Ar­chi­tec­ture MAD Ar­chi­tects

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Hu­tong Bub­ble 218, Bei­jing Harbin Opera House, Harbin Zendai Hi­malayas Cen­ter, Nan­jing

More than 15 years ago, MAD Ar­chi­tects and its founder Ma Yan­song in­tro­duced China to the sculp­tural baroque ar­chi­tec­ture that as­pires to play a com­pelling role on the new con­tem­po­rary ar­ti­fi­cial Asian land­scape. Be it the Harbin Opera House, a row of sky­scrapers in the heart of Nan­jing or the two small but so­phis­ti­cated shiny steel bub­bles that have taken over the roof of a Bei­jing hu­tong, this un­set­tling mix of part-or­ganic and part-neop­ara­met­ric curvi­lin­ear forms in­vokes terms such as “sen­sual” and “sin­u­ous” to de­scribe it.

But does sim­ply abol­ish­ing the idea of the right angle ren­der all ar­chi­tec­ture sub­tly erotic?

Adolf Loos de­scribed the plea­sure of a visit to a nud­ist camp to re­dis­cover his body and senses. This is not at all sur­pris­ing when we think of his do­mes­tic ar­chi­tec­tures, which play on the to­tal jux­ta­po­si­tion be­tween the ur­ban mask and their sen­sual labyrinthine in­te­ri­ors. Mod­ern de­sign gave eroti­cism an en­tirely pri­vate and un­set­tling sig­nif­i­cance, which con­trasted with the bour­geois pre­tence of a city that erased all ex­trem­ism. Eros and pri­vacy have trav­elled hand-in-hand over the last two cen­turies, rel­e­gat­ing all ex­treme forms of ex­pres­sion to in­te­ri­ors or anoma­lous con­texts that were recog­nised as such, whether the rad­i­cal move­ments of the 1960s or the eco-ex­per­i­ments of the fol­low­ing decades.

Eros-in­spired in­te­ri­ors were seen as heretic re­search, from Loos’s bed­room to Mollino’s in­te­ri­ors and the neo-or­ganic spa­ces of Bar­barella. Al­ter­na­tively, they re­vis­ited the link with our in­sides, as with Kiesler and the pods of Archi­gram. How­ever, given our times — where any shape is le­git­i­mate and sold to the high­est bid­der — does it still make sense to think of the curvi­lin­ear form = eros con­nec­tion?

We are liv­ing in a pe­riod when ev­ery­thing is flaunted yet de­void of eroti­cism. As a pre­dictable con­se­quence, the forms we gen­er­ate are al­most to­tally lack­ing in ap­peal. Eros has al­ways been an un­set­tling and sub­ter­ranean di­men­sion in ev­ery civil­i­sa­tion. With­out eros there is no epos, i.e myth, nar­ra­tion and deep-rooted iden­tity. A piece of ar­chi­tec­ture is silently erotic when it is not in your face but greets you with a warm em­brace that in­vites bliss­ful aban­don.

Eros in space im­plies si­lence, car­ing and in­ti­mate shar­ing, a free con­nec­tion be­tween body and place, an ab­sence of time so that all the senses may ex­pand and spawn un­ex­pected vi­sions.

How­ever, the age we in­habit is tai­lored to the con­sumer; it is cas­trat­ing and porno­graphic but not erotic, brazen but not al­lu­sive, su­per­fi­cial yet lack­ing sub­tlety.

Con­ceiv­ing erotic ar­chi­tec­ture to­day calls for a strik­ing ges­ture that is nec­es­sar­ily un­set­tling, be­cause it goes against the times we live in. Might this be one way to re­sus­ci­tate ar­chi­tec­ture from its veg­e­ta­tive state?

Luca Moli­nari (Codogno, 1966), ar­chi­tec­ture critic and cu­ra­tor, teaches de­sign the­ory at the Depart­ment of Ar­chi­tec­ture and In­dus­trial De­sign of the Univer­sity of Cam­pa­nia Luigi Van­vitelli (www.lu­camoli­nari.it).

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