Houses of Pleasure
In The Birth of the Clinic, Michel Foucault argues that architecture is not just a materialisation of power relations but also a machine for the extraction of knowledge about the body and biopolitical entities such as “sexual identity” or “race”¹. Thus, the hospital is not just a place for healing, but also a megastructure for bodily surveillance and the production of scientific knowledge about the human body. Bringing Foucault into the Cold War years, we can ask, what kind of epistemological machines are the spaces of desire, such as the Playboy Mansion, with their specific confinement, surveillance and entertainment techniques?
Playboy’s bachelor pads can be placed within a broader typology of brothels and establishments for the production of “lust”. In 1769’s France, Nicolas Edme Restif de la Bretonne argued for state administered brothels, which would be aimed at regulating the movement of women within the modern city, managing the circulation of reproductive fluids (sperm, blood and milk) in order to prevent the expansion of syphilis in Europe². Following Restif’s model, the french architect
Nicolas Redoux designed several plans to build a Maison du Plaisir in Paris. Redoux’s “asylums of libertinage” are no longer public institutions for the moralization of sexual vices, but rather architectures designed to maximise pleasure.
The Empire of the Urban Bachelor
“A man who entertains with imagination. A hospitable young host, his guests are always treated with the best. From the delectable buffet to the well-balanced bar, his frequent soirées are always party perfect.”³
The image of Hugh Hefner that first springs to mind is not one posing alongside a scale model of the Los Angeles Playboy Club, but the endless variations of Hefner in pyjamas and slippers, surrounded by a group of “Bunnies”, somewhere within the bounds of the Playboy Mansion. Hefner could well be the first 21th century public male figure to go down in history as an essentially “indoor” man, wearing no suit other than impeccable silk pyjamas and a short velvet dressing gown.
Distinctly, the emergence of the Playboy magazine was not only a milestone in the sexual revolution, but also an attempt to design a new kind of interior: to arouse the American man’s political awareness of the male right to domestic space, and to construct an autonomous room free of the sexual and moral laws that governed heterosexual marriage.
“Playboy brought men indoors. It made it OK for boys to stay inside and play.”
Following this narrative, faced with the “empire of the heterosexual family home” of the 1950’s, Playboy fought to construct a parallel utopia: “the empire of the urban bachelor”. Playboy envisioned a sophisticated lifestyle: jazz, literature, excellent pipes, cashmere sweaters, and attractive women, much in contrast to other men's publications like Argosy, Field & Stream, and True that celebrated their readers' places in duck blinds and trout streams. Playboy criticised the stuffy institutions of marriage, domesticity, and suburban family life. Suddenly, choosing to be a bachelor was an option, one adorned with sophisticated beverages, hi-fis, and an urbane abode that put white picket fences to shame. The designs of Robert Bray, frequently included in the magazine, clearly underline this agenda. The magazine treated not only women as objects of fantasy and desire, but buildings as well, using modernism as a tool to define a new lifestyle identity for the American male. Architects became crucial to the Playboy imagination - Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, Paolo Soleri, Buckminster Fuller and others who glamorised modern architecture and culture.
A Room of His Own aka. Casa Mojo Dojo House
Against the technical reinstatement of separate sexual spheres that urged men to leave the suburban home to women’s hands, Playboy encouraged men to occupy, recover and even “colonise” domestic space. The magazine’s early editorials can be read as a manifesto of “male liberation from domestic ideology”. However, this “liberation” did not consist of escaping from domesticity, as feminism did, but paradoxically, of constructing a specifically “male” domestic space. The establishment of the male lifestyle identity remains a surprisingly present topic, most recently addressed in “Barbie”. After leaving the feminist utopia of Barbieland and entering the real world, Ken discovers his desire for “A Room of His Own”: a strong urge to establish his own “Kendom”, in this particular case understood through wearing fur coats, horse riding, and boy’s nights. In the cocoon of his Casa Mojo Dojo House, more or less safe from Barbie’s attempts to restore order, but still very much surrounded by her pink accessories, the new “playboy” could finally freely dedicate his life to the simple pleasures of consumption.
Ultimately, Redoux's Maison du Plaisir was largely distinguished by its spatial aspects of body and pleasure distribution, gender segregation, and enclosure rather than by its phallic appearance; likewise the Playboy Mansion, neither a movie-star home nor an aristocratic house, was defined not by its opulent facade but rather by the way porn and media technologies dematerialized it to produce the interior itself as a spectacle; in similar fashion, Ken’s initial attempts at restoring his identity as a male didn’t manifest through overthrowing the all-female Barbieland government, but was rather expressed as a strong need to construct the interior he inhabited and make it his own.
The spaces we live in seem to be inextricably bound up in our sexual fantasies and identity. Does architecture then act as a facilitator of desire? Are all spaces seemingly “masculine” or “feminine”, or is there a certain degree of queerness in their decoration? Although gendered spaces were typically the norm in most cultures, nowadays the borders seem blurrier than ever. More and more interiors are designed with the intention for one's body to be, defining the need to iterate one's true identity, sexuality, and need to connect, whether that be on a physical level or through the prospect of community.
1 Foucault, M. (2003). The Birth of the Clinic: An Archeology of Medical Perception. Psychology Press.
2 Preciado, P. B. (2014). Pornotopia: An Essay on Playboy’s Architecture and Biopolitics. Zone Books.
3 Lewis, P. (2023, January 17). Robert Bray: Design for a Playboy Duplex Penthouse, 1970. https:// drawingmatter.org/robert-bray-design-for-a- playboy-duplex-penthouse-1970/