Architecture MAD Architects
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).