Monday, 10 November 2014

Phallic Symbols

^Stanley Tigerman, Daisy House, 1976

As long as humans have built societies, there have been representations of the male reproductive organ popping up in its art and architecture, and looking at the distant past compared with our more modern times, one can discern an almost complete about-turn in the way this symbolic presence is embodied, and interpreted. In ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt, the phallus was a celebrated symbol of fertility, a playfully transgressive image that was at once a marker of celestial abundance as well as an often hilarious, and very down-to-earth reminder of earthly desires in all their silliness and joy. In Hinduism Shiva’s creative aspect, the side of the god which brings forth and generates, is represented by the Lingam, a symbolic trinity made up of a penis and two testicles, present in many temples across India. The penis was a funny, voluptuous and profound image that tied together birth, growth, carnality, and godliness, our bodies and beds with temples and mythology, it represented a kind of deep love of the human body as expressed in the very surroundings it inhabited. In contrast to this, the penis and its apparent architectural permutations are now the objects of a persistent disgust. A toxic mixture of analogies and associations have turned it from a shared human symbol into an object of ridicule and point of contestation. The Penis currently = Male = Power = Money = Misogyny = Inequality = Capitalism in a kind of insane spiral of illogical leaps, in which often an entire building typology, namely tall buildings or “skyscrapers”, can become enmeshed in a web of toxically negative cultural meaning. No matter how beautiful, no matter how benign a new tower is, a chain reaction is set off in which, because it is vertically proportioned it = Penis, which = Male and so on to an array of negative associations, in which the Penis is a stand-in for much of the unfairness we suffer in society. I say toxic because aside from the fact that we bizarrely condemn what is simply a building type to never being discussed rationally on its merits as simply a ‘building’, but that we do not question why being a ‘phallic symbol’ is such a horrible thing in the first place. Via its readings of gender-types in buildings, and subsequent value judgements based on this, current discourse drives a wedge between architecture, art and the human body, turning buildings into tools for expanding our self-hatred and alienation from our own figures and identity. Skyscrapers are not penises, and penises are not embodiments of male power but parts of our bodies. If we are to metaphorically associate parts of our body to aspects of architecture and the city, let’s do it in such a way that makes architecture into a tool for valuing our human form, not something that adds to the already plentiful shame contemporary culture makes us feel for our poor, entirely unwitting and innocent body parts. I would like to end with Charles Moore’s Daisy House of 1976 (see above), an exemplary union of an architecture in our time with the ancient attitudes noted above. A joyously explicit fusion of the male and female genitalia, built for a terminally ill man who wanted to be reminded of life in all its delight as he slipped away; it is a house that loves the image of our bodies, and is indeed phallic, but in a way that brings architecture back into communion with our base, unselfconscious and beautiful selves.

^Penis Temple in Tufa stone, 1-50AD, Pompei