Playboy and modernism

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Unidentified photo in Architect, surely from exhibit at Elmhurst Museum.

I am pleased to inform those who love Playboy magazine and revere Hugh Hefner as a paragon of modernity that Architect magazine has an interview with the curator of an exhibit based on research that blames (or maybe I should say credits) Playboy for modern architecture.

In “Playboy Magazine and the Architecture of Seduction,” writer Karrie Jacobs interviews Beatriz Colomina, first introducing her exhibit thusly:

“Playboy Architecture 1953-1979” is one of the most alluring concepts for an architecture exhibition in recent memory. On view at the Elmhurst Museum in suburban Chicago until August 28, the show positions Playboy, better known for its centerfolds, as the driving force behind the mainstream popularity of midcentury modern architecture and design in this country.

I’d take the proposition with a very large grain of salt, even noting that Colomina would seem to be an unlikely proponent of the Playboy Lifestyle. But then Jacobs adds:

Colomina established her reputation in the early 1990s by examining the role of gender in the works of architects such as Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier, and she was known for her passionate critiques of modernist architecture as an enabler of the “male gaze.” With her recent enthusiasm for Playboy, however, she has emerged as a remarkably unconflicted proponent of that gaze.

Jacobs asks very interesting questions, such as, in reference to the amount of writing about modern architecture in Playboy, “How did you come to realize that?” Colomina got Princeton to buy a full run of Playboy issues. (But hey, Princeton’s the party school of the Ivy League, is it not? This factoid does not even raise eyebrows.)

Although I would not credit Playboy with very much of the popularity of modern architecture in the 1950s and ’60s, the idea of Hugh Hefner as one of its proponents is credible. After all, Hefner was the poster boy for jackasses with a desire for respectability. He published a magazine that treated women like cattle, but wanted to be considered some kind of intellect. Every month he wrote  a column called “The Playboy Philosophy.” He promoted the First Amendment. But liberty was not sexy enough, so he also promoted modern architecture in a predictable effort to épater the blue-noses.

One of my favorite Mad Magazine take-offs (no pun intended) was its Soviet version of Playboy. There was a photo-shoot on Soviet agriculture – shots of (I suppose) a farmer’s daughter leaning against one of the big wheels of a tractor, sitting on the seat of the tractor, draped across the hood of the tractor – open the foldout and there’s the tractor by itself.

Ha ha! (I really mean it. It was hilarious. Or so I recall.)

If I were the curator of Colomina’s exhibit, I would ask Architect magazine to do a take-off on Playboy. The photo-shoot would show a naked girl posing in the foyer of a bachelor’s pad, another standing in its sunken living room next to a picture window with a view of modern glass skyscrapers (symbolizing what? Um, I can’t recall),  and finally a naked girl draped on a couch by, say, Le Corbusier, and then, in the foldout, the couch.

Colomina almost seems to buy into the Playboy lifestyle when she writes of how modern architecture was used to assist in seduction:

They really felt that this was an important tool—actually crucial—for seduction. The modern apartment is a necessity for the bachelor, who has to surround himself with all these gadgets and all this modern furniture, and eventually even the architecture, the Playboy Pad. These are the settings in which seduction happens.

So where is the “male gaze”? Unfortunately, in Architect’s edited version of Jacobs’s interview with Colomina, she is not encouraged to carry forward the interesting passage she sets up. Too bad.

Jacobs attempted to suggest that midcentury modern was already popular when Playboy was first introducing readers to modernism.

Yes, but Hefner made it mainstream. That’s the point of the exhibition, that Playboy did more for modern architecture and design then any architectural journal or even the Museum of Modern Art.

Jacobs asks what architecture meant to Playboy, other than to heighten the suspense between nude spreads (until lately). Colomina answers:

It meant a lot. At the time, the so-called shelter magazines were all very conservative. If you look at House Beautiful, for example, they were going on and on about European émigrés that were destroying America as we know it.

House Beautiful had a famous article by Elizabeth Gordon titled, “The Threat to the Next America.” And the threat turned out to be Mies Van der Rohe and all these other architects that were coming here. That magazine was completely against modern architecture. But Playboy claimed modern architecture.

Nowadays, as the whole world cringes at the built environment, we realize that House Beautiful was right. It could have gone further and blamed Playboy for modernity itself (with all its mindsets that have proved so damaging to modern life). I would not go that far either, but I would go part way. The Playboy philosophy and lifestyle are a part of the problems, broadly speaking, associated with modernism and Playboy celebrated it. These two are not strange bedfellows.

Hats (and maybe not just hats!) off to my wife Victoria who sent me the article on Playboy in Architect magazine.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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5 Responses to Playboy and modernism

  1. Anonymous says:

    Unfortunately, David:

    Modern Architecture long predates Playboy.

    You do have a point, which is that the Extreme Right, aesthetic and political, suffers from a pathological puritanical psychology, Sad. Professional help is available and should be sought..


  2. Pingback: Playboy and modernism — Architecture Here and There – Arteatromexperu's Weblog

  3. Nir Buras says:

    “If I were the curator of Colomina’s exhibit, I would ask Architect magazine to do a take-off on Playboy. The photo-shoot would show a naked girl posing in the foyer of a modernist apartment, standing in its sunken living room next to a picture window with a view of ugly modernist skyscrapers (symbolizing what? Um, I can’t recall), a naked girl draped on a modernist couch designed by Le Corbusier, and then, in the foldout, the modernist couch sans girl.”

    That seems to be much of the aesthetic of porn. In reflection, was modernist architectural photography architectural porn as well?


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