At the start of a new year, I always find myself looking to re-orient perspective toward the near future. It’s not about behavioral resolutions or promises—I make those, but usually around my birthday—but more re-turning my sense of the world around me and its futurity.
With that in mind, I’ve been reassessing my typical bike ride up and down the west side of Manhattan. For the past few years, the western edge of midtown Manhattan has increasingly displaced the Highline’s run in Chelsea as the site of contemporary starchitecture. Starting from Studio Gang’s elegant Solar Carve at 10th Avenue and 13th Street, one passes from DS+R’s Shed and bulbous tower to BIG’s paraboloid apartment complex to Heatherwick’s collection of follies. In the midst of all this notable architecture, one building haunts me. I ask: Why is there a shrunken replica of a 2,000-year-old Roman temple tacked on to Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club on West 51st Street?
On the roof of the club, the Spinal Tap–like tiny pastiche of pediment, frieze, and portico, notched into the cornice, is the only articulation of the top of the building. In the analogy of the Pantheon, it makes the adjacent fenestrated office building to the rear into the intermediate block. The domed rotunda would be beyond that—a figural mass deferred, a fantasy, an invitation beyond the street wall that some other figure might emerge.
Somehow, this architecturally signifies “strip club.” Why? It’s tempting to respond with an architectural history of this cliché to situate it within postmodernism and Las Vegas’ Caesars Palace and the resurgence of duck vs. shed thoughts via neopostmodernism. But what does this strip-club pantheon reveal about our predilections for architectural futures, especially at the nexus of our stubbornly elitist field and everyday reality? And, more broadly: Why is Greco-Roman architecture so consistently used as the style of choice for strip club designers? Beyond the style wars, the Hustler Club’s gift-shop pantheon can tell us about classicism and its future.
Has any architecture person written about the Pantheon motif on strip clubs ?
— V. Mitch McEwen (@mitchmcewen) January 3, 2023
Many intellectuals have already written about strip clubs. I think back to the feminist debates of the late 1990s and Camille Paglia’s insistence that erotic dancing is a pagan artform of woman’s dominance which stages the dancer as goddess and the paying man as the humiliated supplicant.
Unlike the Champagne room, which has a direct antecedent in the Paris brothels of the 19th century, the Roman Pantheon’s association with strip clubs has no singular geography or narrative. Its influence circulates through Paris, following the invention of neoclassicism. Construction on the Panthéon—not the original in Rome but the building in Paris—began in about 1757 by the architect Jacques-Germain Soufflot as the Church of Sainte-Geneviève. It was secularized during the French Revolution and was renamed the Panthéon.
Of course, this miniature Pantheon does not just arrive directly to 51st Street via Paris or Rome but also circulates somehow in the South through the patriarchal organization of society and the tendencies toward colonial styling for the “big houses,” but also the specific sexual economies of the plantation. I am thinking especially of Thomas Jefferson and his association of classical architecture with Paris, the plantation, and desire. Jefferson spoke of delight in architecture: “Architecture is my delight and putting up, and pulling down, one of my favorite amusements.” (Jefferson also built his own pantheon in the form of the rotunda at UVA.) Is this “pulling down” clearing sites for buildings on the plantation? What the hell was there to “pull down” in 18th-century Virginia other than the dwellings of Indigenous peoples and enslaved Africans and the ecosystems that supported them?
Jefferson’s design of the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond (1785–89) is considered the first adaptation of a classical temple form in America. According to Mabel Wilson’s chapter on Jefferson in Race and Modern Architecture, the classical reference for the Virginia State Capitol building was the Maison Carrée, a first-century Roman temple in Nimes, France. Perhaps the Hustler Club’s shrunken temple is more Maison Carrée than Pantheon, but simply cropped off by the adjacent office building.
Neoclassicism flourished across America. Replicas abounded, including Nashville’s recreation of the Parthenon. The associations between classicism and sexual deviance continued in popular culture, for example in 1979’s Caligula, produced by Penthouse.
The Hustler Club’s Pantheon, in the midst of assemblages of 21st century architectural greatness, stages something other than the usual genealogy. It asks to be read ideologically and physically.
Analyzing the visual signifiers of Larry Flynt’s fantasy world reminds me of the layers of history and historicity that David Gissen brings to his argument in The Architecture of Disability for considering the Acropolis as an impaired monument. Ramps were not invented with wheelchairs; some of the ramps at the Acropolis date back to the 5th century BC. The rugged steep path that we associate with hiking up to the Acropolis today emerged in the 19th century when the Acropolis became a monument to European values of the era and, by extension, able, white, male, bodies.
I also think of my Princeton colleague Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s work on abolishing the Classics. His work on Roman material culture tracks how Roman imperial systems turned ideas and humans into cargo in ways that continue to haunt modern empires. Hustler Classicism shows us that the circulation of architectural monuments can be a sign of this circulation itself. It’s a sign that people and/or ideas are being converted (again) into cargo. The Hustler Club is a temple for the conversion of flesh into capital.
There are so many temples to able-bodied, white male masculinity. Beyond removing racist monuments, which is important and necessary work, this year I am keen to consider what architectures might hack the circulation of such temples, might remind us to seek other perspectives, might lead us closer to abolition in its broadest spatial potential.
Mitch McEwen is principal of Atelier Office. She directs the architecture and technology research group Black Box at Princeton School of Architecture and is one of ten cofounders of the Black Reconstruction Collective.