An exhibition of the infamous but quaint Playboy magazine reveals a publication that’s original raison d’etre was as culturally provocative as it was sexually charged
Beatriz Colomina has made her name in finding the sex in buildings that others missed, where sexual motivation was thoroughly under wraps. What does she have to say about a whole genre suffused with the stuff? Where sex seems ubiquitous, obligatory, the very subject. There’s an exhibition on in Maastricht that tells us.
The subject is Playboy. While most of us think Playboy is/was (at least originally) about pictures of naked girls, in an interesting reversal Colomina and her research students present Playboyas about architecture. Playboy propounded an architectural taste that was as essential to the new American male as cologne or TEAC stereos, and this is why I’m asked to go, and perhaps why I’ll pick up a Playboy kitchen wall clock in the process.
I remember being particularly disappointed by the comparative lack of girls (something its successors would soon put to rights − the market would differentiate) in Playboy. It was a more generalist manifesto than you might think. Colomina says almost every architect read it, and she correctly sees a great deal of architecture in it, padding the ‘climax’ of the centrefold (her term) with those reel-to-reel tape recorders, adverts for cardigans, essays on John Updike and so on. In short, each classic edition (’50s-’70s) is to us, now, both long and dull.
But this exhibition is nicely put together. It is as sharp and neat as Shoreditch SCP. It’s put together in predictable zones but there are also difficulties. How should you show old copies of Playboy? What exactly should we look at or unscramble? Is it the ads for record decks and Charles Atlas; is it the tan lines on Miss September’s torso? Should we just savour the cover art? These days we don’t collect ads, we are somehow assimilated into them, and we don’t have tan lines − we have Brazilians. Do we save this ephemera whole, preserve it in the museo-monastery, or should we strew it all over the floor and dance naked? When we do either, what’s it actually worth?
Thankfully the research trawl is highly engaging (you can download it). We are presented with a variety of digs, duplexes and pads; exotic, rustic or even lunar in character, some of which are caves, some castles, and some cosmopolitan while others are merely inflatable. Some are real, some imaginary and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. All the time Playboy authenticated a swinging lifestyle of crochet lanterns, fondue and wafting camisoles; there seems always a timbre of back to the earth riches. Buildings can be orange or puce or bright green, but they all have cocktail cabinets. Some have legs, and ideologically rather than practically round beds.
Playboy aficionados divide roughly into three groups, the disappointed (like me), the furious and those who have thought of Playboy as some kind of cultural manifesto. Colomina would have it I’m one of the disappointed because I was stuck outside, for Hef’s is the world of the interior, the sanctum, and I wasn’t a part of it any more than I was a Rolling Stone (who, of course, reclused best in the Chicago mansion while I rocked, imaginatively, in my suburban bedroom). The lair was the lure.
Colomina’s reading makes her part of the second and third critical group, but helpfully so, with only an undercurrent of scolding. She makes strong sense when we understand the girls as wallpaper. One of the annoying things about Playboy was clearly and precisely the lack of sexuality offered in its imagery. A second might be that those exhibiting such sexuality commercially are still almost always vilified. So Playboy is/was a con on almost every level − and the disappointed can join with the furious.
So where does that leave your old style enthusiast, those hopeful or established hedonists? Conveniently it leaves Reyner Banham, Tom Wolfe and the whole raft of male American literati (probably even Truman Capote) out in the cold. For the problem with Playboy is that it perpetuated an adolescent imagination which is forever let down by encounter with the real thing. It represented the wildest hopes that were inevitably dashed by sense, or the world of the heroic 12-year-old trapped in a Desmond Bagley novel. Playboy may have represented a crushing commodification, but most of all it exacerbated tropes embedded in a nascent neoliberal Protestantism consequent of utopian organicism, and fuelled by blatant consumerism.
This was a remarkable achievement, and if you agree with the above paragraph, absolutely reasonable too. The exhibition cannot say very much that is radical as a consequence without upsetting the whole caboose, since this political mix has been inherent to America since the revolution to the point of almost defining it. Our exemplar should be John Lautner’s Elrod House (1968). The architect eulogises nature; his work is essence, it’s real, it’s certainly not a ‘style sat on a rock’. But by the time it reaches the pages of Playboy, if you squint a little, it looks like the first-class lounge of an international airport full of sex kittens, and it finally ends up as home of Bambi and Thumper in James Bond. There is clearly an opportunity here for a further reversal, that it was not Playboy, but the architects who were talking rubbish.
Playboy is now consumed as a retro trinket. It is quaint. What is dismaying, what is radical of course, is that Playboy was a springboard. Hedonism is now a holiday resort. I’m not sure about my Playboy kitchen wall light, it’s the size of a hub cap, it’s plastic chrome, it’s pink, and you know what, my first thought is it would be perfect for my 12-year-old niece’s bedroom. But while my wife suggests that thought is totally ‘inappropriate’, she at the same time squeals with joy, she loves it!
So how should we place the academic hyperbole? Perhaps it’s that Playboy represented some last cultural manifesto before some diaspora, before we all camel-toed it to the properly mucky marketplace.
Playboy Architecture, 1953-79
Venue: NAiM/Bureau Europa, Maastricht
Dates: until 10 February