’t help but get lost. There’s something fundamentally erotic about losing your way–that’s why people like Venice.” Williams calls the innovative Portman “one of very few architects to ‘get’ ordinary people and their desires.”
For a far more in-depth exploration of the role of eros in architecture, Sex and Buildings can be found here.