We elect our homes based on emotions and feelings. “Home” is a subtle compromise, a silent dialogue between our inner life and an exterior landscape. Maybe comfort is where this dialogue takes place serenely. We need more than comfort, though; we want to be near the stars and the water at the same time. In addition to being a best-selling author, architectural historian Beatriz Colomina is also an expert on sexuality and architecture (she even wrote for Playboy about it). I’ve asked Beatriz a few questions about how architecture is born out of fear, sparks creativity within us, and how physical and emotional worlds collide and resonate.
Why are architecture and mood so intertwined?
More than intertwined, they are inseparable. I thought about this intimacy of architecture and mood already with my earliest work when studying the houses of Adolf Loos and of Le Corbusier which put you in the roles of inhabitant or visitor by choreographing the atmosphere, creating very precise moods. For example, with the houses of Adolf Loos in Vienna from the early 20th century, which are regarded as testing the possibility of modern architecture, I became fascinated with the way they place the inhabitant in a position of control over whoever enters the space. The visitor is constantly under surveillance in the house. The spatial organization puts specifically the woman of the house in a position of control over her interior by being able to see whenever somebody comes in and their movements. This is done, for example, by placing the couch against the light in an elevated sitting area designated as a women’s space, so that anybody coming from the entrance, which will be a dark space, will see the owner of the house—the inhabitant—basically as a silhouette. The visitor will not be able to see her face, but on the opposite side, the inhabitant will see the visitor in perfect light. Every expression of this visitor, or possibly intruder, will be immediately detected. I was curious how this already spoke about a more defensive kind of interior towards the outside, one that anticipated the control that we now seek in our own spaces.
“Every form of architecture has been the result of a fear.”
The metropolis, which is the space of the city that Loos was working on, was already perceived as a space of danger outside. The houses of Loos are relatively closed to the outside and the inside is all richness, sensuous comfort. Comfort, however, is not just soft surfaces and built in furniture but also the ability to control the movements of others. These are all related to mood because our sense of safety is very much at the basis of architecture. I suppose people retreated to caves to protect themselves from animals and from the weather. Every form of architecture has been the result of a fear, of a need for protection from some kind of danger whether it’s real or imagined.
At the dawn of man’s history, people were fighting for the best homes, the ones that were both a refuge and a spot with a view to prospect. Biologist Edward Wilson wrote that the first color that was named was red—color of blood—and that people using it on cave paintings were probably communicating about the danger outside.
Yes, you see so it’s already there in our first instance. Now, of course, it’s all much more advanced in terms of technology. Physical space has been, in many ways, replaced by electronic space. For example, before the arrival of electricity, the presence of somebody at the door would be a physical knock on the door itself. By the 1920s, when electricity was already being introduced into the house, in France for example, the presence of a body at the door is a ring in the kitchen. Now it is the visitor’s face appearing on an app, or a buzz on your wristband that alerts you. So there is already a displacement of space by other technologies and other forms of media that also have an effect on our mood. Here in California, there is more of an openness between inside and outside in the architecture but a completely paranoid electronic surveillance not just of the house but of the street and entire neighborhoods.
When Mark [Mark Wigley, Beatriz Colomina’s husband, Dean Emeritus of Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Editor’s Note] came to Spain--he’s from New Zealand where the architecture is more like in California—he was surprised by these very big doors in every house in Spain. For him, it was as if the house was just an inhabitable support for the door.
You’ve also been working on Playboy magazine.
I’ve been working on Playboy architecture for quite a while with the Ph.D. students of the School of Architecture at Princeton. The research started from the simple realization that there was a lot of modern architecture and design in Playboy. Speaking of mood, Hugh Hefner thought that to put someone in the mood for sex you needed modern architecture and design. This was at a time in which all of the so-called shelter magazines were very conventional and antagonistic to modern architecture. The same year that Playboy was launched, 1953, Elizabeth Gordon wrote in House Beautiful about Mies van der Rohe as a “treat to America.” Playboy instead embraced modern architecture from the beginning, publishing Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe, moving through all the designers of the 1950s: Eero Sarinen, Eliot Noyes, Charles and Ray Eames, Harry Bertoia, etc. By the 1960s and 1970s it was covering all kind of radical architects: Antfarm, Buckminster Fuller, Paolo Soleri, John Lautner, etc. and presenting their houses as Playboy houses. Modern architecture is for Playboy intimately related to mood and of course to sex. Modern architecture puts you in the mood for sex.
There was this scientist who found a cure for polio—he was in a lab in Germany with no light, trapped, really buried. He worked enormously but was stuck to a point where he couldn’t make any progress. He accepted a season at a different university on the west coast, which was in a very open space. There he found the cure. His idea popped up maybe thanks to the environment.
I didn’t know that story—but it is fascinating. I’d love to read more about that. I am obsessed with relationships between illnesses and space.
“It wouldn’t be relevant to propose a single space to trigger ideas. Proposing a change of spaces would be more relevant.”
As a mood for sex or mood for ideas, the way that we can ignite something—how does the direct environment provide that?
You know how you are sometimes stuck in your writing and then you get in the shower or go for a walk and you have the best idea in the entire day and you have to quickly write it down? Also, when you are about to fall sleep, sometimes you suddenly get the perfect sentence in your head—it’s about going from one state into another. All writers know this and they keep a notebook by the bed. Or write only in bed, like Marcel Proust or Truman Capote. Today millions of people work in bed.
There are some studies about the relationship between the brain and the knee. With movement comes emotion. Motion and emotion are tied, but there is also motion and cognition. All philosophers have known that when walking you get ideas, and it is also in a way related to modern architecture because it makes you go for a walk—to follow a promenade as in Le Corbusier’s houses, rather than remain in a fixed position.
It wouldn’t be relevant to propose a single space to trigger ideas. It’s more relevant to propose different spaces, or a change of spaces, or a spectrum of different experiences.
The cell—the monk’s cell, for example—was also an inspiration for Le Corbusier. It’s possible that working in a restrained space, removed from all stimuli, you get your best ideas or that it will happen when you go out and go for walk—but you cannot predict that. Those are not things that can be prescribed. Some people will tell you that they work better when there is a lot of music and sound of people talking. Walter Benjamin, for example, said he worked best in cafes, in the middle of all that cacophony. Other people need to be totally isolated. Some people, myself included, would say that if there’s a view it is better, but others say they cannot have a view because then they get distracted. Who is right about all of this? At some point, I think we are all different and are capable of different moods.
We did a bathing interview because I was interested in how the subject could totally relax and release in a bath, so you have access to the subconscious and record—but it’s a fantasy because of course, the interviewee is even more stressed in a bath and concerned with concealing their nudity. (before: in control not to be seen naked.) But I love this approach of architecture having water as the element of release.
How about all these sensory deprivation pools? I’ve never been to one of them because I’m completely claustrophobic so I think I will kind of feel bad there [laughs].