Pornotopia

Pornotopia

Reviews: Books

Beatriz Preciado:

Pornotopia

An Essay on Playboy’s Architecture and Biopolitics

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One of the first things you may notice when reading Beatriz Preciado’s Pornotopia: An Essay on Playboy’s Architecture and Biopolitics (Cambridge, The MIT Press, 2014)a fascinating text that unravels the effects of the Playboy empire across architecture, urban territory, media, gender, and sexuality—is the (relative) lack of historical photographs and images. Instead, the book’s first chapters (and cover) are illustrated by line drawings of referenced images, by Barcelona-based artist Antonio Gagliano. The drawings are, at first, confusing when juxtaposed with the text, which describes in detail the impact of Playboy’s increasingly saturated and “realistic” images: from the first vivid centerfolds of Playboy magazine (“Prior to Playboy, few men had ever seen a color photograph of a nude woman,”)1 to the lush illustrations of speculative modern architectural design in the adjacent pages.
     It is not until the book’s short but significant postscript that we learn the reason for the omission of traditional visual archival material: Playboy Enterprise’s current Media Department objected to the content of a previous essay by Preciado on the grounds of the use of the word “pornography,” restricting access (and license) to the archive’s contents unless “pornography” was replaced with “art” (p. 226). Luckily for readers, this restriction did not deter Preciado from his research on Playboy.2 Instead, it reinforced the need for the investigation. “The archive is not a container of traces of the past but a performative machine for constructing the future,” Preciado writes. “There is no archive without violence. … This questioning of the archive aims to act as an epistemic act of disobedience” (p. 227). Reading Pornotopia as a scholarly act of disobedience gives extra resonance to the compelling text. Through the book’s in-depth documentation of how we—“necrophiliacs"3 all—live in the carcass of Hugh Hefner’s pornotopia whether we like it or not, Preciado offers an opportunity for critical reflection on Playboy’s legacy.

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     Preciado’s book on the growth of the Playboy empire is roughly organized chronologically, which corresponds to the increasing scale of its architectural and media projects. The text begins with Playboy’s postwar emergence as a self-published magazine and continues through its heyday, and slow collapse, as a real estate, television, and media empire in the 1980s and 1990s. Preciado argues that Playboy both represented and constructed a “pharmacopornographic regime”—a coordinated deployment of media, architecture, pharmaceuticals, and ideology—which shaped gender and sexuality in Cold War America. The book introduces Hugh Hefner and his colleagues as “pop architect[s]”:4 leveraging media (magazines, films, TV, and more) and built space (from the Playboy Mansion to international clubs) to construct a new neoliberal identity for the cisgender, white, heterosexual American male. Others, many of whom are cited by Preciado, have written on the way in which the capitalist/consumerist city can function as immersive ideological tool. In Pornotopia, we see specifically how architecture was used—both as “paper architecture” in the magazine and as built—to construct the “Playboy”: a man who would “dedicate his life to the simple (though previously unattainable) pleasure of sex and consumption” (p. 35).
     In one example, Preciado introduces us to a “centerfold” more successful than the naked women who were typically captured in the double-wide foldout pages: the architectural rendering of the unbuilt Playboy Townhouse (1962), designed by architect R. Donald Jaye.5 Preciado shows how the Townhouse was rhetorically defined in opposition to the suburban single-family house: it boasted glass instead of shutters, electronically controlled shades instead of floral curtains, responsive chaise lounges instead of plush sofas. In both the speculative Townhouse and other paper architectures, like the Playboy Penthouse (published in 1956), Preciado documents Playboy’s creation of an architectural fantasy: an urban, “boys only” structure armed for the repeated though temporary affairs with women, equipped with such paradoxical devices such as a “Kitchenless Kitchen” (of course, sans housewife). Even furniture aided the inhabitant in his seduction tactics, such as a cabinet with a hidden bar—so that the playboy would not have to leave the room to fix a drink, returning to find his date with “her mind changed, purse in hand, and the young lady ready to go home, dammit."6 A machine for living in, par excellence.

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     By revealing the inextricably linked Cold War pursuit of modern architecture and the hunt for “Playmates” within the pages of Playboy magazine, Preciado shows how “Playboy relied on the bachelor pad as a niche for the manufacture of the new, modern male” (p. 84). He also shows how, Janus-like, a new construction of femininity emerged: the Playboy “Playmate”—a “girl next door,” a “living pin-up” (p. 52): architecture as a machine for the construction of gender. While in the book we often are treated to Playboy’s editorial voice, quotations from Hugh Hefner and his biographers, Preciado’s documentation of the Playmates seems always to be through secondary sources: the architecture in which they lived, or how they were portrayed in TV and magazines. At times, I found myself wishing to “hear” from these women directly, about their experiences and reading of their environments.
     Preciado’s investigation of the “playboy” emerges from a legacy of writing on domesticity and gender, such as Beatriz Colomina’s Domesticity at War, which documented the role of modern design on the World War II “home front."7 Pornotopia continues this conversation by exploring a newly masculine architectural interior in the postwar period, emerging potentially in response to concurrent waves of feminism that expanded the domain of women outside of the home. The playboy is framed as an “indoors man”—an urbanite who appreciates women, design, and silk robes—in comparison to the “outdoors man”—an avid, sportswear-donning, monogamous suburban husband, to whom Playboy magazine’s competitors such as Field & Stream appealed. Looking beyond this ideological relationship between the “indoors” and the new masculine identity, Preciado situates the concept of the interior in a larger conversation on emergent technology in the period. He looks, for example, at the Playboy Mansion in Chicago, an HQ for Hefner as well as a public club. Preciado contrasts the traditional stone exterior of the building with the heterotopic interior: a “sexual utopia” that was “extended and supplemented by electronic surveillance and communication systems,” such as a subterranean tiki pool flanked on all sides by recording devices. Pornotopia documents what Preciado calls a “spectacle of interiority” in which domestic space was no longer private, but rather a place of work and immaterial labor, in which a network of recording devices and media screens replaced Modernism’s symbolic transparent façade.

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     One of Pornotopia’s most compelling arguments is Preciado’s undermining of the historiography of “radical” architectures from the 1960s and 1970s, such as Archigram, Haus-Rucker-Co, Superstudio, and their peers, recently dubbed “Hippie Modernism” in a Walker Art Center exhibition. “European ‘radical architecture’ projects,” Preciado writes, “in spite of their critical aspirations and the aesthetic disparities, would embody Playboy’s sexual politics and its codes of representation of the gendered body” (p. 172). In the historiography, the term “radical” for these projects goes largely unchallenged: their architectural rhetoric and aesthetic are lauded as avant-garde and a departure from architecture’s concurrent trend toward corporate practice. However, Preciado reveals these projects’ pornographic roots by drawing parallels between, for example, Archigram’s “Suitaloon” (a personalized membrane suit with technological prosthetics), Haus-Rucker-Co’s “Yellow Heart” (pneumatic enclosures for a man and woman that expand, contract, and then slowly combine), and Hugh Hefner’s cybernetic, rotating bed (a technologically enhanced soft prosthetic for the body and apparatus for seducing women). By rereading these so-called radical architectural devices as undergirded by pharmacopornographic origins—“sensual, cushioned, skin like sex pods” functioning as “apparatus[es] of capture”—Preciado adds critical nuance to the accepted narrative.

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     Against the backdrop of today’s social media landscape, which often seems dominated by click-bait-ish reports of the same (dismal) statistics on women in architecture, it’s possible to forget that Preciado’s text continues in a longer tradition of nuanced texts on architecture, sexuality, and gender, including edited collections such as Joel Sanders’s Stud: Architectures of Masculinity (Princeton Architectural Press, 1996), Francesca Hughes’s The Architect: Reconstructing Her Practice (MIT Press, 1998), or Beatriz Colomina’s Sexuality and Space (Princeton Architectural Press, 1996). Still, some historiographies argue that the extents of texts on architecture and sexuality remain sadly limited.8 In either case, Preciado, who cites his frameworks as coming from queer, transgender, disability, and porn studies (p. 10)—rather than architectural history—is a necessary voice. Preciado deploys diverse ways of understanding historical material to theorize about its effect on lived experience. Both nuanced and specific in its research and arguments, Pornotopia’s main revelation—that Playboy deployed an architectural, pharmacopornographic regime in the construction of the modern male—after reading the book seems like a foregone conclusion: something we already knew but somehow forgot. In short, Preciado’s book reminds us of two deceptively simple ideas: first, that gender is constructed both like and by architecture and second, that a nuanced history of the way we think about gender, sexuality, and space has never been more necessary.

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  1. See p. 26. Preciado quotes Gay Talese, as quoted in Playboy: 50s under the Covers (New York, N.Y.: Bondi, 2007).
  2. Preciado, self-described in the book’s introduction as “a transgender and queer activist,” published Pornotopia under the name Beatriz. In January 2015, in Libération, the French newspaper, Preciado announced that “Beatriz is Paul.” While the 2014 English edition of Pornotopia’s book’s dust jacket uses the pronoun “s/he,” I am using “him” and “his” per the Libération text. This is all in light of the book itself, which documents the complex construction and performance of gender across history, in both architecture and language.
  3. “The bad news is that Playboy’s pornotopia is dying. The good news is that we are all necrophiliacs” (p. 215).
  4. “It is possible to see Hugh Hefner as a pop architect and the Playboy empire as an architectural multimedia production company, a paradigmatic example of the transformation of architecture through media in the twentieth century” (p. 18).
  5. “The 1959 issue of Playboy containing the report on the Chaskin House sold more than a million copies, overtaking Esquire for the first time. … Hefner began developing a plan to build a house in Chicago modeled on the Chaskin House. … Although the house was never built, in May 1962 Playboy achieved another hit when it published the unbuilt designs in one of the most famous articles of the period” (p. 101).
  6. Playboy, September 1956, as quoted by Preciado (p. 88).
  7. Beatriz Colomina, Domesticity at War (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007). Preciado is generous throughout the book in his references to Colomina’s work on similar topics, including Sexuality and Space (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996). A version of some of Pornotopia’s content also appeared in his essay in Colomina’s edited collection Cold War Hothouses (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004) and was developed through coursework at Princeton School of Architecture. Preciado’s research on Hefner and the rotating bed has also since been revisited in recent scholarship on related topics, including Colomina’s “The Office in the Boudoir,” in OfficeUS Agenda (Zurich: Lars Müller, 2014). A current exhibition curated by Beatriz Colomina and Pep Aviles at the Elmhurst Art Museum in Illinois, titled “Playboy Architecture, 1953–1979” (open through August 28), continues to explore Playboy’s architectural legacy.
  8. Samuel Ray Jacobson, “Notes on Sexuality and Space” (thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2013).
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