Architecture and sex.
You don’t hear those two words in the same sentence all that often.
Writer and art historian Tom Wilkinson began by declaring them to be the topics of the single chapter of his new book, Bricks and Mortals, which he had chosen to focus on that evening.
In a gentle, pleasant voice he started to explain. It may have been a relief for some members of the Ilkley Literature Festival audience to learn that the word ‘sex’ was going to be interpreted quite widely. It would indeed include reflections on how architecture was inter-related with sexuality, but it would also extend to how we live our daily private lives within our homes, and how the buildings we live in (and especially the walls within them) have served to constrain not only human sexuality but the freedom of women, in life and in work, more generally.
From the early days of the 9th century, when Ovid first wrote about the wall that separated two lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe, structures have been used to enforce the moral code of the day. Even in the supposedly civilised society of Athens, the gynaeceum, usually sited upstairs and at the back of the house, corralled women away from society along with their looms and their children. Wilkinson showed a photograph of the caryatids (sculpted female figures serving as architectural supports) symbolically held in place by the heavy stones above and below them. He likened this to a current photograph of three prostitutes, trapped in provocative poses in three brightly-lit windows divided by pillars; the effect was strikingly like the photograph of the caryatids, and a stark reminder that things haven’t moved on all that much.
In the Victorian age, different parts of the house still divided class and gender alike. It was only in the 20th century that the new architecture, based on the ‘5 points’ developed by Corbusier (one of which was ‘free plan’, or ‘open plan’), began to strip away walls so that living areas flowed into one another freely.
The historic constraints that buildings have wrapped around women’s private lives made the central story of this chapter (about Villa E1027) all the more remarkable. Eileen Gray built this small villa “resting like an ocean liner” on the cliffs of the Cote D-Azur; she was one of the first female architects to contribute such a bold modernist statement in the 1920s. She defied convention by being an architect at all, but she also defied Corbusier’s newly-set dictates about the ‘free plan’ style: she preferred to have some internal walls as ‘obstructions’, and designed many screens for the villa. Her most famous screen is made up of black squares with slits and gaps in them and between them, more like a “dissolving wall”.
Although she built the place for herself and her younger lover, Jean Badovici, (the seemingly unromantic name E1027 is a code that wraps her initials around his) it was Corbusier who fell in love with it, although he was furious with Gray about the partial walls she had built in. He realised this fury in a concrete fashion with his destructive act of painting garish ‘Piccassoid nudes” on her precious walls. It was not surprising that Gray got fed up with both him and her womanising lover; she moved onto her next project, leaving them to possess the villa but not her spirit.
Her ability to shake off the past connects her with another protagonist in this chapter; David Bowie. Another androgynous shape shifter, he fled each of his public identities before they could trap him like one of Wilkinson’s walls, and one of his destinations was Berlin. Wilkinson evoked the drama of the Berlin Wall, holding apart a nation rather than just two lovers, and providing the desire that fires one of Bowies best known songs, Heroes.
This symbolic wall also had the power to make a woman actually want to marry it! Mrs Berliner-Mauer (yes, that’s right: ‘Mrs Berlin Wall’. Google it!) is part of a group called OS Internationale (for people who develop significant relationships with inanimate objects). The group was founded by a woman called Erika Eiffel. As Wilkinson said drily, “I think you can probably guess who her husband was.”
Wilkinson’s talk included many more mind-opening facts and fascinating illustrations than there is space for in this review, but the most memorable narrative was the story of Eileen Gray, the sad end of which is that she was almost written out of history. E1027 passed through several hands before being left to rot. She died in Paris in 1976 at the age of 98, almost forgotten by the design industry.
In a photograph of Gray as an old woman we see her sitting on a chair, but behind her stands her famous black screen; a symbol of the important steps she made for her sex and for architecture. Work is underway to renovate Villa E1027 and to reinstate Eileen Gray. This evening, Wilkinson contributed to that process by talking to us here in Ilkley. It was a pleasure to listen.
Attributions for photos:
By Tangopaso (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo of Eileen Gray:
See page for author [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Berlin Wall satellite shot
By English: NASA/GSFC/MITI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Jurek Durczak from Poland (DDR) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons