The toxic masculinity of architecture: a Guardian article that seems like a spoof but isn’t

July 8, 2020 • 1:15 pm

UPDATE: Reader John sent a counterexample: a hotel in Azerbaijan. Unfortunately, it’s invalid because it was built by Donald Trump! In fact, the Trump Tower Baku never opened. . .


This is one of those articles so over the top that you don’t know whether it belongs in the Guardian or the Onion.  Unfortunately, it’s in the former, showing that the Guardian, long circling the drain of wokeness, will publish nearly anything so long as it’s ideologically pure.  In fact, this article, by Leslie Kern, is such a stylistic and argumentative mess that one isn’t sure what the point really is, except to press every hot button of the Authoritarian Left.

Click to read and weep:

The article starts out as an accusation of a phallocentric urban architecture that, says Kern, exemplifies in stone, glass, and steel the oppressive tenets of the Patriarchy. To wit:

Glass ceilings and phallic towers. Mean streets and dark alleys. Road names and statues of men. From the physical to the metaphorical, the city is filled with reminders of masculine power. And yet we rarely talk of the urban landscape as an active participant in gender inequality. A building, no matter how phallic, isn’t actually misogynist, is it? Surely a skyscraper isn’t responsible for sexual harassment, the wage gap, or even the glass ceiling, whether it has a literal one up top or not?

That said, our built environments can still reflect patterns of gender-based discrimination. To imagine the city and its structures as neutral places where complicated human social relations are staged is to ignore the simple fact that people built these places. As the feminist geographer Jane Darke has said: “Our cities are patriarchy written in stone, brick, glass and concrete.” In other words, cities reflect the norms of the societies that build them. And sexism is a deep-rooted norm.

As far back as 1977, an American poet and professor of architecture named Dolores Hayden wrote an article with the explosive headline “Skyscraper seduction, skyscraper rape”. Hayden tore into the male power fantasies embodied in this celebrated urban form. The office tower, she wrote, is one more addition “to the procession of phallic monuments in history – including poles, obelisks, spires, columns and watchtowers”, where architects un-ironically use the language of “base, shaft and tip” while drawing upward-thrusting buildings ejaculating light into the night sky.

At those point I chortled internally, but then forced myself to continue:

If the sexism of the city began and ended with architectural symbolism, I would’ve happily written a grad school essay about this then turned my attention to more pressing matters. But society’s historical and ongoing ideas about the proper gender roles for men and women (organised along a narrow binary) are built right into our cities – and they still matter. They matter to me as a mother. They matter to me as a busy professor who often finds herself in strange cities, wondering if it’s OK to pop into the neighbourhood pub alone. Ask any woman who’s tried to bring a pram on to a bus, breastfeed in a park, or go for a jog at night. She intuitively understands the message the city sends her: this place is not for you.

Here we see Argumentation from Authority: the citation of two feminist writers to prove the case that skyscrapers are simply phalluses write large. No, they don’t exist because of the limitations of urban space, but to show off the genitalia of the Oppressor. Kern adds a picture of what, to be sure, is the most penis-like building I’ve ever seen. However, she shows the building—the office of the People’s Daily newspaper in Beijing—when it was under construction. Its phallosity declined considerably when it was done.

Kern’s photo in the Guardian article (from Imaginechina/Rex Features). Under construction:

As it looks now, completed, looking more like a toboggan than a penis:

After writing those paragraphs, Kern abandons her hypothesis about architecture and simply goes off the rails, full steam ahead, reciting a boilerplate of grievances that have absolutely nothing to do with architecture. The suburbs, for example, are characterized as a way to turn working women in the city into stay-at-home moms out of town. Even the cities themselves are indicted as places that allow domestic violence, make breastfeeding difficult, and prevent women access to running (or patronizing) businesses.

Poor old Jane Addams is even dragged in as an example of what the city needs, neglecting the fact that her famous Hull House in Chicago was a center for social work, particularly in the immigrant community. It is by no means a typical city building, but the harbinger of an admirable way to do social work.  Kern’s article then becomes completely unmoored from architecture:

The vast majority of violence, including fatal violence, against women and girls worldwide is perpetrated in the home, and lockdowns have exacerbated its every cause. These include stress, financial pressure, isolation, and a lack of interventions from family, friends and colleagues. Women are frightened to access shelter services and have little safe space or time to reach out for help. Not only is it almost impossible to move during the pandemic, loss of employment for many also means they can’t afford to leave anyway.

These problems weren’t created by coronavirus. The pandemic is merely exposing the fact that cities have been content to ignore domestic violence, not seeing it as an urban problem deeply connected to such issues as housing, employment, transportation, childcare, and of course the wage gap. Ultimately, tackling domestic violence may mean unsettling the heterosexual nuclear family in ways that would be deeply disruptive to the status quo – namely, disruptive to the long-standing reliance on the single-family home as a place of unpaid care work, a disruption cities can ill afford given their reluctance to fund childcare, subsidise housing and prevent violence.

The good news is that women haven’t been twiddling our thumbs waiting for city planners or politicians to solve these problems. In fact, women have been coming up with their own designs for cities and homes for well over a century. In 1889, Jane Addams founded Hull House in Chicago, a social settlement for young, unmarried women and immigrants who needed a safe home and a sense of community.

But wait! There’s more!  Not content to leave any Woke trope unmentioned, Kern notes that “Black Lives Matter. . . was founded by black women” (indeed, but this is irrelevant to Kern’s thesis), and of course the cops come in for a beating too (my emphasis):

The current situation offers an unprecedented opportunity for even bigger changes. One possibility comes via the anti-racism protests sweeping the globe: defund the police. Transfer that money to affordable housing, childcare and public transport, all of which would dramatically improve women’s lives in ways that increased policing never has. A second move: all those people suddenly deemed “essential workers” should be paid as if our lives depend on them, because they do. Third: reinvest in the public realm by creating accessible, barrier-free spaces and transport systems that would allow everyone full access to the benefits of city living.

At this point I mercifully draw the curtains on the article, though you can read it if you want. It’s not that women don’t have legitimate grievances; it’s that Kern manages, in a confusing Joyceian mind-dump, to drag them all into a piece that is supposed to be how architecture mirrors the patriarchy. And she says absolutely nothing that hasn’t been said before.


h/t: Simon

86 thoughts on “The toxic masculinity of architecture: a Guardian article that seems like a spoof but isn’t

    1. I used to think all this phallic stuff was nonsense – but then you come across so many cartoon drawings of male genitalia (so many school boys and supposedly grown adult males) and umpteen male jokes about the same (do women make jokes about their breasts or genitalia – pretty rarely if ever) that suddenly claims as the Guardian is making don’t seem so ridiculous. I think erect penises is an excellent way to describe those copper coloured (or rusting iron) erections in the first photo.
      Architecture would change so much for the better if there were significantly more women – less about male egos determined to “make their mark” on the land and/or the environment in highly ostentatious ways….And the things about all these variations on upward projecting buildings and other objects is that we don’t think to question – or to consider what is probably in part subconscious.

  1. “No, they don’t exist because of the limitations of urban space…”

    Kern seems unaware that when space isn’t limited the alternative to skyscrapers is the hideous “business park.” She doesn’t seem to comprehend that if all male architects were replaced with female ones city buildings would still be tall and vertical. Freud has a lot to answer for after making educated people see penises in everything.

    1. I agree. However I somewhat guiltily look forward to getting out the popcorn for a future environmentalst-vs-woke fight over how to create large amounts of living/commercial space in a small footprint, without building phalli. Maybe the woke crowd want us to build underground bunkers instead?

        1. As Groucho immortally said to the woman with 18 children, “Ma’am, I like my cigar; but I take it out of my mouth occasionally!”

  2. I see these things, and wonder what the real agenda is. I think in this case it’s an attack on urban cosmpolitanism and capitalism generally, since lots of low buildings wouldn’t have the advantage of concentration that skyscrapers do (or did). It’s like when someone tells me cow milk is bad for me. Are they really saying cow mik is bad, or do they object to cows as livestock?

      1. So, it’s interesting to note that the two signs in that link (well, the bit of the first page I bothered to peruse) which actually use white silhouettes are from South Africa. Though I’ll admit I didn’t check to see if they were old (i.e. from Apartheid) or not. How racist do you have to be to not want black silhouettes on your signs?

    1. well, I read the article and the author concludes that crossing lights are NOT racist (they are in fact neither male nor white) and that his initial assumptions were wrong.

      1. While trying so desperately not to use the highly offensive phrase do his boys “little white man”.

        1. “Little White man”.

          The capitalisation matters in context. He assumes that “white” mans the “white race” rather than that the light is white.

          Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

          1. Yes. It’s like we have to remove the whole colour from our vocabulary. Even if I refer to being white as a skin colour, I’m not necessarily referring to the race. I often refer to the Fitzpatrick scale version of white when referring to myself. I don’t really think about my ethnic makeup in that context, just how much sunblock I need.

  3. Toboggan? Looks like the People’s Daily building has had re-assignment surgery. Wonder how it identifies itself.

  4. “But,” you may say, “if you want to get 30 sq. ft. of office space on a 10 sq. ft. lot, you have to build straight up.” That sounds like common sense geometry, but common sense and geometry are both invented by males complicit in the patriarchy. All your “common sense” proves is that the problems women face “weren’t created by coronavirus” but by geometry, a science designed at its very core to create a veneer of universality to patriarchy and white supremacy.

  5. The author is so wrong. The truth is we shouldn’t invest in public transportation because subway trains are simply too phallic. Airplanes are worse, just hard-ons with wings! In the interest of social justice all airplanes should be shaped like Sophia Vergara and we must boycott airports until this horrible injustice is corrected.

  6. If architects started building enormous vaginas throughout the urban (hopefully not being racist!) landscape would that be an improvement, or just exploitative? Or would that depend on how the architect? (We might need to consult Titania if the person responsible was a pre-transition trans woman…)

    1. “If architects started building enormous vaginas . . . ” If they were male architects, they would get Twitter mobbed for sexual harassment or something. The woke brigade will always find something to carp about.

  7. Jerry, an error: “ Guardian or the Onion. Unfortunately, it’s in the latter, showing that the Guardian,” should be “former”.

  8. If it’s true that stupid burns, the author of that article must feel like the surface of the sun.

  9. Here’s a question for the author: exactly what is the maximum proportion of height to width in a building that would appear non-phallic to you? Whatever the number is, why there? – and what if someone else chooses a different number? Who is to arbitrate your competing perceptions?

    1. You beat me to it. A lot of “Not The Nine O’Clock News” hasn’t aged well, but sketches like this one are timeless.

  10. “If the sexism of the city began and ended with architectural symbolism, I would’ve happily written a grad middle school essay about this then turned my attention to more pressing matters.”

    There, fixed that.

  11. So one building is a phallus. Two would be breasts. Must we construct buildings in sets of three or more? Actually, three might be considered trans. Four or more?

  12. Not only is Kern a hot mess, but she has overlooked THE classic example of a suggestive structure–the old water tower in Ypsilanti, MI. Seriously. Google it.

  13. “A very old joke involves a man being shown a set of inkblots [e.g. a Rorschach test], and interpreting them all as pictures of people having sex. When the tester announces that he’s clearly obsessed with sex, he says, “Me? You’re the one with the collection of dirty pictures.”
    All The Tropes Wiki

    Seriously, any thin vertical object could potentially resemble a phallus to some degree, if you’re looking for a resemblance. Really, though, most skyscrapers are rectangular. Has anyone ever seen a penis with four corners? (If so, that would be an interesting medical problem.) A lot of woke cultural criticism is a kind of free-association game where the critics connect random objects by seizing on coincidental similarities and ignoring (very real) differences.

    Anyway, let’s not encourage these people by taking their ideas seriously.

  14. … a hotel in Azerbaijan. Unfortunately, it’s invalid because it was built by Donald Trump! In fact, the Trump Tower Baku never opened …

    That’s because Trump’s Azerbaijan hotel was never intended to be a legitimate business enterprise; it was part of a scheme to launder money by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard. See here and here.

  15. … she shows the building—the office of the People’s Daily newspaper in Beijing—when it was under construction. Its phallosity declined considerably when it was done.

    I hope the mohel charged a commensurate fee. 🙂

  16. A book that makes similar points in an equally irrational manner is
    “The ISIS papers” by Welsing, 1991″
    She is particularly fixated on the combination of the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial, when viewed from just the right range and bearing.

    This is the price we must pay for allowing grievance studies to be taught, and pretending that they are doing research and teaching facts.

    Back when I was an eager graduate student, I assisted a professor who taught some great classes on understanding the reasoning behind pseudo scientific arguments, particularly those that concern human migration. Pyramids are a great example, as people really like to imagine ancient Egyptians teaching Mesoamericans the secret technology. Much less sexy is the fact that it is just a basic way to build a large and stable structure from stacked elements.

    Certainly the same goes for dense urban structures. You could excavate and build down, I suppose, but it quickly gets complicated. And buildings that get wider as they get taller have their own problems of stability and spacing.

    The sort of sloppy reasoning used in the subject article has the potential to be really dangerous.

  17. You are looking at it upside down. They are all legs with the secrets in the deep dark canyons in between. Excuse me I need to go to the bathroom right now.

  18. These are the types of ivory tower issues that I think occur when theory becomes totally disembodied from evidence. A very brief musing on the most patriarchal systems in history – various religions, various ruler’s palaces, etc. – vs. imperfect but far, far more equitable systems (cities with – shock, horror – skyscrapers) – leads quickly to the conclusion that the most oppressive patriarchies are often quite lovely and even effeminate.

  19. Why do “feminists” ignore the one guaranteed way to prevent violence against women? *Teach girls and women to FIGHT effectively*. Is it because they’re too lazy, or cowardly, to learn martial arts themselves?

    1. I agree that self-defense is important, especially for women.

      But also important are:
      Avoid situations with threats*
      Maintain situational awareness at all times

      (* I am a 6′-5″ tall male, with weight to match (and I work out), well, more than to match. I avoid places with threats. As Sam Harris has said, if you frequent locations late at night where young men drink, you are running some obvious risks.

      In Nairobi, Kenya, I heard some western tourists complaining about getting mugged. I asked what had happened. We went to Club X at 4 am and we got mugged. Why did you go to Club X at 4 am? The guidebook said that was where the night action was. Well, you found the action!)

  20. Even if they were all phallic symbols, they are not good examples of ‘toxic’ masculinity, which is a real enough thing. Toxic masculinity is about things like a culture of sexual harassment at work, or women earning 70% of what men earn for the same work.

    Hey, is that a thriving urban center, or are you glad to see me?

    1. I think I understand what people are referring to as “toxic masculinity” but the phrase bothers me a bit. It seems almost to say that masculinity is, in general, toxic. It’s in the same vein as “whiteness” as used by the CRT crowd.

      1. I’m not sure my conception of the phrase is correct, but I think I get it. It is similar to, or includes, or starts with, an infatuation with machismo combined with the view that women are naturally subordinate to men. Or that they should be. Like anything else in life there is a spectrum of these attitudes from relatively benign to pathetic asshole. This of course has been the norm in most places and times throughout human history.

        A woman that I know very well has worked in a professional office for years. The principal is a wealthy, conservative, Christian male. He is just what I described above and his attitudes permeate every aspect of the business. People who don’t think these attitudes are still prevalent in our society or that they aren’t toxic are either not paying attention or are viewing things from a bubble in which perhaps these attitudes are less prevalent, and then assuming it’s the same everywhere.

        1. At my workplace, I would say this attitude is essentially non-existent. (That’s not true of some previous workplaces.)

          However, we have Trumper relatives, so I know male Chauvinism is alive and well.

          1. There is no doubt whatsoever that these kinds of attitudes have become significantly less prevalent, but yeah. There are still significant bastions of male chauvinism in our society.

        2. Yes, that’s what I believe as well. But I think some take it farther, making masculinity itself toxic. Having masculinity (or being masculine or just male) does not mean you buy into all those bad attitudes and actions but some would disagree with that.

  21. When I first read this the other day I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was a parody. I sent it to my friends and nearly sent it to Prof C. C. but thought: “No, I bet he’ll get ahold of it anyway. I can’t wait till he does!”

    Unbelievable. Parody is dead.

  22. There is a rule of thumb that I have with the Graun: the stupider the article the less likely will they allow comments.

  23. My former ladyfriend’s then-college-age daughter took a trip to Barcelona. Calling home, the first thing she says, excitedly, breathlessly, is, “Mom! There’s a building that looks like a dildo!!”

    Just Google Images for Barcelona dildo, which is what I did at the time.

    Yep, she was right!

  24. Thank you for offering a sane and sober view for this ludicrous scribble.
    As a small sidenote – there is a hilarious example of an architectural work, which in the light of this article could be said to emulate truly feminist’ qualities. It was made by the legendary Zurab Tsereteli from Russia – the master of bad taste in big scale. This work was offered as a present to US and is officially called “Tear of Grief. To the Struggle Against World Terrorism” but the local people in New Jersey call it instead with one word, which would not pass the bleep censor.

  25. It’s the usual “contains much that is original, and much that is good, but . . .” story.

Leave a Reply