"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. It’s a provocative idea, made more so by the fact that the lead curator is Beatriz Colomina, a professor of architecture at Princeton University and founding director of the school’s Media and Modernity program (Pep Aviles, an architect and historian who’s currently a Princeton doctoral student, collaborated with her on the exhibition).
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.
How do you square your interest in Playboy with your earlier work on gender in architectural history?
Sexuality and architecture have always been interesting to me. But this question with Playboy, it started when I was working, not so much on early modern architecture, but on the 1960s and 1970s. At some point, I realized that many of these avant-garde architects were being presented in Playboy magazine.
How did you come to realize that?
I would invite surviving protagonists from that period, like Chip Lord from Ant Farm, to give a lecture at Princeton, and he’d send a CV. I’d look at it and I’d realize, "Oh, he was published in Playboy."
The same with Hans Hollein. At some point we were interviewing him for an exhibition and he’d talk about how his Playboys were confiscated when he was going to Moscow to interview [Ivan] Leonidov.
So I realized there was a lot of architecture in Playboy magazine, to make the story short. Of course, then I did a systematic study with the Media and Modernity students of Princeton in which basically I asked Princeton to buy all the Playboys from the very beginning.
Did Princeton immediately agree?
At the end of the summer they always ask you, “Okay let us know what you need for your class.” And I said, “I need you to buy all the Playboys.” And one week later they haven’t done anything. They thought I was joking.
But then they bought them. Going through them one by one, we realized what no one seems to have realized before, that they were full of architecture and design from the very beginning.
In the spreads the museum sent me, I noticed stories on experimental architects like Paolo Soleri and John Lautner. And Ant Farm.
Yes, but from the very beginning, because the magazine was based in Chicago, they covered Frank Lloyd Wright. They covered Mies Van Der Rohe. Then they moved to the whole generation of the 1950s: Nelson, Eames, Saarinen, all of them.
Chicago is very, very important. That’s where all the sensitivity to architecture on the part of Hugh Hefner is actually from. He actually said that Chicago was his inspiration, the modernity of Chicago, the architecture of Chicago. There is a lot of evidence of this.
Still, in the postwar decades, midcentury modern was very mainstream.
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. At its peak, it had seven million readers.
I gave a lecture at Cornell at the beginning of this research. At the end of the lecture, a woman said to me, “Now I understand why my father, who never went to a museum, who never had any idea about art or architecture or design, had an amazing collection of midcentury furniture.”
And then I had a correspondence with her. She asked him, “Where did you get all this furniture?” And he said, “Playboy told me to buy it.”
What do you think architecture meant to Playboy, and what do you think it meant to their readers?
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.
So was it a tool for Playboy to push back against stodgy old morality?
Yes, in many ways it was. 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 happen.
This interview has been edited and condensed.