In 1962, Hugh Hefner was photographed posing next to the scale model of a modern building,1 echoing the portraits of Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier taken a few years earlier. Indifferent to the camera and ignoring the viewer, Hefner’s eyes seem intent on setting up a privileged connection to the building. His body turns toward the model, his arms embrace it, suggesting bonds of creation between the two. We see him gesturing toward the model with an elongated object as if to draw our attention to some particular detail or open one of its little windows.
But this portrait differs in some respects from the canonical representation of the modern architect: The elongated object was neither a pencil nor a drafting pen, but a pipe (had he seen Le Corbusier’s?), and Hefner was not an architect. He was, instead, the founder of the adult magazine Playboy, posing next to a model of the Playboy Club and Hotel that was to be built in Los Angeles in the 1960s.
Hefner’s architect pose was not a farce. Rather, it revealed the architectural intentions behind what was an apparently banal erotic publication. Playboy was much more than print and girls without bikinis. In fact, during the 1950s and ’60s, the magazine had managed to create a series of architectural spaces in its pages. It then publicized them so relentlessly through the media that they created not only a new popular erotic utopia, but also radically transformed the uses and techniques of the domestic space of the Cold War years.
For example: Playboy had popularized the designs for the “Playboy Penthouse Apartment,” “Kitchenless Kitchen” and “Rotating Bed” that later materialized in the 1959 reconstruction of the Playboy Mansion. This “32 room Love Palace,” as it was billed, would inspire the set for the first reality show in television history, broadcast in 1959, and became the setting for innumerable photographs destined for the magazine’s pages.
Hefner himself defined the nature of the project as follows:
I wanted the house to be a dream-house. A place where one could work and have fun without the trouble and conflicts of the outside world. Inside, a single man had absolute control over his environment. I could change night into day screening a film at midnight and ordering a dinner at noon, having appointments in the middle of the night and romantic encounters in the afternoon. It was a haven and a sanctuary. … While the rest of the world seemed to be out of control, everything inside the Playboy House was perfect. That was my plan. Being brought up in a very repressive and conformist manner, I created a universe of my own where I was free to live and love in a way that most people can only dream about.2
This was the start of an unprecedented media-architecture operation deployed during the 1960s: Playboy scattered an archipelago of nightclubs and hotels throughout urban enclaves in America and Europe and filled the pages of its magazines with reports offering glimpses into the inhabited interiors of these singular places. This dual process of construction and media dissemination culminated with the move from the Chicago Mansion to Los Angeles and the restoration of Playboy Mansion West in 1971.
Far from being simply an erotic magazine, Playboy forms part of the architectural imaginary of the second half of the twentieth century. Playboy is the mansion and its parties, the tropical grotto and the underground glass-walled games room that lets guests watch the Bunnies swimming naked in the pool; it is the round bed where Hefner frolics with the Playmates; it is the bachelor pad, the private jet, the club with its secret rooms, the gardenzoo, the secret castle, and the urban oasis. Playboy would become the first “pornotopia” of the mass media age.
As the architect Reyner Banham pointed out in 1960, Playboy had done more for architecture and design in the United States than had Home and Garden magazine.3 From 1953, almost every issue of Playboy had included a full-color spread on architecture, featuring the magazine’s own interior design and decor projects.
While other US magazines like Ladies Home Journal or House Beautiful launched a postwar crusade against the architecture of Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier—believing it to be foreign to the American tradition—Playboy was publishing glowing articles on Mies, Walter Gropius, Philip Johnson, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Wallace K. Harrison, and its pages were a medium for the “simple, functional and modern” designs of Eames, Saarinen, Nelson, Bertoia, and Knoll. During the Cold War, Playboy had become a platform for spreading domestic architecture and design as masculine consumer goods for the new American popular culture.
Far from questioning the validity of the representation of Hugh Hefner as an architect and defending architecture as an exclusively professional or academic practice, what I propose here is to validate the photograph’s performative power to produce meaning and accept Hefner’s pose as a deliberate declaration of principles.
Here is the risky initial hypothesis that I will test in these pages: It is possible to see Hefner as a pop architect, and the Playboy empire as an architectural multimedia production company: a paradigmatic example of the transformation of architecture through the media in the twentieth century. If Beatriz Colomina is right in pointing out that “what makes modern architecture modern is not its functionalism or use of materials, but its engagement with the media,”4 we can affirm that not only did Playboy make an exemplary contribution to the “modernization” of architecture during the Cold War, but it also operated as an authentic multimedia architectural production company. One, in fact, that spread its model of urban, postdomestic, sexual utopia through an unprecedented dissemination spanning the press to the Chicago and Los Angeles mansions, as well as clubs, hotels, travel agencies, merchandising, television programs, film, video, the Internet, and videogames.
Playboy had managed to invent what Hefner called a “Disneyland for adults.”5 And Hefner himself was the pop architect of this multimedia erotic cabaret. He had somehow understood that in order to sculpt a new masculine subjectivity, one had to design a habitat: to create a space and invent a series of practices and uses of the domestic that could function as technohabits of the male body.
Transforming the American heterosexual man into a playboy meant also inventing a new erotic topos as an alternative to the suburban family home that was the dominant heterosexual space in postwar North American culture. This required getting inside the walls of the suburban house, penetrating every private home in America, and inculcating—first via the magazine and then through the TV—a virtual space that only unfolded through text and images. By 1962, the magazine had become the center of a multimedia network with soft tentacles spread throughout North American’s urban fabric, from newsstands to television stations, clubs, and hotels.
In 1962—the same year in which Hugh Hefner was photographed posing as an architect—Siegfried Giedion, the most influential architectural historian of the mid-twentieth century, coined the term “Playboy Architecture” in the introduction to the second edition of his best-selling book Space, Time and Architecture.
Giedion’s classic text was part of a titanic effort—also involving authors like Emil Kaufmann and Nikolaus Pevsner—to generate a new historiography of architecture that could defend the “modern tradition” as the worthy culmination of the technical, scientific, and tectonic progress of modernity. And Giedion saw American postwar architecture as a threat to the materialization of this “grand project,” which had borne within it the spirit of European civilization, from the Parthenon to Le Corbusier. What is strange is that Giedion should have decided to call that threat “Playboy Architecture”:
Contemporary architecture is regarded by some as a fashion and—as an American architect expressed it—many designers who had adopted the fashionable aspects of the “International Style” now found the fashion had worn thin and were engaged in a romantic orgy. This fashion, with its historical fragments picked at random, unfortunately infected many gifted architects. By the sixties, its results could be seen everywhere: in smallbreasted, gothic-styled colleges, in a lacework of glittering details inside and outside, in the toothpick stilts and assembly of isolated buildings of the largest cultural center. A kind of playboy-architecture became en vogue: an architecture treated as playboys treat life, jumping from one sensation to another and quickly bored with everything.6
Gideon no longer saw it as a conflict between different styles; it was a moral battle in which the spread of “playboy architecture” (the symptoms of which were “superficiality,” “fatigue,” “escapism,” “indecision,” and “promiscuity”) threw doubt on the values of “honesty,” “rightness,” “coherence,” and “fidelity to tradition” that had characterized the “modern tradition.”
What led Giedion to use the term “playboy” to describe what he considered a decadent trend in what was then known as the “International Style”? What architectural signs capable of spreading “superficiality” and “escapism” deserved to be branded “playboy”? In short, what exactly did Giedion mean when he used the phrase “playboy architecture” that he himself had invented?
Even though Giedion does not directly mention Hefner’s magazine when he talks about “playboy architecture,” we can guess that the semantic chain—which allows him to compare the playboy lifestyle (“superficial” and “escapist”) with postwar American architecture—was based on an elliptical signifier. That is, sex, or better still pornography: the public representation of what was historically supposed to be the very essence of privacy—sexuality.
In the history of architecture sketched out by Giedion, the word “playboy” exceeds a literal reference to the print publication and points to a mutation of American culture brought about by a set of visual consumption practices. Playboy had entailed more than just the transformation of porn into popular mass culture. As Giedion may have sensed, it was also a frontal attack on modern domesticity and the traditional relationship between gender, sex, and architecture.
Transforming the American heterosexual man into a playboy meant also inventing a new erotic topos as an alternative to the suburban family home.
In his introduction, Giedion talks about an “optical revolution,” similar to that which “had abolished the single viewpoint of perspective” at the start of the twentieth century. This “optical revolution” had led to the “third space conception”—of which Le Corbusier was the greatest exponent—as well as to the creation of new, specific conditions of movement, volume, and the interpenetration of inner and outer space.
Perhaps what lurked behind the threat of “playboy architecture” was the possibility of a further “revolution,” one that was political and sexual rather than optical. And the possibility that it could change not only ways of seeing but also ways of segmenting and inhabiting space, along with affects and modes of pleasure production. That it could throw doubt on both the virile heterosexual spatial order that had been dominant during the Cold War and on the heroic male figure of the modern architect.
Is it possible to read Giedion against Giedion, using his questions to decipher Playboy? In other words, can we ask what social and political order, what gender and sexual spatialization, made playboy architecture a “romantic orgy” and a “form of escapism”? What were the body, affects, and leaping, irrepressible desires that, in Giedion’s view, threatened the architectural project of European modernity? What did the “romantic orgies,” the “jumping from one sensation to another,” the “hunting for forms,” the “glittering details,” and the “dangerous pastimes” of playboy architecture consist of? Did Giedion fear a critique of the traditional role of the architect and the disclosure of the links between pleasure and construction? Did he want to protect the autonomous language of architecture from the incursions of other, lesser visual regimes rooted in popular culture, with their own economies of desire, consumption, and reception?
Perhaps the elder architectural historian was not so far off the scent. In America, to talk about the cold 1950s was to talk about Playboy, and architecture did not escape that cultural hegemony. Trying to conjure up his worst fears, Giedion had invented the pop brand “playboy architecture.”
Moreover—and perhaps much to Giedion’s regret—the playboy architecture label emphasized the power of the term “playboy” to function as a cultural key and a critical and historiographic criterion. It was a term that could encompass the postwar period spanning from the publication of the first issue of the Playboy magazine in 1953 to the fourth edition of Space, Time and Architecture in 1962. At the same time, it revealed the architectural aspect implicit in the popular meaning of the word “playboy”: referring not only to the magazine but also to a new gender regime within North American capitalism.
Excerpted from Pornotopia: An Essay on Playboy’s Architecture and Biopolitics (Zone, 2014), which will be released in paperback on October 22, 2019
- The photograph in question was the source of the drawing shown above. ↩
- Hugh Hefner, in Gretchen Edgren, Inside the Playboy Mansion (General Publishing Group, 1998), p. 6. ↩
- Reyner Banham, “I’d Crawl a Mile for … Playboy,” Architect’s Journal (April 1960), p. 107. ↩
- Beatriz Colomina was the first to propose a historical reading of architecture through its relationship to the mass media, taking the work of Le Corbusier and Loos as critical points of departure. See Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media (The MIT Press, 1994). See also Iván López Muruera, “Interview with Beatriz Colomina,” Arte y Parte 80 (2009), pp. 62–79. ↩
- Steven Watts, Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream (Wiley, 2009), p. 273. ↩
- Sigfried Giedion, “Architecture in the 1960s: Hopes and Fears,” Architectural Forum 117 (July 1962), p. 116. ↩