Can a Penis-Shaped Church Really Be an Accident?

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Nov. 22 2013 6:20 PM

Can a Penis-Shaped Church Really Be an Accident?

FT-131122-church
Get your mind out of the gutter. It's a church.

Google Earth

"Sometimes,” wrote Charles Lindbergh in his 1953 flight memoir, The Spirit of St. Louis, “the world from above seems too beautiful, too wonderful, too distant for human eyes to see.”

And sometimes, it looks like a bunch of genitals. The Telegraph reported Thursday on a group of homeowners in the U.K. who feared their house prices might falter after Google Earth images revealed that their neighborhood resembles a huge penis from above. Yes, the residents of George Road, Edward Road, and Yeoman Cottages in Hoylake, Wirral live on a cul-de-sac of balls. “We have all become a laughing stock,” said one man. (Untrue! Also: What do you call the masonry used to construct a George Road property? A: Cock blocks!) 

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Days before Wirral, there was the media burlesque over designs for Qatar’s proposed $140 billion dollar football stadium—an open-lipped, pink-and-violet affair that evoked “a giant, flowering vagina.” And before that, there was the top of this Christian Science church in Dixon, Illinois (motto: Rising Up), which looks like a wang. (At least church officials seem to be having fun with their 15 seconds of fame: A post to the church’s Facebook page reads, “Giant fig leaf coming soon.”)

“We didn’t design it to be seen from above,” a church officer told Sauk Valley, which is perhaps the problem. It used to be that only God, angels, extraterrestrials, pilots, and birds had to contend with stray bits of architectural lewdness. Now, thanks to satellite services like Google Earth and Google Maps (and several more expensive surveillance options detailed here), anyone can take up an aerial vantage. The POV problem will only get worse as we enter a future of private drones: camera-equipped flyers people might use to take selfies, deliver pizza or drop off mail.

So should architects start to consider how their work appears from the clouds?

According to Evan Troxel, an L.A.-based designer who has taught architecture at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona College, and Mt. San Antonio Community College, they already do. “Architects have always built small-scale models of structures and are always looking at total form,” he says. “They’ve always known exactly what the roof is going to look like.” Especially in academia, he adds, students are trained to consider every detail and perspective.

Yet Troxel notes that, in practice, the bird’s-eye view “definitely comes into play a lot more now. With Google Maps and satellite images in general, that vantage is way more accessible. You used to be able to hide a lot of stuff on the roof. Now people know there’s a chance someone will see it—and more and more, they want to have fun with it.” 

So does he think the Dixon churchgoers and U.K. homeowners were punked? “People see images in everything, but when it’s really obvious, the chances [of a practical joke] are certainly higher,” Troxel admits.

Which leaves us, the gentle viewers, with a dilemma. Perhaps we should be adults about it all, politely choosing to ignore X-rated panoramas in the same way that, on foot, we pretend the Washington Monument doesn’t look like a penis. Or perhaps we should celebrate the sexual imagery architects are dishing out.

Zaha Hadid, who designed Vagina Stadium, deplores the blue turn that coverage of her structure has taken. “It’s really embarrassing that they come up with nonsense like this,” she huffed to Time. But the Guardian’s Holly Baxter applauds the arena’s unintentional feminist message. “In a world where sport and vaginas very rarely come together with such prominence (see every UK female footballer's salary versus every UK male footballer's salary),” she argues, the likeness “can only be a good thing. And after all, why not have 45,000 people crammed inside a woman's reproductive system? It's not like they haven't been there before."

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

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