The architecture of sex

Kurt Hollander

A writer, photographer, and artist originally from New York, Kurt Hollander has been living in Mexico City since 1989. For the last three years he has divided his time between Mexico City and Cali, Colombia. He is the author of the autobiographical work Formas de morir en México (Trilce 2015) and Several Ways to Die in Mexico City (Feral House 2012), and of the photo-books El Super (RM 2006) and Sonora: The Magic Market (RM 2008). His writing and photographs have been featured most recently in The Guardian, Vice, Guernica, Domus, Uncube, Weapons of Reason and elsewhere, and his photography and installations have been exhibited in solo and group shows in the US, Mexico, and Colombia. He was the editor of Poliester, a contemporary art magazine of the Americas, from 1991 to 2000.

The first time I went to Cali, Colombia, I took a taxi directly from the airport to Motel Kiss Me, where I was ushered into the Presidential Gold Suite, complete with its own private Jacuzzi and sauna.

Most people who go to Motel Kiss Me are accompanied by a lover and stay only a couple of hours. I stayed there for two weeks all by myself. I ate almost every meal in the communal kitchen on a rooftop along with the hotel’s managers, maids, handymen, receptionists, and cooks, played billiards with the owner in his penthouse, and rarely ventured into the broiling heat outside the walls. Instead of going out sightseeing, museum-hopping, or salsa dancing, I spent most of my two weeks in Cali photographing the hotel’s more than 150 theme rooms, which are covered from floor to ceiling with paintings, sculptures, installations, and objects.

La arquitectura del sexo

The first room created in Kiss Me was the Polar Room. With a bed inside an igloo and icicles hanging down from the ceiling, this room represents a fantasy escape from the sweltering heat of the city (because of its popularity, a whole wing of the hotel is now dedicated to such rooms). Most rooms in the hotel, however, represent countries, including Germany (complete with a wall paintings of Hitler and a VW bug), Argentina (soccer players and tango singers), France (the Eiffel Tower), Spain (with a bed inside of a bullfight ring), Venezuela (life-sized figures of Fidel and Chavez standing arm-in-arm in front of oil fields), Iraq (Saddam Hussein, and more oil fields), and the USA (life-sized sculptures of George Bush and Osama Bin-Laden playing chess in front of the World Trade Center towers engulfed in flames).

While I was there taking photographs of the hotel, I rode up and down in the elevator with arriving and departing couples and walked down the halls listening to the music, moans, and screams of people having sex at all hours of the day and night. I often photographed the rooms just after they were abandoned by lovers, with the physical remains of wild sex still to be seen on the bed or floor and the aroma of sex lingering in the air.

Although love hotels are a relatively new phenomenon in the Americas, my stay in Kiss Me showed me just how much these establishments are the continuation of a very intimate relationship between sex, art, and architecture that stretches back thousands of years.


Tools manufactured by Homo sapiens during the Paleolithic age not only helped man to survive but were also used to create the first works of art. The Venus of Hohle Fels, recently recovered in a cave in Germany, is generally considered to be the oldest artistic figure in the history of mankind (perhaps 40,000 years old). This tiny figurine about two inches tall is just one of many nude female figurines found in northern Europe that were carved out of bone, calcite, ivory, limestone, or ceramic. These statues, commonly called Venus figurines, depict obese women who at that time and in many eras and cultures since have been considered the model of sexuality, the most fit for procreation during times of famine.

Caves were not just where art was first created and displayed, they were also the places where most sex occurred. It is no surprise, then, that some of the first artworks created by human beings were sexual in nature. During the Paleolithic, sexually explicit images flourished throughout the Mideast, Europe, and Russia. Phallic sex devices were depicted in Paleolithic cave art dating back as far as 30,000 BC. One eight-inch stone phallus unearthed in a cave in Germany dates back 26,000 years.

In additional to nudes, female figures were also represented with belts, boots, and bracelets, accessories designed to increase their sexual attractiveness. Oversized penises and detailed depictions of vulvas, butts, hips, breasts, and thighs were etched, drawn, or painted on the walls of caves, but also on animal bones, antlers, and ivory. The sexual activity of humans was often portrayed in animal positions, such as those of dogs or bears.

The early pictorial obsession with certain body parts and sexual positions represents not a purely aesthetic inclination but rather a social need to help stimulate procreation. In the ancient world, procreation was an important religious issue, and aphrodisiacs (such as certain foods, alcohol, music, and dance) were often administered by priests to increase procreation.

The very sight of sexual images has been shown to raise the level of testosterone in males, while the use of dildos and sex toys increases hormonal activity in women. Thus, art objects and images have from the beginning served to stimulate sexual activity and promote reproduction, and the explicit art produced in all the earliest cultures around the world can be considered to be aphrodisiac in nature.

La arquitectura del sexo

Cave art was never just art for art’s sake, and sex was never just for personal pleasure. Sexual activity was essential to the survival of the tribe, and thus too important to be left to individuals alone. The earliest religious organisations sought ways to increase procreation, and art was an important tool for this purpose. Cave art inspired sex, sex led to an increase in population, and this, in turn, helped strengthened the tribe.

In ancient times it was believed that the gods were responsible for sexual excitation, in part through the artworks associated with them. More than just depictions of sexy women, the Venus figurines, representations of ancient Earth goddesses, could very well have been used for direct sexual stimulation in religious rituals designed to increase procreation.

Even after human beings crawled out of caves and began constructing homes, cities, and civilisations, explicit sexual imagery remained central to the production of art and continued to be an essential aspect of religious activity.

Ancient Egyptian religion was filled with tales of adultery, incest, homosexuality, masturbation, and necrophilia, while the devout were promised good sex in the afterlife. In surviving scrolls, there are explicit hieroglyphics for vagina, penis, ejaculation, and intercourse, and the accompanying artwork often depicts explicit acts.

The Turin Erotic Papyrus from the 12th Century BC is an Egyptian scroll painting that has been described as the world’s first men’s magazine. The scroll shows an unshaven, balding, pot-bellied man with a hard-on having sex with dozens of different nubile women. In the scroll, the man inserts his penis into a woman mounted on a chariot, into a woman sitting on a giant mushroom, and into a woman touching her toes, and he also engages in missionary, doggy-style, and very acrobatic sex with other women. Some believe this scroll depicts the emperor Ramses and his many wives, although it also might be a client in a whorehouse or even a priest in a fertility temple having sex with priestesses known as the “wives of the gods.”

In ancient times, sex was not just something lovers did behind closed doors, it was very much an important social and religious activity, and as such it was guided by and incited by men and women of the cloth. In many cultures, priests and priestesses had ritualistic sex on specific days of the year, and on other holidays the general population was invited into these temples to join them as well.

Cultic sexual services associated with the Mother-Earth Goddess date back to the Neolithic. Ancient societies along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers built shrines and temples, or “houses of heaven,” dedicated to various deities, and the rites performed within these temples included sacred prostitution or the temporary prostitution of unwed girls, with variants such as dowry-prostitution or the public defloration of a bride.

The earliest whorehouse in recorded history was actually a fertility temple dedicated to the goddess Ishtar that existed as far back as 2400 BC. The first known temple in which sacred prostitution was practiced was in the Sumerian and later Babylonian city of Uruk. There, depending on the kind of prostitute they were, the women either dedicated their sexual activity exclusively to in-house temple rituals, attended the needs of visitors, or lived and worked in the temple but also combed the city for paying clients.

La arquitectura del sexo

The decoration of these ancient temples was designed specifically to inspire the sexual activity that occurred within its walls. Ancient Babylonian artifacts used for the veneration of the love goddess Ishtar were very graphic. Small erotic clay plaques showing the penetration of a woman by a man from behind and dating to the early second millennium BC have been found in temples, graves, and private homes in Mesopotamia.

Among ancient Hebrew cultures, male priests who engaged in homosexual sacred prostitution were called kadesh (literally, male “holy one”), a term that evolved to take on a meaning similar to sodomite.

In Southern India and Nepal, a form of prostitution existed in which pre-pubescent and young adolescent girls from villages were given in ritual marriage to a deity or a temple to work as spiritual guides, dancers, and prostitutes servicing male devotees within the temple.

Hindu erotic carvings can be seen on the Kandariya Mahadeva Temple, which dates back to before 1000 BC. In Hinduism, Shiva, the main deity in India, is the creator of life, represented by the linga, the male trinity of penis and two testicles. The linga is a common feature of Hindu temples across India, with one famous temple known as the “Hall of a Thousand Lingas.”

The Candi Sukuh temple of East Java, built as late as the 10th century, has several stone images of copulating penises and vaginas, and originally had a six-foot sculpture of a linga with four testicles (it is currently housed in the National Museum of Indonesia). The ancient culture of many parts of Far East Asia, including Indonesia, Mali, and the Buddhist parts of Korea and Japan, also used the phallus as a symbol of fertility in motifs on their temples and in other areas of everyday life.

La arquitectura del sexo


People have worshipped the male phallus since the Paleolithic and did so even more during the Neolithic and the Bronze Age. Phallic symbolism was prevalent in the architecture of ancient Babylon and became increasingly prominent in ancient Egypt and Greece, where phallic festivals were celebrated. On the island of Delos a pillar supports a colossal phallus, the symbol of Dionysus.

The Greek deity Priapus, depicted with a giant phallus, was worshiped as a god of fertility, and his prick adorned numerous public buildings and temples. It was good luck just before a journey to stroke his cock on statues that were installed at all crossroads outside towns.

Greek religion, however, was not exclusively phallocentric. Unlike later monotheistic religions, there were very strong, sexually liberated female goddesses. Aphrodite, the goddess of lust and love, set the example for an active sex life by making love as often as she could with both gods and mortals.

Aphrodite was a god of the people, honoured in modest temples located in urban centres throughout Greece, prayed to for help with amorous and sexual unions. Depending on how much respect people showed her, she either rewarded human beings by filling them with lust and sexual prowess or punished them by withering men’s pricks or by turning women into prostitutes.

Prostitution, however, wasn’t necessarily viewed as a social ill or even as a degraded profession. It was said that every young maiden served the gods at least once in her lifetime by going to Aphrodite’s fertility temple to make love with a stranger. The man chose his maiden, threw some money at her feet (the sum was unimportant), and pronounced the formula, “I invoke the goddess upon you.”

The temple of Aphrodite in Corinth was said to employ 1,000 sacred prostitutes, a tradition passed down from the temples of Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love, fertility, and lust, and Ishtar, the Babylonia goddess of fertility, love, and sex. Intercourse with Aphrodite’s temple priestesses was considered an acceptable means of worshipping the goddess.

Aphrodite’s temples were very austere places, often decorated only with erotic sculptures and paintings, mostly of the goddess herself. Aphrodite Kallipygos, the goddess of the “beautiful butt,” sculpted staring over her own back and down at her posterior, was a common type of nude female statue of the Hellenistic era. The Aphrodite of Milo, also known as the Venus de Milo (c. 100 BC) is by far the best-known Classical artwork to have survived.

Fertility temples, however, weren’t the only places where sex and art coincided. Much of the Classical art housed in museums today comes from ancient Greek whorehouses. For instance, in the ancient market of the northern port city of Salonica, dating back to the first century BC, a brothel was discovered that contained painted ceramic and stone carvings depicting giant phalluses, gay sex, circle jerks, S&M, and bestiality, as well as sex between gods and between gods and mortals.

La arquitectura del sexo

The palaces and villas of wealthy Greek citizens served as exhibition spaces for sexually explicit art but also for commercial sex. The Greek elite utilised certain rooms of their homes and even courtyards as brothels to make money on the side, and masters pimped out their own domestic workers and slaves of both sexes to paying clients.

At the site of a 2,000-year-old brothel recently unearthed in Athens, Greece, a fully stocked “sex shop” was discovered, complete with penis paraphernalia, a variety of lubricants (including olive oil), and oblisbos. Oblisbos, Latin for “to glide or slip” or “to open wide, ” are autoerotic stone dildos used presumably for vaginal and anal penetration (they are the model for all subsequent dildos created through the centuries). Penis-shaped dildos were so integral to day-to-day life in ancient Greece that they were sold in the marketplace. Husbands going off to war gave them to their wives, and men and women took them virtually everywhere they went — including to the grave.


Art in the Roman Empire was created mostly by lower-class workers from a variety of ethnicities. Erotic art, a significant portion of all art made, was sold to a broad range of consumers, from the elite to the very poor.

Although phallic architecture was not as prevalent in ancient Rome as it was in Greece or Egypt, the Romans incorporated phallic details into their architecture and phallic objects into their homes (including an 18-inch terracotta prick bearing the inscription “Here dwells happiness”).

Apart from the cocks gracing entrances to homes or hanging as chandeliers, there were also phallic sculptural reliefs and decorations on glasses, silverware, and jewelry (especially rings), and embossed onto oil lamps. Explicit paintings were found in the most respectable houses of the Roman nobility, including small paintings (tabella), frescos, mosaics, and sculptures. The Villa de Misteri, a suburban estate near Pompeii, had frescos that depict the initiation of a woman into a mystery cult of Dionysius with such rites as flagellation and fellatio.

The decor of a Roman bedroom was graced with artwork and accessories that aided and embellished the owner’s sex life. The poet Horace had mirrors installed above and to the side of his bed so that when he hired a prostitute he could watch from all angles. The emperor Tiberius had his bedrooms decorated with sexually explicit paintings and sculptures and stocked with Greek sex manuals, including those written by Elephantis, a woman poet famous for her obscene language.

In ancient Roman cities, besides having sex with one’s wife, slaves, and young boys (free of charge if one was a teacher, philosopher, politician, or priest), sex could also be purchased in several different public venues, given that prostitution was legal, widespread, and affordable to most free men.

La arquitectura del sexo

Pompeii, famous for its Suburban Baths, was a luxury destination for the Roman elite and for well-known gladiators and actors. The Pompeii Baths (preserved intact when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 75 AD), offered clients a dressing room filled with erotic paintings depicting explicit acts such as oral sex, gangbangs of all possible gender combinations, women pleasuring themselves with dildos, fellatio and cunnilingus, and a man with huge testicles.

These public baths in Pompeii were especially popular because they housed the lupanare (brothels). The lupanare consisted of ten rooms, five per floor, furnished only with a mattress. A curtain covered the entrance to the room; the attending prostitute’s name and price, along with explicit paintings illustrating the positions and special services (schemata veneris) the woman offered, would often appear above the entrance.

Pompeii was the centre of prostitution at that time, and in addition to being the sexual playground of the wealthy, most brothels there were even cheaper and more readily available than elsewhere in the Roman Empire. Brothels in private villas of the local elite, usually located in a room in the backyard, were looked after by the woman of the house and stocked with slaves, to whose services the owner and his sons would have free access.

The Roman authorities encouraged the sex industry by issuing tokens called spintria to be used by free citizens to hire the services of whores. These tokens were bronze coins showing sexual positions on the face of the coin and a Roman numeral on the reverse side that indicated the token’s value. Prostitutes could advertise their services on a wall of the Basilica (a civil court), listing prices and special services.

The Roman church also chipped in by organising yearly Bacchanalia, a fertility festival in honour of the Roman god of wine, freedom, intoxication, and ecstasy, during which loud drums would drown out the cries of drunken, violent sex.


Just as Rome adopted much of the legal, religious, cultural, and physical remains of Greece into its culture, the Vatican absorbed and incorporated ancient Rome into its own empire. The ancient city of Rome was rechristened Vatican City and the provinces of Rome were reconstituted as dioceses. The Roman emperor became the pope, continuing to rule as an absolute monarch. Roman senators became cardinals, governors became archbishops, Vestal Virgins were renamed nuns, while the pontiff (originally a title assigned to the high priests of pagan gods) retained his position and name even though he now served only one God.

As Christian monotheism became institutionalised and spread, church leaders did everything they could to eradicate the religious beliefs of the Classical civilisations, which they viewed as pagan and sinful. The first thing to be destroyed was the pantheon of ancient gods, to be replaced by a single, omnipotent God (backed up by an army of holy saints). Where there had been male and female gods and even some in between, gods that had always fought, fucked, and partied, the church erected a single, infallible male ruler of the universe. Where the Greeks and Romans had worshipped goddesses that had sex with mortals and immortals, the church relegated holy women to the status of pious virgins.

Besides housing several churches, chapels, monasteries, and other sites of worship, Vatican City encompasses tombs, cemeteries, palaces, towers, residential complexes, a pharmacy (the busiest in the world), banks, and libraries. In addition, the Vatican created and houses the world’s first museums, the Musei Capitolini, a group of art and archeological museums founded by Pope Julius II in the early 16th century. These museums continue to be amongst the most visited art institutions in the world. In 2013, 5.5 million people visited this museum complex; the admission fees and gift shop sales provide the Vatican with its greatest source of income.

The construction of the museums was overseen by a succession of popes who ensured that the buildings displayed the same grandeur and spirituality as the cathedrals and churches also built within Vatican City. The artwork inside the museums, much of it inherited from ancient Greece and Rome, was viewed with the same hushed reverence as the Catholic sacred images and figures inside the nearby churches.

La arquitectura del sexo

Although the Vatican is seen as the model for modern museum architecture and the exhibition of art, with many popes in the past having been respected patrons of the arts, the Catholic Church has in fact always been one of art’s greatest enemies. The church defaced or demolished Classical statues, sculptures, paintings, mosaics, and ornaments that represented “false” gods, which is to say, the majority of ancient art. Many ancient statues were destroyed on the orders of the church authorities in the Middle Ages or censored during the Renaissance, with special attention paid to “castrating” all penises on display in paintings and sculptures, or at least covering them up with fig leaves to prevent the general public from being corrupted by such pornographic images.

Much of the ancient Greek and Roman erotic art that managed to survive the Catholic Church’s destruction was hidden away within the vaults of the Vatican, thus making this institution home to the world’s largest collection of ancient pornography.

The fact that the Catholic Church inherited not just the ancient art but also the ancient sexual practices of Greeks and Romans has been conveniently ignored. Just as in ancient times, boys given by their parents to serve the Vatican were long treated as sex slaves for the pleasure of old men, a tradition that has been respected and widely practiced by the highest members of the Catholic Church over the centuries.

The church presents its acts of pederasty, which are considered a crime today in almost every country’s legal system, as isolated events, even though they might very well be as common as they were in ancient times. The fact that the Catholic Church censors erotic art yet keeps the most explicit art for itself, and that it publicly and vehemently prohibits homosexuality, sodomy, and pederasty while its members indulge in it ad libidum, reveals not just blatant hypocrisy but also the faithful continuation of ancient pagan traditions within a religious institution that was founded upon their destruction.


Try as it might, the Vatican was unable to destroy or to reserve to itself all explicit pagan art. The Arab Empire, much more lenient in its views of art and sexuality, preserved Classical art up until the modern era and thus served as a bridge over the early Christian era. In addition, artwork that had been buried by the church or otherwise interred was later dug up by modern archeologists and preserved.

The erotic and sexually explicit artwork within the homes, baths, and whorehouses of Pompeii that were buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and perfectly preserved under volcanic ash was rediscovered in 1986, more than 1,500 years later. The ancient artwork that was dug up, however, was immediately buried again, this time within the Naples National Archaeological Museum.

Artwork deemed obscene and unsuitable for the general public (such as stone penises, erotic mosaics, statuettes depicting acts of bestiality, and nudes) was locked away in 1821 within what was called the Secret Cabinet or Secret Museum, and in 1849 the doorway was bricked up. This collection of Classical artwork, essential for any real understanding of ancient cultures, has only in recent decades been displayed to the general public.

La arquitectura del sexo

The British Museum also had its own secret rooms. Beginning in the 1830s, certain antiquities from the ancient Egyptian, Near Eastern, and Classical civilisations, donated by a banker, were stored in what was called the museum’s “Cabinet of Obscene Objects,” “Reserved Cabinet,” or Secretum.

The Secretum consisted of more than 400 objects, including Egyptian sculpture, Greek vases, Roman terracottas and bronzes, and Indian temple reliefs, all of which the museum classifies as “Symbols of the Early Worship of Mankind.” The Secretum remained in the Department of British and Mediaeval Antiquities until the 1960s, when it was transferred to the newly created Department of Medieval and Later Antiquities, where the collection is now housed.

The artworks in this collection were only available for the viewing pleasure of a small, clandestine society of gentleman art connoisseurs, museum directors, and private collectors who enjoyed swapping prohibited pornographic art images under the guise of scholarly or artistic endeavours. Inspired by these secret museum collections, many members of elite European society created their own erotic cabinets in their homes with original or copied ancient erotica. These erotic cabinets served as private playgrounds of pleasure where people once again intimately interacted with artwork.

The general public, however, was prohibited from viewing such work under the pretext that they were not mature enough to understand the work from a purely aesthetic perspective. According to the caretakers of the work, only older men of a certain social standing could be in the presence of such work without succumbing to sexual excitement.

Since the Christian era, official religious and public architecture has been designed to restrict sexuality and other bodily activities. Museum architecture, likewise, is designed to restrict any bodily intimacy with the artwork. It does so by physically separating people from the objects and placing guards in every room to police people’s every move, while a reverential hush, much like that which pervades the interior of churches, is encouraged by the design, lighting, and acoustics of museum spaces.

By promoting a purely aesthetic viewing of art, by taking the works out of their original context (the sites of sexual activity) and defusing their original pagan force, and by keeping explicit works of art from sight, museums have sought to downplay and divert attention from the sexual content and context of ancient artwork.

For museums, art is considered as something that enlightens and elevates human life, bringing out “higher” emotions and thoughts. Like ecclesiastical art and prayer, museums work hard to take people’s minds away from their own bodies and sexual urges and to instead inspire spiritual and aesthetic ideas. Museums thus serve to reprogram how people respond to erotic images, replacing natural, libidinal, interactive reactions with aesthetic, passive appreciation of individual artists or periods and the qualities of composition and form.

Even with all the anti-erotic measures that museums have taken (prohibiting music, alcohol consumption, and exalted bodily movements), art still often fulfills its original function to excite and inspire sexuality. Regardless of how museums would like to present it, ancient art was never conceived of for art’s sake, for merely visual appreciation, or as a reflection of the genius of man. Instead, art always served specific social and often sexual functions.

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Looking at erotic images stimulates the brain’s visual centres, acting as an aphrodisiac by releasing hormones, adrenaline, neurotransmitters, and other substances that in turn stimulate the body’s pleasure centres. Pagan religion used this power to promote procreation, but the Catholic Church felt threatened by sexuality and sought to contain it by branding it as a sin and invoking the horrors of hell or, when that failed, through censorship and punishment. Museums also work to remove such biological reactions from the viewing of art, with the aid of architecture, surveillance, and an art education that promotes a merely aesthetic reaction.

The heavy air of repression in museums, similar to that of a house of worship, coupled with the omnipresence of tits and ass and (non-erect) pricks, creates heightened sexual tension, and this in part is why museums are the prowling grounds for horny adolescents and sexual predators. The institutional pressure to avoid viewing the work as sexual can, perversely, heighten the erotic experience of visiting museums. Many children see human nudity for the first time on class trips to museums, especially in ancient artwork (the Venus de Milo has surely inspired millions of young boy’s and girl’s sexual fantasies throughout the centuries), and this can shape the way people perceive sex and art ever after.

Although the Catholic Church and art museums have always attempted to separate art and sex, at least publicly, and to expunge sexuality from public spaces, the return of art’s repressed sexual function continues to manifest itself throughout all modern cultures.

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Regardless of how they might views themselves, museums are not the inheritors of true Greek and Roman cultural and artistic traditions. By completely expunging sex and eroticism from art, these art institutions deny the driving force of ancient cultures and misrepresent the function of art. The true inheritors of Classical traditions, oddly enough, are institutions that rarely contain any authentic ancient art and that are often viewed as the most vulgar, morally debased, even criminal institutions: namely, whorehouses.

Whorehouses reunite several of the original pagan and ritual functions of art, architecture, and sex. Brothels are basically temples of pleasure where men go to worship the female body and engage in the act of sex, and in these places art and architecture are never separated from their original, authentic role as sexual stimulation. Modern-day whorehouses represent, in essence, a democratisation of the secret cabinets, in which a much larger population, although still predominantly male and of the wealthier classes, looks to art as an aphrodisiac for sexual activity.

Regardless of how hard church and state have attempted to wipe them off the face of the earth, whorehouses have existed since ancient times in nearly every culture. During the Middle Ages, prostitution in Europe was tolerated and many towns created their own legal whorehouses (although they were usually only permitted to operate at the edge of cities). Only single men were allowed to enjoy the services of local prostitutes; Jews as well as priests were forbidden to enter (even though high-ranking church members often ran the establishments). After a syphilis epidemic swept through Europe at the end of the Middle Ages, most brothels were shut down.

Prohibited in France for centuries, they became tolerated once again under the reign of Louis XI in the 1470s, and by the 19th century a more permissive attitude was shown by authorities towards civilisation’s “oldest profession.” Napoleon, convinced that it was a social necessity (he himself was initiated by a professional), gave free reign to prostitution, although brothels were confined to certain districts, could only be run by women, and were required to light a red lantern outside the establishment (a tradition passed down from ancient Roman times when candles were lit outside).

During the second part of the 19th century, when Paris was considered the most “sensualist-friendly” town in Europe, brothels operated as gentlemen’s secret societies, responding to the new economic and artistic freedoms being enjoyed in the city. Called maisons de tolerance or machines de plaisir, French brothels operated legally, and by 1810 there were 180 approved establishments in Paris alone. The Guide Rose, published yearly, catalogued the city’s brothels, their prices, the special pleasures offered, and the roster of their star courtesans (much like the paintings in the Roman baths and the advertisements in the civil court), alongside ads for condoms and other sex-related items.

Even though prostitution flourished in Paris at that time, the brothels themselves were the height of discretion, exclusive precincts to which the common masses were not invited. The brothels favored a style of architecture scholars call “inverted”; invisible from the street (the only clue was a slightly larger, more colourful house number and a red light), they were lavish and ostentatious indoors, often replete with secret paths and entrances, surrealist stairs, and two-way mirrors.

The crème de la crème of Parisian whorehouses was le Chabanais. With a construction cost of approximately $12.5 million dollars, and with shares sold to the country’s elite at an exorbitant price, le Chabanais became the most profitable bordello of the European continent. This den of iniquity was located, coincidentally, just a few yards from the Louvre. The museum’s patrons and board members were undoubtedly stockholders and clients of its discreet, though even more lavishly decorated neighbor.

The entrance hall of this elegant bordello was designed as a stone cave, in an evocation of the original site of human art and sex. The house itself was full of winding staircases and balustrades covered in gold rope interlaced with nature motifs. In the foyer there were several Roman-style couches and more than a dozen oil paintings that depicted male and female centaurs having sex. These paintings were courtesy of Toulouse-Lautrec who, though his own atelier was located within la Fleur Blanche, another extravagant Parisian whorehouse, was very happy to donate his art in exchange for credit at le Chabanais.

Each of the bordello’s thirty bedrooms was decorated in a different theme dedicated to the great erotic cultures of this planet. There was a Moorish room (a favorite of Guy de Maupassant, who built a replica in his own home), a Hindu room, and a Turkish room. The Venetian Room, evoking the Italian Renaissance, had a giant bed in the shape of a seashell, with nude prostitutes taking turns posing as Venus. Revealing its great appreciation of Classical culture (and Classical whorehouses), there was also a room devoted to Pompeii.

Edward the VII, the soon-to-be king of England then known as “Dirty Bertie,” was such a distinguished guest that he was allowed to design furniture there for his own particular tastes. His famous siege d’amour (love chair) came equipped with handles, a second reclining couch underneath the loveseat, and two sets of stirrups to facilitate his ménages a trois. He also had a copper bathtub designed in the shape of a sphinx (the bathtub was later bought by Salvador Dalí, who installed it in his suite at a Hotel in Paris and equipped it with a telephone).

Another famous Parisian whorehouse was Un-Deux-Deux, which featured 22 theme rooms, including an African room and an igloo. The pirate room came equipped with a mechanical boat swing and water jets that sprayed seawater onto the clients, while the Orient Express room allowed patrons to live out their fantasies of sex on a train with a replica of a bouncing carriage and a railway soundtrack.

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Miss Betty’s brothel, a bordello that specialised in dominatrix role-play, offered a “crucifixion parlor” and a Satan’s Hell torture room. The Japanese Girls, the Oriental Palace, and the Sphinx were other famous Parisian bordellos.

The decor and architecture of Parisian whorehouses were inspired by ancient Greek and Roman culture, but also by the Orient, where the harems of Turkey and other parts continued the intimately intertwined practices of architecture, art, and sexuality. The word haraam means a forbidden thing or person, and came to refer to the secret site for the personal pleasure of Ottoman rulers. Harems were equipped with dozens of bedrooms designated for the Sultan’s wives, “favorites,” and concubines (slaves). There were nearly 500 concubines in the mid-18th century harem of Sultan Mahmud I and more than 800 in the 19th-century harem of Sultan Abdülaziz, and these concubines participated in the religious, entertainment, and sexual celebrations within the harems. In-house hospitals helped keep the sultans free of sexually transmitted diseases

By reincorporating the traditions of sex and art from ancient cultures into its designs, Parisian whorehouses of the 19th and early 20th centuries were at the forefront of the architectural vanguard. Many of these bordellos were giant, multifunctional affairs complete with restaurants, bars, nightclubs, dozens of lavish rooms and suites for the clients, as well as dorm rooms and in-house doctors for the working women.

The paintings and sculptures that decorated these sexual establishments were created by some of the greatest local artists of the time (many of them assiduous clients), while rooms and even whole bordellos were designed by avant-garde art directors working in the cinema of the day. The Japanese Salon, comprised of six divans arranged in a circle around an incense burner, won the Best Design prize at the 1900 Paris World’s Fair.

Not only was this fantasy architecture amongst the most forward-looking of its time, these palaces of pleasure also incorporated the most modern devices and technology (air conditioning was first used in a Parisian whorehouse), and thus contributed to the modernisation of Europe. In one bordello, clients gazed into an old wooden box fitted with stereoscope lenses to view pictures of the available prostitutes, while in others short erotic silent movies, an emerging medium, were shown to entertain the clients.

The American versions of whorehouses were never quite so posh as the Parisian ones, but they too displayed a wide variety of fantasy architecture that also harked back to ancient European or Oriental cultures for their interior design, and they were often the centre of local culture. Present-day Las Vegas whorehouses, like the casinos, feature Classical Roman columns, statues, and fountains or traditional Japanese interiors, although most reflect the genres of conservative American vernacular architecture: urban, suburban, ranch, trailer park, and even malls.

Besides whorehouses, the rise of bachelor pads, playboy penthouses, swinger sex clubs, porn theaters and, perhaps most of all, love hotels has continued the Classical tradition of mixing fantasy architecture, art, and sex.

La arquitectura del sexo


The family home marriage bed has never been the centre of sexual activity. Ever since mankind created cities, men and women all over the world have had more and better sex in places specifically designed for such activity.

In Cali, there are dozens of whorehouses, from the lowest flophouses with bare mattresses in unfurnished rooms, burdeles with giant bars and up to 50 women working the floor, to modern venues that look like elegant four-star hotels. Within the city, movie theaters, pool halls, bars, hotels, dance clubs, internet cafés, spas, beauty salons, massage parlors, gyms, and even a showroom for lingerie double as whorehouses. Prostitution in Cali is legal and widespread, and since there is little tourism in the city (mostly due to high levels of violence), the vast majority of such sex institutions exist for the pleasure of the locals.

In the past few decades, love hotels and motels have become a huge industry around the world. In Cali, these places have become an integral part of the local culture and of the architecture of the city as well. Like the city’s whorehouses, love hotels in Cali come in all shapes and sizes and are priced for all wallets. Many are designed with fantasy facades and suggestive names, such as Night Flings, Afternoons in Paris, the Goddess of Love, Paradise, the Tower, the Hideout, the King, G Spot, Geisha, You and I, and Fantasy.

The oldest love hotels are located in the historic centre of the city, while many of the newest ones are in a suburban part of Cali known for its many salsa clubs. Due to their popularity, the city government ordered a halt to the construction of all new love hotels, but in their place aparto-hoteles (supposedly rented by the week but mostly by the hour) have sprung up all over.

Although it is true that some hotels are used for the prostitution of women, men, minors, and transvestites, most are for local lovers and married couples looking for a bit of class and exoticism to spice up their love life. Love hotels cater to the fantasy of travel as much as they do to any sexual fantasy, encouraging people to leave their home and the comfort (and boredom) of their own bed, and offering the chance to move up a socio-economic class or two, if only for a couple of hours, by providing luxury accommodations and international flair.

La arquitectura del sexo

Originating in Asia, love hotels have been around for many decades, but only in the last couple of decades have they made their way across the Pacific to the Americas. In Japan, they are called romance, fashion, leisure, amusement, couples, or boutique hotels. In Mexico, they are known as hoteles de paso (passing-through hotels); in Guatemala, autohoteles; in Panama push-button hotels; in Chile, hoteles parejeros (hotels for couples); in the Dominican Republic, cabañas (cabins); in Argentina and Uruguay, albergues transitorios (transit hostel) or telos (short for hotels); in Brazil, Colombia and Puerto Rico, they are simply called motels, while in the USA and Canada they’re called no-tell motels.

Being that most people in Europe and the USA have private living spaces, these specialty hotels haven’t become as popular there, but almost everywhere else around the world love hotels are multiplying like rabbits. In Latin America, love hotels have become one of the fastest growing industries. People in this region tend to live with their families and have little if any private space for sexual activity, and many of the countries there are very conservative and religious, which drives lovers to seek out the discretion and privacy these places offer.

In Colombia, love hotels are neither very common nor very extravagant — except in Cali. Cali is the country’s third largest city, with less than 3 million inhabitants, but after Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires it boasts the greatest number of love hotels on the continent. It has also become home to some of the most unique hotels, such as Kiss Me.


Standing tall on one of the many rooftops of the Hotel Kiss Me, surrounded by medieval towers, castles and knights in armor, is the largest Venus de Milo in the world. Fifty-five feet high and weighing in at four tons, her giant white breasts bared for all to see, this statue is one of the most recognisable landmarks in all of Cali and one of the only icons visible when flying over the city.

Venus, the Roman version of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and lust, was responsible for arousing people and inciting them to sexual acts. Erotic representations of Aphrodite have inspired lovers for thousands of centuries (hence the term aphrodisiac), and this rooftop statue is a highly visible symbol of the aesthetic and philosophy of Motel Kiss Me.

Visitors are encouraged to have their own private orgies within the rooms of the hotel. Affordable and abundant in-house alcohol and food is available, you can crank the music as loud as you want, perform your own burlesque-style pole dance or strip to salsa music, scream and moan as loud as you like, and climb onto the artwork to make love. Vibrators and dildos, G-spot and anal stimulators, strap-ons, double-headed butt plugs, electronic clitoral stimulators, plus several brands of generic Viagra, are all available in the sex shop located in the lobby, and the employees are quite willing to explain how they all work.

By spinning a “love roulette” that is provided in each room, couples have different sexual positions suggested to them by the erotic images on the wheel. Certain rooms (such as my Presidential Gold Suite) offer Jacuzzis and saunas in which to make love, and in many of the rooms poles, swings, harnesses, and hammocks add extra options. Maquinas de amor (love machines), much like the sieges d’amour of the Paris bordellos, are elaborate installations decorated with gorillas, Peruvian gods, and certain Latin American socialist leaders, depending on the theme of the room, and come equipped with poles or handles to help assume different, difficult positions.

Given the quantity of artwork made from cement within the rooms, there are more tons of art in Kiss Me than in most museums. If it weren’t for the sex shop in the lobby, the three porn channels on the television, the poles in many of the rooms, and the Jacuzzis and saunas, Motel Kiss Me could easily be confused with a folk art museum. Unlike museums, however, Motel Kiss Me has no security cameras or guards, and visitors are encouraged to interact freely with artwork.

Surprisingly enough, there are far fewer images and objects representing tits and ass and pricks in Motel Kiss Me than in most museums. The very act of leaving the uninspiring comfort of one’s home and heading over to a love hotel filled with art (even if it’s not sexually explicit art) is in itself a turn-on.

Motel Kiss Me not only provides its clients with an environment propitious to the act of lovemaking, emphasising the exotic over the erotic, it is also an educational tour of the greatest cultures of this planet. For those in Cali who will never leave their country, spending a couple of hours in the hotel is an opportunity to travel virtually to the most famous cities around the world. For those locals who will never step inside a museum, it is an opportunity to commingle with art.

With theme rooms based on Egyptian fertility temples, Greek Dionysian temples, Roman orgies, Turkish harems, Oriental pagodas, Japanese geishas, and the whorehouses of la Belle Époque, Kiss Me provides a faithful recreation of the history of the architecture of sex. Many of the most popular rooms here evoke ancient cultures that promoted an intimate, inspirational relationship between architecture, art, and sex.

Without knowing much about these exotic cultures, the owner of Kiss Me and the artists and artisans who decorated the rooms have created an homage to some of the greatest love palaces throughout history, and have restored art to its rightful place, not as something to match the sofa but as something to inspire and encourage the sexual activity that takes place in a bed.

What’s more, the social service that Kiss Me and other love hotels in Cali provide, by promoting safe sex and also good sex, by allowing same-sex couples sexual freedom, by offering an affordable getaway so that people from all classes can have a taste of art in an exotic setting and gain a release from everyday stress, creates a healthier, happier environment within the city — which is precisely the original and traditional function of architecture, art, and sex.

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