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« I don't know why I worry | Main | Hot New Buildings »

April 25, 2003

Architecture and Sex


Thanks for putting me onto Hugh Ferriss, the great architectural draftsman and illustrator. (Well, I guess I should say thanks, although you made me spend at least an hour last night when I should have been asleep scouring the web for images of Ferriss’ work.) Although I have a dim memory of an article in my childhood Encyclopedia Britannica on architectural draftsmanship by either Ferriss or one of his imitators, I was largely ignorant of the scope of his accomplishment—yes, I know, a sad admission for a Blowhard.

Hugh Ferriss, High Priest of the New York Skyscraper Sex Cult

Contemplating his images, my first reaction was the sheer Romance of Ferriss’s vision of New York. Adroitly managing plunging perspective lines, celestial illumination, and carefully parceled out detail, he manages to make New York skyscrapers look, well, pulsating with sex appeal. In his illustrations these buildings, real or imagined, look like altars to a particularly voluptuous primitive religion, bursting with blood and other bodily fluids.

Thinking historically (which, to paraphrase J.M.W. Turner, is either my fault or my forte), the wild men of architectural drawing (Ferriss, Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, G. B. Piranesi, Antonio Sant'Elia, etc.) all demonstrate the close link between architectural fantasies and sex fantasies. But only Piranesi seems to have been honest enough to admit that these fantasies have a masochistic quality to them, with the building becoming the ultimate dominating authority figure, the god or goddess we can only be overwhelmed by.

C. N. Ledoux and G. B. Piranesi-- Wild Men of Architectural Illustration

I have much the same reaction when I’m in real life Manhattan. I feel a mix of exhilaration wandering amid the superhuman shapes and oppression at being forced to scurry antlike through mazes of other people's architectural and economic power structures.

I guess my ultimate reaction is to prefer such fantasies on paper or via aerial photography in movies or on TV rather than in reality—I found living in New York a bit like being trapped in somebody else’s wet dream. I guess that probably explains why I moved to suburban Los Angeles and why even there I go downtown as rarely as possible.



P.S. Ladies, I just wanted you to know that Mr. Ferriss was not quite as exclusively wedded to masculine sexual metaphors as the above might make it seem: he was, on occasion at least, an equal opportunity fantasist:

posted by Friedrich at April 25, 2003


I'm not sure if I see it "bursting with blood and other bodily fluids", but its OK if you do. I do see major dominance as a theme, very phaelic. I'm sure Saddam, or Donald Trump, or any NFL quarterback, would love these buildings. I'm not sure if I see the "goddess" here---it seems more like the architect's way of conquering the landscape sexually in a very male way---the biggest swordsman on the block, so to speak. And...there certainly is an element of that in real live New York!

Posted by: annette on April 25, 2003 3:38 PM

I think there's a bit more feminine glamour there than you're giving Mr. Ferriss credit for:

Hugh and Ginger Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 25, 2003 3:54 PM

Good point. Or you have a better eye than even Hugh does.

Posted by: annette on April 25, 2003 4:45 PM

Outstanding stuff. Thanks for those illustrations.

Posted by: James Russell on April 26, 2003 2:06 AM

May I say...this sight makes my mind take the occasional flight into dream world.

The comparison of these buildings to a phallic symbol is, well...why didn't I think of that? I mean, I see phallic symbols ALL the time in the plant world. It never occurred to me to see a building that way. (Probably because I live mainly among plants!)

Me being female and all, I started trying to think of potential mates for all those testosterone filled skyscrapers. Surely they are unbearably restless...for decades standing erect, left to fend for themselves, filled with a deep sense of, "is this all there is to life?" But, with my very limited knowledge of architecture, the only building I could come up with was, well geez--the Pentagon! And I'm having a hard time giving the Pentagon even a drop of femininity.

I was at a college honors banquet last night with my current flame. A speaker there referred to the college as a SHE! Now there's an idea! Those skyscrapers need to pair up each with a huge college campus. Think about it. Together their hearts would find peace...true soul mates! can anyone play along and do better?

Posted by: laurel on April 26, 2003 9:49 AM

Hey Laurel, Neat points. I think you might get a kick out of the work of people like Jane Jacobs and Christopher Alexander. They've left me thinking that what's "female" in architecture (if everyone will excuse our use of female and male principles) might not be simply a matter of building buildings in different shapes, but might be instead, say, other architectural values entirely: the space between buildings, say, or the qualities of a neighborhood. (Buildings in different, female shapes -- bring those on too!)

One of the great virtues of traditional architecture is that, unlike macho modernism (almost entirely concerned with building the freestanding, dick-like thing), it's just as concerned with, say, public and shared spaces. The classical architect or builder worries just as much about contributing to (ie., "dressing") the street as he/she does about standing out --with every building, you're either helping or you're hurting the creation of shared, public spaces. Parks are another example. The typical modernist park is a hard edged empty space; they've theorized that that's what it is, and they've applied the theory. (And people generally find them sterile and avoid 'em.) How to build a park that suits a city and its inhabitants is actually well-known. It involves defining the space in a positive way, mixing up features within the space at certain ratios and with certain kinds of variables ...

All of which is rather like cooking, no? Lots of recipes, tested through time, there to be monkeyed with and modified and improvised on (or, what the heck, slavishly followed), and there finally for nourishment, bonding and pleasure.

Shared space, respect for the public sphere, recipes and cooking, the transformation of emptiness into something like "home" -- all, ahem, potentially "female" architectural values, no? Let's see more of them in the architecture world. I can get a kick out of ego preening -- ie., talented people having dick-size wars. But when "architecture" defines itself entirely in those terms, something really valuable is being overlooked and lost.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 26, 2003 3:49 PM

I think Thomas Jefferson's Monticello is quite a feminine bit of architecture. Makes me think Tom was probably a sexy guy. Incorporates a lot of the elements Michael mentions. My favorite are the windows which can also open as doors---FILLED with emotional symbolism!

Posted by: annette on April 26, 2003 7:04 PM

It is a cheap and easy criticism to say that tall buildings are phallic symbols. Their height and footprint, and resulting proportions, are simply a function of the lot size, zoning, and the need to have as much floor space as possible.

Calling everything that is tall and tapered at the top a penis is something a narrow-minded freshman psych major would say as if it dripped with self-evidence.

There have been many world cultures that implemented similar elements that the post-modern art/architectural dilettante would vilify as masochistic. Yet these cultures were less penis-obsessed than we are.

Reducing an amazing building, one inspired by uniquely American individualism, drive, and ingenuity, to something conveniently fitting into a world view of perceived psychosexual oppression is puerile.

Similarly, just because Ferris sketches a massive concrete pipe section does not mean its a vaginal opening, as the original post suggested. It is simply a pipe. Concrete may seem ubiquitous and dull to us now, but back then it was as important as silicon is to us today as a material. Thus it was represented dramatically by people who saw the material's potential such as H. Ferriss. Drafting in the machine age often involved rendering something industrial or technical. A pipe is one of the most simple and common forms in that context. It is not a vagina. This is not an O'Keefe painting.

Posted by: Mike Trossman on June 11, 2004 12:14 PM

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