Ahead of the curve: Niterol Contemporary Art Museum in Rio de Janeiro by Oscar Niemeyer. Photo: Getty
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Erotic architecture: the sexual history of great buildings

From Nero’s decadent Golden House in Rome to Charles Fourier’s orgiastic French “courts of love”; public toilet glory holes to Eileen Gray’s sexy Mediterranean hideway. 

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”, Wilkinson – a young architectural historian – has 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 architecture – as he does, say, with Palazzo Rucellai, a muscular 15th-century Renaissance town house in Florence – he 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-dwellers – which 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 region – airports, 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 gone – whether those of ancient Rome, or Renaissance Florence, or modern Rio de Janeiro – are 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. 

Jonathan Glancey’s “Giants of Steam: the Great Men and Machines of Railways’ Golden Age” is published by Atlantic Books (£9.99)

This article first appeared in the 06 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Gaza

JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.