Experts explore the history of phallic-inspired architecture and how we’re overdue for some feminine buildings.
They may not be overtly discussed in travel guides, but phallic buildings are a ubiquitous part of city skylines worldwide. This type of architecture is traditionally long and thin, with a pronounced “tip” that is rounded or distinctive to evoke the shape of a penis. Feminine buildings are traditionally seen as wider and more horizontal. This opposite form is a vulva-shaped building, described as “yonic,” and while these do exist, they are nowhere near as prevalent.
Even though some of the most famous examples of phallic architecture—like the New York’s Empire State Building or the Gherkin in London—may take the form of skyscrapers, penis-inspired design is nothing new. In fact, it could be the shape that connects us with the ancient world, beginning with the column design popularized by the Romans.
Matthew Walker, MA, Ph.D., FRHistS (Royal Historical Society) is a lecturer in architectural history and explains that the symbolism associated with these columns was not related to phalluses. Still, he says it is the column that has “led to the long, tall, vertical object becoming ingrained in the European architectural subconscious since the Renaissance.” The Renaissance era brought phallic architecture out of ancient times with the freestanding Roman Triumphal Column, described by Walker as “perhaps the most phallic of all classical architectural forms.”
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Walker believes that the Chrysler and Empire State buildings demonstrate this classical architecture in their detail and form. The notion of these skyscrapers demonstrating power is evident within the design concept alongside having the means to build it. Eugene Colberg, the Principal of Colberg Architecture in Brooklyn, explains that “the bigger and taller the city, the more powerful.” Adding that “historically, not everybody could do a tall structure; it requires skill, labor, money, and resources.”
These buildings can be a reflection of the person who commissioned them, which is more likely with commercial buildings that lend themselves to being skyscrapers, much like the Trump Tower in New York. Colberg explains that usually, there is “a single male figure who is in charge, responsible for delivering a tall building they can brag about.”
Philosopher Henri Lefebvre famously coined the phrase “phallic verticality” to describe these buildings that Marxists like him believed were symbolic of social class. In his book, The Production of Space, he said, “the arrogant verticality of skyscrapers, and especially of public and state buildings, introduces a phallic or more precisely a phallocratic element into the visual realm; the purpose of this display, of this need to impress, is to convey an impression of authority to each spectator.”
Still, there are genuine design considerations, budget restrictions, and the absence of square footage within today’s cities to take into account. Tall buildings “allow architects to build high volumes of habitable accommodation within a small building footprint,” says Simone de Gale, CEO of Simone de Gale Architects. She stressed that without this height, the demand for offices and homes would be “untenable.”
De Gale states that while architecture can be considered to be art, she doubts that “any of the architects who have designed a so-called phallic building, actually were trying to do so.”
Whether deliberate or not, the enduringly popular Empire State Building was described by Professor Valerie Briginshaw as “the ultimate sign of American phallic power.” As the tallest building in the world for nearly 40 years and with it now receiving 4 million tourists every year, its status feels unarguable.
“In an era where the U.S. was the leading superpower in the world, the iconic Empire State Building was the physical manifestation of this, in the form of an impressive and attractive steel superstructure,” says Colberg. So iconic that it was attacked by a giant gorilla in the phallically titled King Kong.
Another skyline-altering phallus is London’s 30 St. Mary Axe, nicknamed “the Gherkin” for its shape. However, there are important architectural reasons why a building would have a rounded tip. “The taller the building, the more that lateral force moves since the forces concentrate on the corners. The shape will reduce this kind of sway,” explained Colberg.
The Gherkin’s legendary design brought fame to its architect Norman Foster. Walker describes this as “the kind of legacy that most architects can only dream of, in one of the world’s most important cities.” Randy Plemel, a trained architect and founder of design consultancy Expedition Works points out that there could be a competitive element as Jean Nouvel was creating Barcelona’s equally phallic Torre Agbar at the same time as Foster, which has some visual similarities.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if both men knew of the other’s design as this is a small profession,” says Plemel. The architectural reasons behind the design of Torre Agbar, as Colberg explains, are its “double skin: the interior and exterior layers are separated to create a more energy-efficient environment.” He believes this iconic design can create dividends for the owner as “people will pay a premium for being in such a property.”
One building that has been rewarded for its phallic appearance is Michigan’s Ypsilanti Water Tower, rudely nicknamed “the Brick Dick” by locals. This tower, designed by William R. Coats, even won a contest to find the most phallic building by Cabinet Magazine in 2003.
Plemel compares the tower’s design to that of Jeff Bezos’ rocket, a noticeably phallic spaceship that was mocked on social media at its launch. “Sometimes these buildings are just accidents of different incentives, regulations, or decisions with the outcome being noticeably phallic.” He’s also never known an architect to design a penis-shaped building deliberately but concludes that “post-rationalization is strong in this field.”
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Perhaps a more serious point to be made here is that cities crammed with skyscrapers could make room for the female form. The geographer and feminist Jane Darke noted that “cities are patriarchy written in stone, brick, glass, and concrete.”
De Gale muses that the industry could use more women. “As we evolve as a socially conscious society, more women become successful architects, and we start to see what could be considered as a yonic architecture.” She gives the example of the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup stadium, designed by Zaha Hadid.
As the human environment is all about balance, it may be possible to shift to include feminine power. Writer of Feminist City, Leslie Kern, suggested that one solution was to “employ diverse groups of city-dwellers in all areas of urban design, planning, policy-making, politics, and architecture.”
“We may discover the yonic form is best suited for stadium design and symbolic of excellence in architectural design,” said de Gale. Much like the phallic building, she believes the yonic form could be reproduced many times over to become its own design staple and one that “gives life to new communities and elevates our society.”
Walker feels that the “phallic shape is too ingrained, and brings too many benefits for it to disappear.” So, it seems that penis-inspired architecture is here to stay, regardless of the intent behind it, because, as Colberg concludes, “people will always see what they want to see!”
When is a tower just a tower? Almost all the time.
..."beginning with the column design popularized by the Romans"... should read instead: “beginning with the Egyptian obelisk design followed by Greek column orders taken up by ancient Rome”.
In any case - ascribing a particular meaning to a common sense form of any building which happens to be simply a practical solution to gravity and limited space is a bit silly really… A stadium is not going to have the vertical form of a tower because by definition it must be larger than taller as opposed to a light house… No? Come-on people.