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A Man-Made World? : Architecture for boys and girls : BUILDING SEX: Men, Women, Architecture, and the Construction of Sexuality, By Aaron Betsky (William Morrow: $27.50; 201 pp.) : THE POWER OF PLACE: Urban Landscapes as Public History, By Dolores Hayden (MIT Press: $30; 238 pp.)

August 27, 1995|Karrie Jacobs | Karrie Jacobs lives in New York , where she is writer-at-large for the architecture and design magazine Metropolis

"What's this about?" a friend asks as he plucks from my desk a copy of Aaron Betsky's "Building Sex: Men, Women, Architecture and the Construction of Sexuality." My friend, you understand, has no interest in architecture and his idea of critical discourse is the Penthouse Forum, so I can only assume that he's drawn to this book because the word sex is emblazoned on the cover in red letters three inches tall while the word building all but disappears.

"I think it says that the Empire State Building is a boy," I joke, "and that the Hollywood Bowl is a girl."

Later, I read the book and discover that my flippant remark comes absurdly close to the truth. Betsky, a writer who specializes in architecture and who was recently appointed design curator at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art, has written a 200-page survey of Western civilization in which he hammers us with the notion that anatomy is destiny: Men build penises and women build wombs.

Here's how the book begins:

" 'Why do I always feel out of place when I'm walking down the Champs-Elysees?' a woman asked me when I was waxing enthusiastic about the grandeur of Paris. 'Because you are a woman,' I responded. The Champs-Elysees, I went on to explain, was designed by men. It represents their power. You might even say that it represents the body of a man."

Betsky's assertion begs a question: If women are compelled by their gender to feel all icky and out of sorts in places built by men, where on earth can they be at ease?

Women, Betsky suggests, can happily loll in the parks found on either side of the Champs-Elysees "These were places where nature was rebuilt in a domesticated version," he writes, conveniently forgetting that the landscape architects were also men. "Here grand purpose gave way to sensual but contained delights. . . . Here culture reigned, people drifted in and out, wares were once sold, and men could find prostitutes. This was the place of women."

Closer to home, the fair sex may take refuge from phallic skyscrapers and intimidating colonnades in--where else?--the shopping mall. "Space dissolves; textures emerge. This is a world that we think of as feminine. . . . The shopping mall has become the female temple."

And then, of course, there is the home where women have long been, to borrow one of Betsky's favorite verbs, "imprisoned" and where they've busied themselves re-creating the womb. In a typical passage, Betsky concludes: "The interior became even more the only place where the woman belonged and where she was lost in her own sensuous labyrinth."

In case you're not up on critical theory, I should point out that this business of viewing the world through the bifurcated lens of gender is not Betsky's invention. "Building Sex" draws on the work of many feminist theorists including Beatriz Colomina, editor of an essay collection, "Sexuality & Space" (Princeton Architectural Press: 1992), in which the idea that buildings have gender is raised and thoroughly discussed. For most of the critics in that book, issues of masculinity and femininity are central, but rarely do they fall into place so neatly as they do for Betsky.

Perhaps Betsky is too dependent on psychoanalytical interpretation. "Following standard Freudian doctrine, Erik Erikson pointed out that each woman shelters an interior world in her body (the womb) and thus replicates this activity in the real world," he writes in "Of Penises and Tents," his first chapter. "A man, on the other hand, has no such space. . . . He does, however, have a penis. This appendage sticks out into space and extends its reach even farther through urination or ejaculation."

One expects, and ardently hopes, that Betsky will quickly debunk this sort of reasoning. Instead, he plows manfully through history, selectively citing forms that reinforce it.

The pyramids: "The most salient point about them is their shape." They exhibit an "inflexible, unusable thrust upward." Early Mediterranean interiors: "sophisticated, gauzy, and ephemeral spaces that women defined." The hearth: a place where "women's space became the space created by the relationship between the all-purpose spoon and the face," unless it happens to be a central hearth designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in which case it is a "phallic organized fact."

Betsky should be commended for assembling a fascinating collection of sources for his book; the bibliography is an invaluable tool for anyone interested in this vein of research. And, periodically, Betsky forgets about his mission and writes a lovely, lucid paragraph describing, say, an ideal city painted by an early 16th-Century Italian. But he betrays the richness of his material by imposing on it exactly the sort of rigid theoretical models that he claims men, since Roman times, have been using to flatten and control unruly terrain.

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