Not the ‘male gaze,’ but …

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Nina in her glass bathtub in the film “Until Money Departs You.”

I know, this may seem to be drilling down more deeply into the sexuality of architecture than most readers of this family blog would like to drill, but I just could not resist. My last post, “Playboy and modernism,” referred to Beatriz Colomina’s fascination with “the male gaze,” whatever that may be. Supposedly, houses are designed to advantage men in their constant quest to see women naked. And when Architect magazine’s interview with Colomina did not bring it up, I decided to go looking for it myself.

I did not look in Playboy. Its in-depth articles on modern architecture do not seem to show up on Google. (Rats!) But I did find: “Conflicted Identities: Housing and the Politics of Cultural Representation,” a scholarly tome by Alexandra Staub. I know, I know. That sounds really boring. And it is. But some oddballs get off on this stuff. Maybe it is the sort of thing classicists should spend more time with. (Still, better Alexandra Staub than Martha Nussbaum!) If you are one of those oddballs, click on the link. (The following quote starts on page 150, in case the link doesn’t take you there directly.)

Looking at architectural spaces as well as architecture portrayed within film, Beatriz Colomina, in another classic essay, has pointed to the voyeuristic observation of women as a form of both power and control within the architectural modern movement that claimed to be working to erase women’s subjugation. Analyzing iconic works by Le Corbusier and Adolf Loos, Colomina shows how voyeurism both within the house and between the house and spaces outside allows a subtle game of domination and control.

Gee, my fingers are getting tired. And yes, that is indeed boring. But it is something we need to familiarize ourselves with, right? Well, Staub’s long research paper was published this year but Colomina published her research in the early 1990s. Staub refers to modern architecture’s founder as “the modernist figurehead Le Corbusier.” The passage following the one quoted above gets down and dirty with some details about how architects – even the figurehead Corbu – design houses so that the windows are on its periphery, enabling the nasty voyeurs passing by outside. “[E]verything in these houses seems to be disposed in a way that continuously throws the subject toward the periphery of the house.” (As a card-carrying peeping Tom, here at last is something for which I can thank Corbusier!)

Or, as the Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In character, a German soldier played by Arte Johnson, used to say, “Very interesting. But stupid.”

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. 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. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and 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 invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, 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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4 Responses to Not the ‘male gaze,’ but …

  1. Steven Semes says:

    Actually, Philip Johnson spent only one night in the Glass House. When I asked him why, he answered, “Isn’t it obvious?” And then there is the glass-bottomed bathtub in the guest bathroom directly above the kitchen in Paul Rudolf’s New York apartment. That would be another example of the “male gaze” but not turned toward women in these cases. And yes, wasn’t it clever of Le Corbusier to come up with the innovative idea of putting windows on the OUTSIDE walls of the house! Yes, we are all in his debt for that one.

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  2. How does this explain Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, CT? Johnson was exposing himself to the gaze of his guests in the stone guest house adjacent.

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    • Perhaps, Peter, Johnson would absent himself from one of his Glass House parties to his guest house and from there commit voyeurism upon the behavior of those still upright. This I would have to denominate the act of a Peeping Mot.

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