Anti-phallic architecture isn’t something widely discussed in any realm – be it in art history or gender studies – perhaps because it is rarely both intentional and on a grand scale. Metropolis areas, though beginning to dabble in the creativity that post-modern architecture brings with it, tend to keep with the style of their already established skylines. Increasingly tall buildings with facades that alternate between classical, gothic, and modern seem to resonate high with city planners and most of these buildings continue on in the Vitruvian tradition of symmetry and proportion. It seems unlikely that an intentionally feminist building would earn the grants and permits needed to be constructed amongst the recognized New York skyline. Feminist architecture seems, for the time being, to be limited to the quieter and trendier environmental architecture that has been dubbed “green building.” Still, one shouldn’t forget about Chicago’s own Smurfit-Stone building, the sky scraper on the corner of Randolph and Michigan Avenue with the steeply slanted roof. Chicago urban legend has dubbed this building the “Y” building, or more bluntly, the vagina building. This myth is easily evaporated by the statement of the skyscraper’s architecture firm claiming that “[The designers] never had that thought in mind. It was never their intention. I assure you, absolutely not.” Regardless of this piece of information, utilizing the idea that this building seems to serve in direct contrast to the ideals Diane Agrest sets in her theory of the suppression of the female sex body through traditional architecture, it can be argued that despite of intent, the Smurfit-Stone building functions as a piece of feminist argument by “accidentally” circumcising Chicago’s phallus-heavy skyline with an anti-phallus.
Since the early eighteenth century, the urban environments of our country have paved the way for the rest of the world as far as capitalism, technology, and innovations go. Chicago and New York, in particular, competed in a very literal way to disprove the statement that the sky’s the limit. As the cities developed outward, new technological advancements in the field of architecture enabled them to also develop upward. The skyscraper, originally a term for the main sail on a sailing ship, has no official limitations as far as a definition goes. In general, a building, no matter how tall or short, is considered a skyscraper provided that it clearly stands out above its surrounding environment and significantly changes the overall skyline of the city it resides in. These relatively modern structures undoubtedly continue on in the established system of rules of architecture presented by the likes of Vitruvius, Alberti, Filarete, and DiGiorgio Martini.
Diane Agrest examines the teachings of these historic architectural masters in developing her theory of the sexist nature of architecture. Vitruvius, the classical mind that would influence construction a world’s history over, posits the issue of the human body as a model for architecture in which the symmetry, proportions, and center of the building and city should correspond with that of the human body – the human body, after all, is seemingly in divinity-approved perfect proportion and symmetry. Alberti, the Renaissance author of Ten Books on Architecture, extends this anthropomorphic ideal of buildings in his works which served to ultimately increase the influence of Vitruvius’ initial teachings. It isn’t until the works of Filarete and DiGiorgio Martini, however, that the original ambiguity with regards to the intended gender of the ideal building and city is eliminated and made explicit that the “human figure” is actually synonymous with the male figure with regards to proportion and symmetry. Agrest argues that both of these men also seem to strive to eliminate and suppress the inclusion of the female sex by assigning typical female gender roles to the men involved. For example, the architect, a man, becomes pregnant with an idea, carries it to term, and finally gives birth to a building, also a man. It is then also man that continues to give “maternal” nourishment to the building and to the city. It is because of all of this that Agrest argues that the female sexual body is completely repressed by the male sexual bodies that world-wide rise in phalluses in the metropolitan areas that also serve as central commercial and capital arenas.
The vagina building breaks free from this infrastructure in a way that is brilliantly subtle yet powerful enough to produce a massive urban myth in which most people that hear it seem to take as truth. The subtlety enters in a few ways, the first being the fact that the architects didn’t seem to notice that the building might be interpreted in the way that it has been by various onlookers, or, rhetorically speaking, audience members. Evidently the city didn’t see it this way either and allowed for the structure to be built. Another mean of subtlety includes the structure as a whole; it is, ultimately a skyscraper that actually is a phallus in its own right, it does, after all, protrude upward to dominate the sky above it. And yet it is perhaps one of the closest things to a structural and noticeable vagina that can exist – to be realistic yonic architecture, which is the opposite of phallus architecture, would be built in to the ground and would hardly be grounds for a rhetorical artifact.
This female building, the way it is, has snuck in to the Chicago skyline, pretending to abide by the gender-biased Vitruvian standards. With its’ suggestive reproductive organ aimed towards the sky, it breaks through the suppression inflicted by male architecture theorized by Agrest and word of mouth continues to heighten this building as a legitimate, though accidental, piece of feminist rhetoric.