Queer Looks On Architecture: From Challenging Identity-Based Approaches To Spatial Thinking

A growing number of theorists and practitioners have been discussing the impact of gender and race on the profession and theory of architecture. Issues linked to the relationship between the built environment, sexual orientation, and gender identity, however, remain particularly understudied, perhaps because of their relative invisibility and less clearly identifiable discriminatory consequences. Moreover, they are also completely neglected by design theory in the Francophone world. This article partially remedies the situation.

If orientation is a matter of how we reside in space, then sexual orientation might also be a matter of residence, of how we inhabit spaces, and who or what we inhabit spaces with. - Sara Ahmed¹

Over the last decades, a growing number of theorists and practitioners have discussed how gender and race relate to the profession and to studies of architecture, including discriminations based on them, the proverbial “glass ceiling” (Berkeley and McQuaid 1989, Scott Brown 1989, Vytlacil 1989, Travis 1991, Grant 1996, Ahrentzen 1996, Adams and Tancred 2000, Anthony 2001, Ahrentzen 2003, Gürel and Anthony 2006). However, as Sharon Haar and Christopher Reed (1996, 270) note, whereas they were central to postmodernism thinking in the broader culture, the conservatism of the architectural profession means that discussions of these issues came much later in the architecture world. And they are still often ignored today, as Beatriz Preciado (2012, 121) underlines: “architects have continued these past 20 years to ignore the epistemological transformations and the critical turn taking place in contemporary queer, transgender, and crip movements, and […] have acted as if the ongoing transformation of sexual and somatic politics were just a minor detail within a new peak of architectural production at the global scale.” Sexual orientation and sexual identity and their relation to the built environment thus remain much less discussed, in part because they are usually less visible and their discriminatory consequences can easily be ignored by most, even if architecture is an important force in the construction and performance of gender (Adams 2010b, 82). The rise of identity politics and the subsequent development of queer theory have had, however, an influence on the emergence of research on the intersection of sexuality and design, but rarely so outside of the English-speaking world. This article highlights the potential of queer space theory, yet to be fully explored, for the teaching, study, and practice of spatial design.

This article reviews and shows the importance of queer theories of space. It begins with a brief overview of feminist critiques of architecture and of the different understandings of the term queer to ground the discussion of the emergence of queer theories of space. It then follows with a discussion of the questioning of binary oppositions between feminine-masculine and private-public and their impact on the design of built spaces. It ends with a discussion of how, even if inspired by queer theory’s focus on diversity, queer space discourses in architecture are often limited in their acknowledgment of how class, race and gender play a role in people’s access to architecture.

Separate Spheres: Questioning the Private and the Public in Feminist Critiques of Architecture

Understanding the role of gender and sexuality in relation to architecture and space necessitates a deconstruction of binaries that are omnipresent in architectural discourses. As architect Joel Sanders  suggests, the opposition of public and private is grounded on a prior spatial dualism, that of inside and outside: “architecture’s bounding surfaces reconsolidate cultural gender differences by monitoring the flow of people and the distribution of objects in space” (1996, 17). This understanding builds in part on separate spheres theory. The term is a metaphor developed from Alexis de Tocqueville’s description of nineteenth century American society where women are being “[circumscribed] within the narrow circle of domestic interests and duties and [forbidden] to step beyond it” (de Tocqueville, quoted in Kerber 2002, 30). Rediscovered in the postwar era, the theory has been used by feminist theorists to describe “a historically constituted ideology of gender relations that holds that men and women occupy distinct social, affective, and occupational realms. According to this separate spheres metaphor, there is a public sphere inhabited by men and a private sphere inhabited by women” (Davidson and Hatcher 2002, 7). Although the idea of separate spheres first developed as a social and political idea, because it is a spatially constructed metaphor, it deeply shapes many discussions and understandings of space and architecture, and of the roles played by architects, interior designers, and clients. 

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Matrix Feminist Design Co-operative, Matrix Feminist. Architectural Co-operative (s.d.). Brochure published in London. Photo | 1934 x 1174 px. Courtesy of Julia Dwyer.

The association of domesticity with the feminine has also led to the relegation of a large number of early women designers and architects to the design of interior, domestic spaces (Wright 1977, McNeil 1994, Adams and Tancred 2000, 37-43, Sparke 2003, Sanders 2004). But as architectural historian Jasmine Rault (2010, 189-191) argues, “being denied access to institutional architectural training […] allowed many women the only opportunity to take part in early twentieth-century debates” on domestic spaces, a theme at the core of the modern movement’s focus on the production of “physically, psychologically and heterosexually healthy bodies” and the “constitution of new subjects.” Similarly, Dolores Hayden has shown that material feminists of the second half of the nineteenth century had attempted a socialization of the domestic to gain control over its us. Looking at the following generation, Alice Friedman (1998) has discussed the role of women clients in the creation of the modern canon, extending the argument to sexuality to underline the possibilities for men or women outside the (hetero)norm to create or sustain the creation of innovative domestic spaces. In the 1970s, the feminist questioning of traditional approaches to architecture also materialized in the WSPA (Women’s School of Planning and Architecture, 1974-81), a non-hierarchical and experimental collective focused on design education for women. WSPA’s collective approach was followed by other practices that decided to similarly build on a community-focused and socially engaged tradition to challenge existing social, spatial and economic structures limiting access to architecture and public spaces. For example, Matrix Feiminist Architectural Co-operative (1980-1995) developed services focused on design accessibility for all through publications written for a broad audience and free design services. More recently, muf architecture/art (since 1994) has engaged the design of public space through innovative client/users/professionals relationships, for example in the design of a public space in Dalston, London (Shonfield et al. 2001, Brown 2011). If women have today taken a larger role in architecture, many scholars underline the range of conditions that still limit women and other minorities’ access to the profession (Anthony 2001, Adams and Tancred 2000, Booth 1996, McCorquodale, Ruedi, and Wigglesworth 1995, Hughes 1996, Durning and Wrigley 2000). As Sanders (2004), Matthews and Hill (2011) or Potvin (2016) note, this gendered understanding of design also frames the relation between interior design and architecture, in the opportunities offered to designers as well as in the gendered and sexualized stereotypes associated with both disciplines, something that remains rarely discussed.

“Queer”: Identity, Movement, or Theory?

Queer theories follow but also react to feminist theories. However, “queer” is a much contested word and its different uses shape the diversity of “queer space” discussions in architecture and design. Initially used pejoratively, the term has been reclaimed positively since the 1980s by those who were previously targeted by it and used to define an activist/political movement and a theoretical approach challenging categories before paradoxically becoming a broad term describing a range of identity categories. The differences between these understandings underlie often divergent discussions of “queerness”, and by extension of “queer space”.

A first use comes from the radical queer activist movement that emerged in the mid-1980s, in parallel to the critical reclamation of the term queer, using the sociopolitical power of this reclamation to reject traditional gender identities. Reacting to a perceived weakening of the 1970s homosexual liberation and lesbian feminist movements, the queer movement was initially also fuelled by renewed homophobia following the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. The movement critiques governmental, media, and community handlings of the epidemic, but also part of the LGBT communities considered conservative and normative. Their belief in challenging oppressive normativity has pushed most queer activists towards a broadening from gender and sexuality issues to an anti-capitalist, anti-oppression position.

A subsequent understanding of queer emerged in the late 1980s with the development of queer theory. The term was coined by Teresa De Lauretis in her introductory essay to the "Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities" issue (1991) of the feminist journal Differences (de Lauretis 1991) to describe a radical reconsidering of sexuality outside the prevailing dichotomy of the heterosexual matrix, in reference to Judith Butler’s term. Emerging in parallel to queer activism, but also inspired by feminism and reacting to gender studies and gay and lesbian studies, philosophers, literary theorists and historians such as Butler (1990), Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1990, 1985), and David Halperin (Halperin 1990), in part inspired by Michel Foucault’s work on sexuality (Foucault 1976-1984), opened up a new way of thinking about gender and sexual identification and performance, beyond identities (understood as categories of individuals) and acts (in this case sexual practices). Queer theory is also marked by Butler’s foundational reframing of performativity in terms of gender and sexuality, following Jacques Derrida’s exploration of John Langshaw Austin’s thinking on performative utterances. Butler (1990, 1988) discusses gender and sexuality not as essential expressions of one’s identity, but as something that one does over and over, in a “stylized repetition of acts.” Queer theory is thus less a discourse around an identity than a critique of conventional identity politics. This understanding has allowed Halperin (1995, 63) to define queer as “whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence.” This definition has opened the door to work that goes beyond the realm of sexuality and gender. The potential of this last understanding of queer has been used in many disciplines, refusing binary concepts and clear limits, but also deconstructing links between personal and collective identities and subjects. In architecture, it allows to reject normative understandings of “feminine” and “masculine” spaces, but also to question how self-identifications play a role in the design and use of space, to think instead about spaces as being more than formal and programmatic decisions. Through this understanding, the built environment becomes a network of relations between designers, clients, and permanent and temporary users, bringing in their social, political, and historical contexts. This is the understanding of queer that has inspired the richest and most interesting academic discussions of queer space (theory), as will be discussed later.

The more recent use of queer, and most generalized in popular discourse, is as an umbrella term for a variety of non heterosexual and non cisgender identity categories. It includes, among others, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people; normalizing identity categories and moving away from radical activist movements. The term is also sometimes used as an additional term to refer to people who refuse to identify with these categories, with the variation “genderqueer” also used to insist on a refusal to identify with a specific gender or sexual orientation, physically or mentally. 

Queer Space Theories: Deconstructing Spatial Binaries

In architecture, after the feminist queries of the 1970s, a post-structuralist reading of gender and sexuality associated with a questioning of power structures appeared in the 1980s in the work of architects and historians such as Mark Robbins (1992) our Beatriz Colomina (1992), in parallel with certain streams of postmodernism’s evolution towards deconstructivism. Thinking about how gender and sexuality play a role in the analysis of the built environment is however far from homogeneous. The multiple definitions of queer and its divergent implications from a political point of view help explain its diverse uses in discussions around architectural and urban space, in architecture as in other related disciplines such as geography (Borbridge 2007, Vallerand 2014b).

A first approach understands queer space as gay or lesbian territory demarcated from heteronormative territory, as the physical manifestation of a gay community. The earliest approach, it is exemplified by Manuel Castells’ much-cited study of the Castro district in San Francisco (Castells 1983) or Aaron Betsky’s well-known Queer Space: Architecture and Same-Sex Desire (1997), a study of spaces used and designed by (mostly) gay men. Others focus on specific buildings, for example the discussion of gay or lesbian bars by Barbara Weightman (1980) or Maxine Wolfe (1992) or the analysis of houses by Alice Friedman (1998), Timothy Rohan (1999) or Annmarie Adams (2010b). This is also how “queer space” is often used in mainstream architectural publications, as demonstrated for example in Architecture magazine’s choice of photographs focusing on users to document a 2002 feature on the San Francisco Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center (Ward 2002, 72-81), assuming that readers will associate the presence of users perceived as gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans (through their clothing styles and physical appearance) with a “queer architecture”. This understanding of queer space also manifests itself in attempts at describing essential “queer design” characteristics, for example in Jonathan Boorstein’s (1995) identification of a “queer design aesthetics” that he believes is shared by a number of historical and contemporary designers and architects he believes to be gay, thus assigning essential characters to a diverse landscape of buildings and urban spaces simply because of their designers’ sexual orientation. While this approach allows for a still too rare discussion of the links between sexuality and space, it does not challenge the assumptions that most other places are fully straight or that queer space can only exist within gay enclaves. It also ignores that queer space existed before gay or lesbian neighbourhoods appeared (see for example Chauncey 1994, Mumford 1997, Houlbrook 2005). This approach is sometimes broadened by considering queer space as the contested “other” between lesbian or gay space and straight space (Whittle 1994, Kenney 2001), using queer as a broader vision of non-heteronormative identities. This extended understanding focuses on the boundary, the interface, and the adversarial ownership of place, without however questioning how these boundaries are themselves defined by an understanding of queer spaces as others defined by a normative majority.

Another understanding positions queer space as overtly sexualized space. It focuses on sexual acts and tension, not sexual identity or ownership, where the sex act defines the construction and dissolution of queer space. Queer space is thus understood as inherently ephemeral. This approach is present importantly in early writings in geography that position the visibility of queer sex acts, both gay and lesbian, as creating queer space (Bell et al. 1994, Bell and Valentine 1995, Bell, Binnie, and Holliday 2001). If this approach underlines the importance of sexuality in the development and understanding of the term queer, by focusing on sexual acts, it underestimates the impact on the experience of space of social communities that have developed around a shared sexual orientation.

A last approach to queer space builds on the previous ones but expands them to define queer space as challenging and imminent, as continually in the process of being constructed in opposition to heteronormativity and to broader prescriptive norms. It calls to move beyond politics of spatial concentration, of physical LGBT spaces, to instead challenge the heterosexist assumption in a diversity of locations, promoting an idea of community based on the idea that “we are everywhere” (Davis 1995, 293). As such, queer space is sometimes understood as encompassing any architecture that is odd or different (Adams 2010b, 82), hinting back at Halperin’s definition of queer (Halperin 1995, 63). For a group of geographers led by Doreen Massey (2006), queer space is fluid and subversive, a place of freedom, and multiplicity. For them, queer space is thus not only a category patchwork, but it also changes the depth of each category; in queer space, identity becomes the sum of numerous categories. Importantly, this understanding of queer space positions it as performative; it is built out through time, existing not only in the physical space, but in the intersubjectivity of the relations, through verbal, non-verbal, and physical interactions. Christopher Reed further argues that “no space is totally queer or completely unqueerable [...]. Queer space is imminent: queer space is space in the process of, literally, taking place, of claiming territory” (1996, 64). This understanding of queer space theory thus suggest that we need to take into account issues of gender, race, class, sexuality to understand how space is encountered; identity in relation to architecture cannot be reduced to the users’ or designer’s identity, it is constantly performed through its uses.

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Elmgreen & Dragset, Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under Nazism (2008). View of the work, Berlin, 2011. Photos by Olivier Vallerand | 5582 x 2304 px. Courtesy of the artists.

From an architectural and design point of view, this understanding of queer space in terms of performance and relation is challenging: what are the physical characteristics of queer space? In what “architectural” conditions does queer space exist? Can any space become queer? Are spaces commonly associated with LGBT people, such as bars or cruising grounds, queer? Are the homes of LGBT people all equally queer spaces? Where do non-traditional households fit in these categories? Can a heterosexual couple’s home be queer space? Are all these spaces still queer when not occupied? And is any attempt to define queer space not inconsistent with queer theory’s stance against categories? Some answers might reside in Katarina Bonnevier’s (2007) search for a less static critically queer architecture or John Paul Ricco’s (2002) minor architecture theory inspired by Deleuze and Guattari’s reading of Franz Kafka’s writings. For Ricco, queer space as a minor architecture understands queer space as an architecture which overcomes the binary reading of public and private by being situated within what he calls the majority, rather than outside of it. A minor architecture reinvents architectural tropes from the majority to contest its relationship with the majority within which it resides, to create a new language that can be interpreted in multiple ways, in relation to one’s self and collective identifications. The Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under Nazism (2008) in Berlin, designed by artists Elmgreen & Dragset, illustrates this by transforming the language used by architect Peter Eisenman in the design of the neighboring Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (2005), changing its scale and opening it to create a closer relationship with the human body (Vallerand 2014a).

Building upon feminism and gay and lesbian studies, queer theory defies identity categorization. Without necessarily disposing of categories, it calls for an understanding and critique of their constructedness. More recently, it has also opened up to an intersectionality recognising the diverse elements that form identity, although many scholars working within a queer theory framework often do not satisfyingly account for race and class even if they are fundamental constituents of one’s self-identification. Queer theory can thus help us move away from earlier understandings of queer space as strictly gay-oriented spaces towards a more inclusive approach that understands queer space as performative, as depending importantly on context and relationality in its challenge to both hetero- and homonormativity. In this sense, space is queer not in itself, but in relation to something else, in relation to the changing people using or visiting a place; the queerness of space is a layer of spatial experience amongst others. Queer theory thus reminds us of the importance of looking beyond the formal to understand space and architecture as one aspect among others in the construction of identity. Extending queer theory’s lessons to a study of space can furthermore underline the political importance of the built environment in identity building. We must always remember that “tolerance of sexual oppression requires room. [...] Many physical aspects of our communities reflect only incomplete adaptations of spatial archaeologies of repression” (Ingram, Bouthillette, and Retter 1997). Architecture can be linked not only to a physical representation of self-identifications, as in memorials, community centers, or bars, but also to the potential oppression of specific identity minorities through a repressive control of the spaces they visit, claim, and eventually transform through their presence. The most powerful potential of queer space theory is thus in its ability to help one understand the constraints and potentials created by spatial structures in relation to various elements of identities – starting from sexuality and gender, but importantly opening up to race, class, age, etc. – and not in attempts to formalize “queer design” characteristics. Beyond the study of spaces used mostly by LGBT people, queer space theories open up the door to the design of spaces more welcoming for a diversity of people that are often ignored by traditional forms of architecture, in domestic as in institutional architecture.

And Everyone Else? Away from a Male and Euro-American Understanding of Space

The development of queer theory and the actions of queer activists have brought to light the idea of heteronormativity. It refers to the structuration of society along a male/female gender model through norms that enshrine heterosexuality as normal and position non-heterosexuals or non-gender-conforming people as other. This concept is, however, increasingly criticized for its tendency to conflate all heterosexual identities in a single simplified category and to mask the differences among sexual dissidents’ identities. As geographer Jon Binnie notes, “it can sometimes appear that heterosexual identities are uniformly normative and socially conservative, while non-heterosexuals or sexual dissidents are constructed as radical, progressive or outside of social norms” (2007, 33). For example, Lisa Duggan (2002) suggests that a new homonormativity has appeared, a uniform neoliberal vision of a homosexual community that manifests itself through the increased presence of rich gay white male in society. Queer theorists David L. Eng, Judith/Jack Halberstam and José Esteban Muñoz (2005) similarly point out the utility of queer as an engaged mode of critical enquiry that encompasses some of the most innovative and risky work on globalization, neoliberalism, cultural politics, subjectivity, identity, family, and kinship. The challenges faced by queer theory and queer studies in attempting to engage with the broad range of subjects suggested by the term “queer” are similarly felt in research and discourses on queer space; whereas geographer Natalie Oswin (2008) uses a queer approach to study Singapore families, architectural critic Aaron Betsky defines queer space as essentially “(male) homosexual space” in his Queer Space: Architecture and Same-Sex Desire (1997). Following Betsky’s thoughts, where does that leave people who do not identify with such binary understandings of identity? And furthermore, what do we do with historical spaces whose users we cannot clearly identify with our modern definitions of identity, but that welcomed non normative social and affective relations?

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Harwell Hamilton Harris, Weston Havens House, Berkeley (1940). Section published on the cover of California Arts & Architecture, March 1940. Scanned drawing | 1740 x 1064 px. Courtesy of David Travers. Annmarie Adams notes the presence of only male figures in the Weston Havens House cutout featured on the cover of California Arts & Architecture, March 1940.

Betsky’s focus on white gay male is echoed in much existing architectural history research on queer space. Apart from discussions of the queer aspects of projects by Eileen Gray or Elsie de Wolfe, such as the existence of in-between spaces rejecting traditional notions of private and public (Bonnevier 2005, 2007, Rault 2010, 2011), discussants of queer space have been more extensively interested in a variety of spaces designed by or for gay males, among others Philip Johnson’s Glass House (Friedman 1998, Lieber 2014), Harwell Hamilton Harris’ Weston Havens House (Adams 2010b), Paul Rudolph’s New York apartment (Rohan 1999), the bachelor pad as typology (Wagner 1996), gay bars and bathhouses (Urbach 1992, Ricco 1994, Tattelman 1997, 2005), or queer domesticity (Potvin 2014, Cook 2014). More theoretically-inclined works such as the Queer Space exhibition at the Storefront for Art and Architecture, the House Rules exhibition at the Wexner Center or the collectively designed WomEnhouse website (Morton 1997) have been more inclusive, creating space for women and highlighting other aspects of identities. Similarly, more recent research has explored trans people’s experience of space (Adams 2010a, Preciado 2012, Crawford 2015).

Towards Other Spaces

The queer critiques presented here are part of a wave of architects, historians, and theorists trying to shatter architecture’s still largely Euro-American white male-dominated heterocentric culture. However, the slow pace at which the discipline is evolving – in part because of the important financial means and time length necessary to build most projects, but also because of the fear to see innovative projects be rejected by clients – means that most of these critiques have yet to impact in significant ways both the state of the profession and the ways buildings are designed and built. Feminist critiques have been implemented by practices such as Matrix or muf, giving hope that queer critiques might soon similarly impact the discipline. Constant work must still be done to move beyond formal and aesthetic consideration when discussing queer approaches to explore instead the lived experience of the people inhabiting the spaces analyzed (see for example the work of Pilkey 2015).

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Mayer H e Diller Scofidio + Renfro, BOOM Community (2011). Projects for the development of the BOOM Community, Palm Springs (USA), 2011. Digital architectural perspectives | 720 x 820 px. Courtesy of J Mayer H, Diller Scofidio + Renfro and BOOM

Several of the architects who developed theoretical queer projects in the 1990s were invited around the turn of the 2010s to work on BOOM, a residential development for LGBT seniors. If the project was never actually built, it nevertheless shows that questions related to the relationship between architecture, sexuality and gender are topical. BOOM exemplifies a shift in queer thinking towards aging populations, although it is still mainly oriented towards a male and affluent homosexual clientele, as evidenced by the advertising material produced. BOOM also exemplifies a formal approach to innovation which presents a sometimes simplistic vision of the interaction between private and public. The challenge therefore remains to renew more deeply our understanding of the built environment and its links with identity issues. This implies the development of an architecture that allows everyone to choose whether to bring to the fore the diversity, complexity and fluidity of their identity, taking into account sexual orientation, gender, age, ethnicity, culture, and class. It also implies thinking about new models of community that are disrupting contemporary ways of living and blurring the relationship between public and private and between physical and digital (Vallerand 2013). Just as queer movements and theories participate in questioning power structures, for example by challenging the assumptions between marriage, the use of LGBT people for political ends or the invisibility of many forms of discrimination, a queer view of spatial thinking must address the often hidden normative structures that underlie the majority of analyzes and designs in architecture, both within the discipline and in its relationship to other disciplines such as interior design, in order to better meet everyone's needs.

This text was originally published in Captures, vol. 1, n. 1, May 2016. You can check all the bibliographical references and the text in French at this source. On ArchDaily, the text is part of a collaboration with Arquitetura Bicha (@arquiteturabicha), a Brazilian project that seeks the visibility of architecture made and performed by LGBTQIA+ people.

¹AHMED, Sara. “Orientations. Toward a Queer Phenomenology”, GLQ. A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 12, no 4, p. 543.

About this author
Cite: Vallerand, Olivier. "Queer Looks On Architecture: From Challenging Identity-Based Approaches To Spatial Thinking" [Olhares queer sobre a arquitetura] 18 Jun 2021. ArchDaily. (Trans. Delaqua, Victor) Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/963534/queer-looks-on-architecture-from-challenging-identity-based-approaches-to-spatial-thinking> ISSN 0719-8884

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