by Liara Roux

Illustration by Raphael Ganz for PIN–UP and Nieuwe Insituut Design Drafts #2.

There’s no privacy in the Richard Meier building on Grand Army Plaza. I lived there for a few years in an apartment sparsely decorated with white Italian modernist furniture. Any clutter left about would produce a jarring effect against the white corian countertops; everything was to be put away after it was used, wiped down and sanitized.

Sex in that home was governed by similarly unspoken rules. The bedroom, which faced an interior courtyard, was wholly exposed to the rest of the building’s inhabitants. The curtains had to be lowered by hand, carefully, as they were prone to falling out of alignment. The sex was intense, but we were too self-conscious to speak; while the curtains were opaque when viewed from the outside, we could still see and often hear our neighbors. Only after we finished, when the room was returned to spotlessness, would we finally raise the curtains.

While the NYPD is unlikely to arrest anyone for nudity or sex in the privacy of their own home, we felt that any sort of sex with the blinds up in our glass-walled home might have qualified as an “indecent” display. In a 2007 New York Times article cheekily titled “Yours for the Peeping,” Meier is credited with initiating the glass residential tower trend with the erection of his buildings on the West Side Highway. While Meier has never publicly affirmed that his designs were inspired by a love of exhibitionism, his #MeToo moment, in which at least five women reported him for sexual harassment, including exposure, implies a relationship between his mutual love of glass walls and lewd displays, conscious or not.

We drove to a love hotel off the Jersey Turnpike for a friend’s birthday. Amid lines of coke and boys “docking,” we split off to our private room. We lit the kitschy fireplace and filled the champagne glass hot tub with a bubblebath. Every aspect of the hotel was corny and intended to arouse: Doric columns, walls glazed in a yellow ochre an imitation of an Italian villa, mirrored ceilings above the bed. There were no windows and rooms were advertised as completely soundproof; the privacy cultivated a sense of vulnerability between us.

We spent a night in a room in The Standard High Line for fun. Here was a hotel overtly promoted for exhibitionists. Completed in 2009, the rooms were soon filled with copulating couples. The Standard even encouraged voyeurs to photograph sex acts taking place in the rooms from outside. The photos would be uploaded to a page on their website titled “CUM ON OVER.” The rooms were intentionally narrow, encouraging visibility by forcing the beds up against the transparent walls. Our room looked out over the High Line, visible to anyone who walked past. Breaking out of our habit of closing the curtains, we dropped acid and fucked with the windows wide open.

While transgressive behaviors are actively encouraged in the rooms, employees and guests alike are sanctioned for any deviant acts committed in the toilets of The Standard Grill, which is located on the ground floor of the building. The comparatively permissive attitude upstairs begs an important question about which activities are permitted in different types of semi-private spaces.

The bathroom is a classic location for an illicit fuck. A private single restroom is the easiest; two pairs of shoes peeking out from underneath the stall is a tell tale sign of sexual activity. In 1903, for his design of the Larkin Building in Buffalo, New York, Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the first to use partitioned toilets in shared restrooms. Toilets separated by a flimsy barrier that left nearly a foot of space from the ground were intended to offer cost-effective privacy for workers, but have resulted in a veritable panopticon.

Video cameras are illegal in public restrooms in the United States as occupants have a “reasonable expectation of privacy”; this blurred line between public and private turns bathrooms into sites of contention where gender is policed, drug use monitored, and sex prohibited. ADA regulations, for example, require a minimum of nine inches of toe clearance in airport bathrooms. While this clearance ostensibly serves an accessibility purpose, it also allows for surreptitious surveillance.

Certain bathrooms tolerate or even invite sexual encounters. At the infamous, now-shuttered nightclub Mineshaft in the Village, legend has it that the urinals were designed to allow patrons to piss onto lucky boys who lapped it up below. Mood Ring, a more contemporary cruising ground for queers in Bushwick, has inspired memes with its bathroom sink, which is frequently broken by people fucking on top of it. The last time I was at Mood Ring, though, I skipped the stall and got fingered up against the wall, her hand reaching up under my skirt, our activity obscured in the darkness and the dancing bodies surrounding us.

Of course, no discussion of public sex spaces would be complete without Berghain, arguably the most famous club for a drug-and techno-fueled fuck. Careful screenings by uncompromising bouncers create a space as carefully policed as any airport. Inside, there’s no need to affect propriety, as there’s a complete absence of windows. The brutal metal and concrete interior, leftover from the building’s past life as a power plant, encourages an equally brutal fuck. While most participants are typically cis gay men, on my last visit, I found an eager bottom who loved fisting just as much as I do. He welcomed my small hands and asked me to try to fuck him without lube. I obliged; after, my hand emerged coated in a mixture of blood, shit, and cum. Our audience seemed just as pleased as we were.

The aesthetic influence of different buildings is apparent: brutalism encourages brutality, kitsch invites corniness. Architecture is shaped by our competing desires for privacy and exhibitionism and the state’s impulse to regulate sexual activity via surveillance. Certain forms of privacy, like the policing of the crowd at Berghain or the lack of windows at a love hotel, encourage a consensual experience of deviant sexuality; others, like the flimsy partitions of an airport bathroom or the glass walls of a Meier, invite a more dangerous dance of violation and transgression with potentially carceral consequences. While architects rarely publicly discuss the sexual aspect of their buildings, the spaces we inhabit indelibly shape our sexual expressions.

Design Drafts in PIN–UP 35.

Liara Roux is a New York City-based writer, indie adult film producer and director, and an advocate for sex workers’ rights. Their 2021 memoir, Whore of New York: A Confession, delves into the realities of his career as a sex worker while critiquing the politics of sex work, the exploitation inherent in capitalism, and Western medicine.

Originally published in PIN–UP 35 as part of the second edition of Design Drafts, PIN–UP and Nieuwe Insituut’s open call that invited invite up-and-coming and mid-career writers to investigate and manifest new design vocabularies.