Twenty years ago, I wrote a book called Building Sex: Men, Women, Architecture, and the Construction of Sexuality. In it, I argued that our man-made world has been made by men, and that women have had to make their own place within that structure. This has led to a strange division between sensual and sensible interiors that we associate with (and this is only a cultural bias) women, and the rational, monumental, and often not-so-friendly buildings we associate with masculinity. At the end of the book, I wondered whether anything would change about this situation as more women entered into the field of architecture.
Now the still male-dominated world is in an uproar because a stadium Zaha Hadid has designed for the Qatar World Soccer Cup looks to some observers like a vagina. The affair has quickly descended into a literal-mindedness that is all the more appalling for its crudeness. Jon Stewart, whose comedy I generally admire, went so far as to air a segment in which one of his henchmen’s virtual trip to the stadium became intercourse. Stewart claimed that he was happy that there was now an answer to all the phallic skyscrapers, but I have never know him to air an equally graphic segment on the completion of whatever is supposed to be the world’s latest tall erection.
Hadid has reacted with a rage that I think is entirely justified. It is remarkable that no other stadium, no matter how slinky, has elicited the same reaction. The question remains: is there sexual imagery in that stadium, regardless of who designed it?
In our culture, tall buildings evoke associations with masculinity, while vessels of all sorts and scale evoke femininity. It is no coincidence that a ship is always a “she,” and that rulers or developers, all male, are the ones who commission buildings as tall as possible even if they make little economic sense.
Moreover, the kind of continuity of spaces between inside and out, the fluidity of passage between places, and the sense of melding form are all qualities that we also associate with the female realm. It matters little if they were designed by Gregg Lynn, Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture, Ben van Berkel, or Zaha Hadid and Patrik Schumacher. In fact, Dezeen collected six examples of what they call “yonic” architecture. One of the aspects of computer-assisted design that has encouraged me has been exactly the kind of breakdown of hierarchies and divisions that seems intrinsic to this technology, even if there are other aspects I find less attractive. Theoreticians such as Schumacher or Kas Oosterhuis have argued that the organic aspects of this technology create forms that break through the constructs of human culture.
None of this matters in what is by now a court of public opinion that makes judgments beyond the instantaneous. The stadium was designed by a woman and it looks like female private parts. Hiding behind this appraisal is a sense of glee that a society in which women are repressed would have such a design foisted upon them without realizing what they were building. Cultural and sexual biases have become tied up in a way that defies political correctness and common sense.
The good news is that it seems as if Qatar will proceed with the design nonetheless, and that, once the stadium is built, nobody will notice. That’s what is, in the end, remarkable: The whole tempest is the result of imagery that will disappear in built fact—unlike the phallic structures architects such as Jean Nouvel, FAIA, strew around the world. Male power is still visible, female power has to hide, dissemble and, in the end, prove itself through its success.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.