Whenever a prominent piece of architecture is erected, be it the Washington Monument or the Empire State Building, we often can’t help but see a giant penis in the skyline. Our minds slosh through the gutters, sexualizing everything from passers-by to high rises. But the penis-in-the-sky visuals can be traced to the phallic imagery ingrained in architectural history, from the Greeks’ colossal penis pillars and Priapic temples to the 19th-century Place Vendôme Column in Paris.
But rarely do we see buildings that so obviously resemble a woman’s private parts. Such folds—a relief map of the (intimate) female form—don't typically translate to bold, triumphant pieces of architecture. It’s no surprise, then, that the Internet throbbed over aerial images of a decidedly feminine Al-Wakrah stadium for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, with its pinkish, labia-like curves flanking an almond-shaped opening.
But renowned female architect Zaha Hadid is unamused by comparisons of her stadium to female genitalia. “It’s really embarrassing that they come up with nonsense like this,” Hadid told Time. “What are they saying? Everything with a hole in it is a vagina? That’s ridiculous.” No such interpretations would be made, she added, “if a guy had done this project.”
Indeed, there has been much buzz about the open-lipped stadium since Hadid’s firm released images of it last week. While the artist has said the curves enveloping the stadium’s open roof are meant to evoke the sails of a traditional Qatar fishing boat, Buzzfeed was quick to note the design’s likeness to lady bits, as was The Guardian, which coined it the “accidental vagina building.” The Wire referred to it as “an enormous, illuminated vagina” and, in response to Hadid’s huffy remarks to Time, Jezebel’s Callie Beusman wrote that she couldn’t comprehend “how you could look at this stadium and think anything but ‘giant vagina.’ I am trying. But I cannot see anything else!”
The design was also the butt of a few innocuous late-night TV jokes. After showing The Daily Show audience images of other buildings Hadid designed, Jon Stewart called the architect “the Georgia O'Keeffe of things you can walk inside!"
Perhaps the media’s vagina stadium fixation is a bit “ridiculous,” as Hadid put it. But her assertion that there would be no media blitz had a man conceived the project is more absurd (even Jezebel said the male artist argument didn’t really hold up). The Guardian issued a correction to a piece by writer Holly Baxter who assumed that the “bigwigs behind the design” were likely men. It’s important to note that Baxter’s inaccurate assumption about the architect’s sex didn’t alter her positive perception of the design’s inadvertent feminist message. “In a world where sport and vaginas rarely come together with such prominence (see every UK female footballer’s salary versus every UK male footballer’s salary,” she writes, the stadium’s resemblance to a vagina “can only be a good thing.”
One of the fundamental tenets of art is that viewers’ reactions to an artist’s work are no less significant than what the artist intended to convey. Even with the knowledge that the curves surrounding the Al-Wakrah stadium’s open roof are meant to evoke the sail of a fishing boat, viewers will see what they want to see. In this case, they wanted to see a vulva--and no one should fault them for it.