Desire and Architecture. (Sex and the City).
Sex and the City…
Three levels to urban life.
Three kinds of Desire.
Three levels? When we see architecture we see three. Top, bottom and middle. The ground level, the top edge or top-most feature and the bit in-between (variable in height from a floor or two, to many hundred). Moreover these levels themselves extend across buildings. Across the city itself. Most of us city dwellers experience city streets as three continuous levels; a ground strip of door and shop-windows, a rising window wall, and a loft region or skyline.
Three desires? Human beings need to be recognised,
need to fit in, to feel (rightly or wrongly) that they are part of various
groups - communities of identity with which they identify themselves. Then we
also need each other as sexual partners, a need we can never quite switch of,
even when we are content with our lot in life. Finally, we need to believe in
something bigger than ourselves (God, nation, flag, human rights, the United
So, three basic desires: identity (the desire for recognition); sex (sexual desire); and a link to the eternal (religious desire). In reality all tied up together (as in; what sex are we, what sex are we allowed to sleep with, and who or what has the last word on this). Yet all separable in principle and not least in the way we experience architecture, our home from home (our outside, inside). Our second Nature; material womb of our everyday existence.
Architecture and proximity present us with the three basic grounds (as in landscape painting). Probably the three basic grounds that, after the positing of the three dimensions, orientate the visual sense and influence the meanings we make from the differentiation of space. The most present of the grounds is the ground floor, the ground of life – the ‘floor’, as it were, on which we live – our presence in the present. Then, further away, the future/past (as in narrative art) whose rhetorical possibility and ambiguity make visual narrative possible and represent the other human aspects of temporality; our permanently open windows onto the past and their assistance in glimpsing the future. Then, at the furthermost limit: a glimpse of eternity, the horizon. As in landscapes, now also true of urban landscapes, this visual limit is absolutised when translated into time. Or rather, ‘not-time’; for the light and infinity of the sky push us towards a realm of rhetoric perfectly suited for representing our outer limits and the zone beyond, the zone where we place our hopes and find our anchorage (regardless of religion - witness the ‘universalisms’ beloved of secular and rational belief, the axiomatisations, the propositions beyond question supporting each edifice’s viewpoint, of mathematical, propositional-logical and grammatical forms of description, system or belief).
Time and desire. From the eternal present of the ground floor strip (the endless repeated reflection of ourselves in the mirror of windows, or the mirrors that make up the eye of others) to the intimation of eternity that clings to the skyline - or the imitation of the eternal (the lust to appear immortal) that is a part-rationale for loft-living (when we look up, what -or who- is it we look up to?) With the curtain wall of mirrors found in-between; reflecting the opposite window wall, blinded by the refracted reflection of the sky; contents thus concealed, lives concealed – provoking supposition (the supposition of sex). All questions of life (and most of its representations or narratives) come down to its propagation and its key biological drive. What happens in-between; what happens behind (how do others live and love, our obsession is overwhelming as witnessed by the volume of everyday publication and programming, the glossy magazines, the endless soaps); all devoted to the memory or anticipation of sex. Reflections deflected from window to window; the endless temporal displacement that is our sex-drive without sex. Desire caught in the glass of our urban bowl; endlessly refracted in the world of the everyday. Whilst below…
A temporality is formed out of the flickering pages of the book of the self, the open page that changes continually, illustrated by images from the memory and its projection forward, images of hope and fear – source of our supports and subversions. And way up above…
A-temporality formed from the outside (the belief or need or desire of the inside in, or for, an ‘outside’); formed from all that is supposed to transcend, outlive, predate or stand untouched alongside, spreading out in all directions, encompassing and engulfing the merely transient, contingent, passing.
Otherwise (by way of summary): the promise of self-presence; the lure of the other; the sublime relation to the Other. Or: self-presence; the other; the Other. Temporally: present; past/future; eternity (the outside or other of time).
And down below the ground, the invisible, buried past - the site of future foundations.
The three grounds and the desires they reflect and incite, in (and out of) time.
Ground: ‘Money can’t buy me love.’ The identity of sex and identity in the act of shopping (immortalised by a literary genre, ‘shopping and f***ing’), the process of making of oneself an identity worthy of recognition - but also a sexed identity. With the aim, with the desire, aided and abetted by the commodities that one has bought, to be the sexed object of the other (the right other of course!) No longer the fleeting disembodied gaze of the passing pedestrian, the recognition of the enigma of the other revealed and re-veiled in a fraction of a second, nor the flickering materiality of the flow of bodies without selves, form without content, filled clothes filing past. Now (one sees oneself, as one might wish to see a privileged another, to be seen by them oneself) a body with a person; a body with an-other within; with the desire for the first (sex) transmuting (perhaps) into the desire for the second (love). So desired as a person, as a perceiving, desiring consciousness also, union of sexual desire and the desire for recognition. The ground is the place of actual or reproduced bodies (mannequins and reflections) and the fantasies triggered by them (not least the biggest fantasy of them all, the fantasy of the self). Or a matter of recognition; to be as seen by the desired person as mind and matter (as ‘body and soul’). ‘What’s the matter with recognition?’ ‘ …You are!’
Middle: ‘In the bedroom.’ Realm of curiosity (hiding place of the object of desire only, abstract desire, anonymity as in the face of the building, masking the contradiction of abstract intimacy). Realm of imaginary spaces, imaginary bodies. Elusive. Other people’s dwellings as putative sites of sexual utopia. The performance of sexual utopia. Somewhere else. On the other side of an impenetrable barrier. For us an act performed or projected. Elsewhere in time (always gone or just about to happen). Fantasies of unfettered, serial possession. Serial abandon. Freedom for the mind (freedom for the body). The blank screen of the curtain wall, like the white space of the blank page, invites the imagination to celebrate its favourite obsession.
Top: ‘Air and Angels.’ Uplifted (not as sublimated sex, but as the site of a kind of ecstasy certainly). How rarely in our culture do we experience the union of sex and religion - unless on the site of transgression? Although watchers of lofts (in part thanks to their windows) in some measure partake of the same fantasies as the watchers of the Middle; nevertheless the skyline, the presence of the horizon, offers something else. Never the less: always more. Neverland. The Solar; sun-worshipping on our private beach in the sky (sun, sand and sex). ‘Lift up your hearts’. Heavenly places: heavenly bodies. The Top; erotic escape site for the bodies of the rich and the minds of the poor (unless there on a sexual/economic errand). ‘Room at the Top.’ Power is the best aphrodisiac.
Afterword. Sex and Suburbia.
Scaling down (scale model). The applicability of these levels to suburban low-rise forms. Collapsing the symbolism of a skyscraper into a house. Or was the house the Ur-model for the skyscraper (the skyscraper may be read as an expanded house via the evolution of the Italian Palazzo). The Top in suburbia is purer horizon, less symbolic. The Ground is only quantitatively different; simpler (no shop window, but with plants as decoration, a more domestic shop-window dressing). The Middle’s upper windows are similar to the facade of the city high rise... we are still, in our imaginations, ‘in the bedroom’. If anything, such windows are, perhaps, more intimate (more directly sexual in connotation)? Scale and intensity apart, it would appear that both high and low-rise carry the same basic messages - the latter in more muted, more attenuated form. Suburbia -special features aside- is symbolically speaking the poor relation. Home of the marriage rather than the affair.
Copyright 2005 Peter Nesteruk