Sex,Lies, and Architecture
Updated: Nov 29, 2022
"It's just about the work."
This tired, old chestnut is still trotted out today as an excuse to avoid critical discussions about gender, sexual orientation, and race when talking about architecture. It’s never just been about the work. The world of art history got a huge kick in the pants in 1971 when Linda Nochlin wrote her seminal critique "Why have there been no great women artists?", in which she rails against the entrenched sexism of those who decide who gets to be a great artist and how the history of art is told. The practicing world of architecture and design still has a lot of work to do in confronting its own biases (be they gender, race, or sexuality based) and it has hidden behind the cliché above to avoid these complex discussions. Like any other art form, architecture is viewed through the lens of the beholder. Whatever biases (and let’s face it we all have them) shape the thinking of the beholder, will shape how that viewer perceives the work in front of them, and in many cases how the work of architects is written about. While the art world and art historians are attempting to re-think and re-tell a more inclusive history of modernism, the practicing world of architecture still has a lot of work to do.
The problem with Paul Rudolph
The critical response to the interiors of Paul Rudolph is one example of how the internalized homophobia of many practitioners or critics affects the perception of his work. (Don't know who Paul Rudolph is? Read all about him here.) In his 2014 biography of Rudolph, author Timothy Rohan discusses how the publication of his own avant-garde apartment was seen as an "imprudent revelation of his homosexuality," and that the publication of the apartment "became an embarrassment rather than a triumph".1
While Paul Rudolph’s brutalist architecture is quite well-known to most architects, his glamorous interiors are much less so. They have not been given the same amount of attention, or accolades, and sadly many no longer exist. Perhaps this is because those who knew him and were aware that he was gay, were unable to separate his sexuality from the sexy interiors he designed and may have been uncomfortable with both.
When Martin Filler describes a dinner party at Paul Rudolf’s penthouse, it is not so much a critique of the interior as it is of Rudolph's gay lifestyle.
In addition to referring to his “much younger” boyfriend the article goes on to describe the shoddy workmanship of the penthouse interior and how its shifting interior planes are disorienting. The author is unimpressed with the lucite bathtub that does double duty as a skylight to a kitchen below, noting only that it is un-clean. He is horrified by the disco glam interior, including a fur-covered bed in the master bedroom, describing it as an “inadvertent coming out”.2 The description of the evening ends with this statement:
“He was of course entitled to create for himself whatever fantasy environment he liked, but the penthouse was dangerous for some visitors.” 3
Decadence, danger, filth; these coded buzzwords have been used for centuries to demonize homosexuality and continue to be used to this day.
The above statement was written in 2015 and published in a major literary magazine. It is clear to this reader that what the author objects to is not the design of the interior, but the homosexuality of the designer. The article goes on to state that it was a sexy graphic of men in tights that Rudolph installed in a project without the owner's approval, that led to the demise of his career. I think many would questions this statement. Most fans of Paul Rudolf blame post-modernism for his decline in popularity. Clearly according to Martin Filler, he should have maintained the performative masculinity of his early brutalist work.
The Origin Story of that Annoying Sexy Bathroom Trend
Is it really just about the work? There is very little description of the actual design in the above mentioned article. What I do find described sounds dramatic, and fascinating. Lucite tub as a skylight? An amazing idea and incredibly prescient. Many progressive New York architects from Gwathemy Seigel to Joel Sanders were influenced by Paul Rudolph's famous penthouse. Ironically this sort of voyeuristic architecture has become so popular now that it's ubiquitous. From the translucent glass walled changing rooms at posh gyms to the glass bathroom walls at trendy restaurants and hotels, this architectural conceit has become a cliché. The homophobia of the author not only prevents him from perceiving the work, but also acknowledging its influence on major design trends. An example of the late nineties voyeuristic trend inspired by Paul Rudolph's work, can be seen in the "peekaboo" glass bathrooms at the trendy Bar 89 in Soho designed by Ogawa Depardon Architects in 1996. The unisex glass bathroom stalls were built using a type of glass that becomes translucent once an electric current running through the glass is activated. The current is activated when the door is locked in this case. Of course, should there be any sort of electrical failure, the bathrooms will remain 100% clear...
Is modernism the problem?
The most appalling statement in his critique is the comparison of the lucite bathtub to architect Standford White's red velvet swing. For those who don't know, this swing was positioned so that Stanford White could stand beneath it and look up the dresses of little girls, such as 16 -year old Evelyn Nesbitt, with whom he was engaged in a non-consensual and illegal relationship. In essence Martin Filler is comparing Paul Rudolph's gay lifestyle to pedophilia.
This post is not meant to demonize Martin Filler. (Ok maybe it is.) The article is only a symptom of the inherent homophobia within the profession. From its very beginnings modernism is described in terms associated with cleanliness and hygiene while the highly ornamented styles of architecture such as art nouveau are described as decadent and degenerate. Modernism is seen as starkly masculine in comparison to ornamentation, which is decried as feminine. In his famous diatribe “Ornament and Crime” Adolf Loos describes the ornamentation of previous styles and all ornamentation in general as “degenerate” or even as a symptom of “cultural degeneration”.4 (This is rich coming from a man who was arrested and convicted of pedophilia.) In “Towards a New Architecture” Le Corbusier describes interest in ornamentation as a “diseased state” for which modernism is the cure.5
The Problem With Eileen Gray
But even art deco, with its streamlined, machine-age chrome aesthetic was deemed suspect by the gate keepers of modern architecture. Perhaps it was too common, too popular with the masses. Or was it something else? Noted architects Erno Goldfigner and Reyner Banham denied Eileen Gray credit for her masterpiece E-1027, claiming that she couldn’t possibly have designed it because she was a "mature, fashionable 1920's style" designer. 6 In other words- too old and too gay. Although her early work immediately garnered attention, its sensuous forms, rich materials and linear decorative elements were characterized as “decadent." In her book “Eileen Gray and the Design of Sapphic Modernity: Staying In”, Jasmine Rault explains that the term “decadent” was a coded word for homosexuality, and it was this aesthetic, moral and physical and sexual "degeneration” that modernism was explicitly designed to cure.7
Rault makes the case that the erasure of Eileen Gray’s homosexuality by biographers and curators makes it impossible to understand her work and its historical and cultural impact. Eileen Gray was thoroughly enmeshed within the lesbian, modernist community of Paris and this culture greatly influenced her work. By erasing her place within it or even ignoring it's existence, her work is adrift, singular, and difficult to categorize or understand.
“When read from a shifted perspective which allows gender and sexuality to enter the critical picture, we can begin to see that Gray’s “too rich” style may have been less personal than cultural, influenced by and contributing to aesthetic strategies being cultivated by other non-heterosexual women artists and writers at the time…. Women artists and writers were strategically appropriating elements of by then archaic nineteenth century decadent aesthetics as a means for imagining same sex desire…making their lesbianism visible.”7 In the process of positioning Eileen Gray’s work in the canon of modernism, Rault writes that historians and biographers are overlooking or editing out her critiques of modernism and its fear of privacy, intimacy and homosexuality.
Eileen Gray was literally painting her lesbian identity on the wall for everyone to see.
Well, not everyone, only those who knew how to read the code and understood the references. The text "Invitation Au Voyages" painted on the living room wall references the Baudelaire poem from his most famous collection "Les Fleurs du Mal". Baudelaire had originally intended to title this collection "Les Lesbiennes", but this title was edited out along with several poems featuring lesbian subject matter in the first publications. The poems were added in subsequent versions but the title remained the same. 8 Of the many monographs or biographies written about Eileen Gray, not one mentions the LGBTQ significance of this reference other than that written by Jasmine Rault.
Modernism and Masculinity
Brutalist architecture itself carries undeniable stereotypical "masculine" associations which many struggle to reconcile with the glamorous interiors that Rudolph designed. Interior design itself is still viewed by many as a feminine profession, while architecture is seen as masculine.
In his influential book "Studs", published in 1996, architect Joel Sanders provides a well-researched exploration of how deeply modern architecture is intertwined with the construct of masculinity. From a naked Howard Roark surveying a landscape awaiting his “conquest” in “The Fountainhead” to the performative masculinity of Rock Hudson’s bachelor in “Pillow talk” to Playboy’s bachelor apartment, Mr. Sanders demonstrates how modernism has been tasked with upholding heterosexual masculinity. But what Mr. Sander’s also make clear is that architecture, specifically modernism, has also played a huge part in the construction of sexual identity and gender. “By identifying manliness as “genuine” and womanliness as “artifice” architects since Vitruvius have associated the ornamented surface with femininity not masculinity…but more often than not architecture fabricates a masculine environment by undressing rather than dressing its surfaces: less is more masculine.” 9
When Paul Rudolph designed his glamorous town home for himself and his partner, he transgressed many un-spoken rules of modern masculinity as well as of the architecture community. As a result his edgy interiors and even some of his brutalist buildings continue to be viewed through a lens of homophobia. Critics such as Martin Filler appear uncomfortable and even embarrassed by the glamour of his interior architecture even though the sensuous materials he employed have much in common with early modern Interiors by Mies van der Rohe , Lily Reich or Walter Gropius. It is interesting to compare the discomfort of colleagues and critics with Mr. Rudolf’s interiors with the critiques of Eileen Gray’s interiors. Both were described as strange, disorienting and disturbing. Le Corbusier was so disturbed by E-1027 that he felt compelled to re-decorate it. In a now infamous performance of masculinity, he painted huge murals throughout the villa in the nude, even taking photos of himself in the act. The defacing of Eileen’s Gray’s gesamtkunstwerk by Le Corbusier has been written about in depth and described as a metaphorical rape, an act of colonization, even the work of a spurned lover. Perhaps it was a hate crime. Don't know anything about Corb and Eilenn Gray's feud over E1027? You can read about it here
Still Taboo in 2022
It's hard to believe in 2022 referencing an architect's homosexuality would be an act of bravery, but for many discussing the sexual orientation of modernist architects and designers is still very much a taboo. Many of Paul Rudolph's friends, including his long-term partner Ernst Wagner, do not want this topic raised. Ernst Wagner is currently listed as a "personal friend" on the website of The Paul Rudolph Institute for Modern Architecture. But when these LGBTQ histories are omitted not only is the cultural context and impact of the work misunderstood and misrepresented, this erasure affects the working environment of many architects today.
So is it only about the work?
A brief survey of all the Pritzker Prize winners going back to its inception in 1979, reveals that with an exception of five people (for whom there is no information about their personal lives) all are in heterosexual relationships. Many, such as French architect Jean Nouvel are on wife number three (although technically he's living with a different woman.) In the entire roster of award recipients, there has only been one openly gay person, Phillip Johnson. While there is a Pritzker board who steers the selection process, previous winners, architecture professors, practicing architects and noted architecture critics and writers are all involved in the selection of the prize recipients. The fact that there has not been another member of the LGBTQ community to win the prize since Philip Johnson in 1979, makes clear how conservative the world of architecture still is and how un-welcoming it still is toward the LGBTQ community. If it it's just about the work why haven't Diler, Scofidio, and Renfro won a Pritzker? This visionary trio has yet to win architecture's most prestigious prize despite their decades of internationally acclaimed work, such as New York City's acclaimed High Line.
I highly recommend listening to Charles Renfro's two minute interview "What Made Me" where he discusses growing up gay in Texas. You can find it here
Thirsty for more? Don't forget to check back on Friday for the "Forbidden Sour" cocktail!
1. Rohan, Timothy. The Architecture of Paul Rudolph, Yale University Press New Haven, 2014 pp.189
2. Filler,Martin. "The Hard case of Paul Rudolph", New York Review of Books, February 5, 2015 3. Ibid
4.Loos, Adolph. Ornament and Crime and Selected Essays Ariadne Press California,1998 reprint pp.170 orig.published 1908 5.Jeanneret,Charles-E'douard (Le Corbusier), "Towards a New Architecture," Dover Publications, New York 1996 pp.95 reprint originally published by J. Rodker 1931.
6. Goff, Jennifer. Eileen Gray: Her Work and her World, Irish Academic Press, Newbridge 2015, pp.365
7. Ruault, Jasmine. Eileen Gray and the Design of Sapphic Modernity, Ashgate Publishing
7. Ibid, PP.17
8.Ibid pp.47 9. Sanders, Joel: Stud:Architectures of Masculinity, Princeton Architectural Press NewYork 1996 pp.13-15