For better sex, the right architects: Zaha, Corbu

Can architects create places for better sex? Two new exhibitions may point the way, thanks to Zaha Hadid and the late Le Corbusier.

The summer architecture shows are getting panned all over, except for the Le Corbusier blockbuster at New York's Museum of Modern Art, and a compact, just-opened installation by Zaha Hadid in Copenhagen.

There are many reasons why these architects succeed in capturing our imagination. One shared lesson is that both have laughed at the boundaries of architecture envisioned by their predecessors. Second, each has pursued a sensual, expressive idea of how architecture can make us more intimate, human and vibrant.

The stretchy, illuminated installation by Zaha Hadid for the Danish Architecture Center. (Courtesy DAC)

In short, they've created places that make sex better, as Richard J. Williams says in Aeon magazine this week.

Display of the body

Sexy? For Glamour magazine's woman of the year, "the Lady Gaga of architecture" as Zaha Hadid has been dubbed -- of course. But for the bow-tied, bespectacled early modernist?

In fact, Williams's article is led by a photo of Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation complex in Marseilles (1952), which many see as straight-edged and way unsexy. Yet it was "designed around the display of the body, its pools and terraces, meant for inhabitants to show off," says Williams, a University of Edinburgh professor.

Remember: The late Le Corbusier (aka Corbu and born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris) is the architect who talked actress Josephine Baker out of her clothes to pose for a series of nude sketches while on a 1929 transatlantic cruise.

Much has been made of the MoMA show's contention that Corbu's work "was profoundly rooted in nature and landscape." Yet even his machinelike Radiant City of 1935 envisaged a different kind of city dweller, who stayed fit and spent time outdoors and on the roof gardens atop every tower and house. Instead of the unhealthy, cramped quarters of Paris, he saw ways to let families be happy, healthy and fruitful.

In 1959, kids frolicked and swam on the terraces of Le Corbusier's Unite d'Habitation. (Photo by Rene Burri/Magnum Photos)

The brilliant critic Martin Filler writes in The New York Review of Books of Corbu's romantic humanism, "whose prose poems on the raptures of life as it could be enjoyed in his buildings are among the most irresistible sales pitches ever written by an architect." It's just one side of the architect who espoused a life of "maximum liberty" -- and, perhaps, it's the least explored side.

The glamour of Zaha

Our modern times have allowed Zaha Hadid to cultivate an audience for her audacious, aphrodisiac forms in a way that Corbu could not. She's a leading thinker, and among the most important architects of our time. And her radical merging of digital technology and curvaceous beauty are unmatched in the architectural world.

Many critics have imagined Hadid's elegant shapes moving, pulsating, unfolding and swelling. And today in Copenhagen, it's finally happening.

A new video glimpse into the Zaha Hadid – World Architecture exhibition, shows the fascinating interactive installation that opened behind a black velvet curtain on Friday in Copenhagen -- a very sexy city where, of course, a major architecture exhibit opens on date night.

The great Zaha Hadid: Architecture's Lady Gaga? (Courtesy DAC)

Inside, an illuminated fabric ceiling stretches and contracts, as flickering arteries of light pulse like corpuscles. The room is dark -- a "borderless, scenic universe" of digital geometry -- yet it takes only a few minutes for visitors to realize that the room is responding to their presence and movements.

Elsewhere at the Danish Architecture Centre, Hadid's work is grouped in sections displaying sculpted towers or floating shells -- all with graceful curves and complex biomorphism. Incredibly, it is Zaha's first solo show in Scandinavia. Her inspiration, as Aaron Betsky reports in Glamour, are "rivers, dunes -- the fluid landscapes of the Middle East." He quotes Donna Karan (who introduced me to Hadid in 2006 at her Madison Avenue boutique) on the resulting "lyricism and sensuality."

Sexy parallels

The parallels between Hadid and Le Corbusier are powerful. Both break in important ways toward a new way of understanding architecture. Both are inspired by nature and earth, but employ cutting-edge technologies of industrial fabrication or digital devices.

How Le Corbusier measured our fitness.

Williams seems to give the award for most erotic architect to Brazil's Oscar Niemeyer, with an honorable mention to the 1960s communes like Drop City, where geodesic pleasure domes were cobbled together from recycled steel.

Everywhere else, architecture is mainly about efficiency and civility, says Williams, two qualities that inhibit sex drive.

Yet I'd allow a citation for both Hadid and Le Corbusier, even if they have talked very little about the relationship of their designs to intimate pleasures. This can also be forgiven as a condition of the practice: "It’s odd how little architects have had to say on the subject of sex," writes Williams, even as buildings "frame and house our sexual lives."

Instead, Zaha and Corbu have intoned about human sexuality only obliquely and subtly -- or behind closed doors. As Le Corbusier put it, "Poetry is in the heart of man, and is the capacity to go into the richness of nature." Hadid has been a little more direct: "Architecture is really about well-being. I think that people want to feel good in a space ... On the one hand it's about shelter, but it's also about pleasure."

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