8 September 2019
Colomina, Beatriz. "Sexuality & Space." Sexuality & Space, edited by Beatriz Colomina. Princeton Architectural Press, 1992, pp. 73-128.
Wilson, Elizabeth. "Sexuality and Space edited by Beatriz Colomina." Harvard Design Magazine, Winter/Spring 1997.
In this essay, Beatriz Colomina explores concepts of cultural, social and biological perception and relation in the architectural work of Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier. The interior and exterior designs of specific architectural works are presented to the reader under the guise of a “detective stories” built on the “evidence” of extant photography, architectural drawings and writings. Some of the important themes are: architectural framing, interior versus exterior, cladding, the gaze, mirrors, windows, boundaries and gender. Psychoanalytic theory a la Freud and Lacan is the main tool used for unlocking these architectural "mysteries." We also hear several times from Walter Benjamin.
Where's the sex? The short answer is that it exists in references to gender within the essay. (Curiously, Freudian sexual theories are not referred to directly by name.) Furthermore, this essay relies on definitions of "sexuality" and "space" that are not straightforward, particularly to non-academic readers. In a Harvard Design Magazine review of the published group of papers titled Sexuality & Space, edited by Colomina and containing the eponymous essay, Elizabeth Wilson gets at the heart of this:
As Colomina makes clear, however, the volume, like the symposium at which the papers it contains were initially presented, aims to do more than simply “include women.” Nor does it aim simply to explore “how sexuality acts itself out in space,” although this would have been an interesting subject in its own right: how actually existing urban, architectural spaces are used intentionally or illicitly for sexual purposes. We could have had papers on the role of the “cottage” (public lavatory) in gay sex, on museums as pick-up grounds for intellectual singles, on the voyeurism of peep shows, and so on. But this would presumably have been too literal a project for the theorists gathered. Instead we are invited to treat architecture as a “system of representation” on a par with film and TV, and to ask how space is “already inscribed in the question of sexuality.” Gender is inscribed in space and space is never designed in a gender-neutral way.
How does this essay relate to scenography?
Perhaps a more plausible title for this essay would have been "Theatricality and Space," or better, "Theatricality and the Architectural Work of Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier." One main idea in this essay is the "domestic drama" latent in both the architecture itself and the photography of it. A photograph leaves clues ("stage props"), like an open interior door, a scarf on the back of a chair or an ashtray, of human habitation and the related narratives. Space is layered with suspense. This is a development of the theatrical and filmic concept of mise en scène, and also relates specifically to ideas of narrative and dramatic tension as presented by thinkers and theater practitioners such as Robert Edmond Jones and Konstantin Stanislavski. Colomina often refers to a "theater box" and the spectator/performer relationship in her analysis. Her discussion of windows and mirrors directly relates to scenographic notions of composition, aspect ratio, void and place. At one point she references Pirandello.
One idea that percolates at the surface of this essay (but isn't stated outright) is that the chronological development of these architectural works mirrors the development of the audience and spectator relationship in theatrical space as it goes from a proscenium staging (Loos' Steiner and Moller houses) to theatre-in-the-round (Loos' project for a house for Josephine Baker) to film (Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye).