It’s not news that who we are shapes how we live. Nor is it groundbreaking to say that how we live shapes who we are. But despite their familiarity, these assertions are being made ever more loudly and frequently among those who work on the design, management, and history of the built environment. Initiatives such as Harvard’s “Black in Design” conferences push back against the racism that persists in architectural education and in the profession. Organizations such as Architexx advocate for more equitable representation of women in architectural history and the studio alike. Projects such as the Architecture Lobby’s “Just Design” certification system encourage a self-critical attitude toward labor practices within offices of all sizes. These efforts, among many others, draw renewed attention to the ways that race, gender, ability, and class play active — and interconnected — roles in the formation, interpretation, and administration of the built worlds that surround us.
What, then, to make of the increase in attention recently directed toward people with non-normative genders and sexualities, and the corresponding activity within architecture and urbanism? For example, given their spatial circumscription, debates regarding gender-specific bathroom use and housing discrimination based on sexuality (among others) call forth architectural responses. And more public displays of solidarity with LGBTQ+ people, be they monuments or historic designations, require the intervention of planners and designers alike. But pinning questions of the public good — access, inclusivity, respect, and safety — to the needs of more specifically defined groups, however expansive and porous their definitions may be, doesn’t come without challenges.
The fraught politics of identity stand as a sign of incremental progress for some and as a stumbling block toward fundamental change for others. “Us versus them” has always required an “us” and a “them.” And yet, identity politics touches everyone, no matter the categories with which they identify, or the dominance — and associated naturalization — that certain privileged identities are able to claim. We have all been racialized. Everyone has a sexuality. All bodies are differently-aged and differently-abled. Class, aspirational or otherwise, discussed or not, is deeply rooted. From the streets of Ferguson to the parks of Charlottesville, defining and balancing the demands of these (often overlapping) groups among and against one another is a hallmark political struggle, one that often plays out in urban space. The 2016 U.S. presidential election brought an already simmering public discussion to a rolling boil, exemplified most recently by concerns surrounding the growing strength of white nationalist movements. But though the race- gender-, class-, and ability-baiting have felt particularly acute this time around, they are, of course, nothing new.
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of 1968 — a year that witnessed heightened and overlapping struggles led by youth, people of color, and women that reflected not simply events such as the Vietnam War or the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but the histories of injustice from which they developed. Fighting against the oppression represented by the postwar American ideal of the white, suburban, home-owning, and father-led nuclear family, long-running anti-racist, feminist, and gay rights organizations (among others) gained new levels of prominence, insisting that a more diverse and truly representative set of voices deserved a seat at the decision-making table. And with that, they demanded the corresponding agency to make the world in their image, too. Then as now, these struggles have never been monolithic, and their motivations, priorities, and tactics have often clashed. Especially as consumerism leveraged a culture of diversity in the service of more accessible — and visible — market segments, the politics of identity often reinforced divisions rather than encouraged solidarity. But since we all have a point of origin, a gender, a race, and a sexuality, different though they may be, identity is a tool that reformers and revolutionaries alike have never been able to ignore.
Architects and urbanists have long sought to make the most of identity’s potentials, without always avoiding its pitfalls. Feminist efforts to subvert the oppressive organization of gendered domestic spaces created new forms, like Jane Addams’ settlement house, or new understandings, such as Dolores Hayden’s historical analysis of the ways that economic and architectural demands were intertwined. This work influenced subsequent investigations into what became known as “queer space,” which found similarly powerful potential in the liminal physical and imaginative sites of sexuality’s (re)production. But even as people try to open up space for different ways of being in the world, challenging social and sexual hierarchies, they have tended to privilege the experiences and spaces of some (generally white and upper-class) identities over others, often repeating and reinforcing many of the exclusions they purportedly aimed to undo. Recent debates regarding gentrification, histories of HIV/AIDS, and marriage equality have brought these difficulties to the surface, highlighting the fundamentally heterogeneous and often fractious nature of social “progress.” In this context, people in many fields, including architecture and urbanism, are asking how they might most effectively deploy their tools in order to resist the violent oppression of marginalized communities, and how this effort might need to look different today than it has in the past.
Drawing these historically informed struggles forward, the first part of this series asks how memory intersects with identity, history, and bureaucracy today. Despite the invisibility that comes with marginalization, the city has provided the terrain on which identity claims can be made and, crucially, defended. Identifying and preserving these claims has been the lifelong project of historic preservationist Jay Shockley. Focusing on the recently launched “NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project,” Shockley discusses efforts to locate, register, map, and protect the memory of LGBT histories as they have been inscribed in sites across New York City. This is a set of stories that reaches much deeper into history, and throughout the city, than the most widely circulated West Village accounts might indicate. But making it official requires challenging received modes of advocacy and representation in more ways than one. A conversation with scholar Jen Jack Gieseking attempts to push some of those more bureaucratic challenges beyond their proscribed historical and documentary frames. Adding the “Q+” to the acronym, he asks what approaches to the representation of queer space today can best accommodate memories — ranging from the institutional traces of the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn to the personal, and more ephemeral, recollections of individuals — that are themselves critical of mainstream representations of years past.
The role of design in both protecting and exploring the tenuous privacy — and publicity — of gender and sexuality will be put under the microscope in the next part of the series. Behind closed doors, the bathroom and the bedroom are nominally the most private of spaces. And yet, debates surrounding the anatomy and behavior of the individuals to whom they belong have become very public matters of concern. This contradiction comes to the fore through the most seemingly banal of design and policy details. We’ll first look to the bathroom to see how two designers are referencing the problematic, and sometimes surprising, past to open up a more emancipatory future; and then ask what types of public support are being mobilized through the rethinking of the bedroom and its associated models of housing. Conversely, beyond these walls, what does it mean to design, maintain, and protect public space with a focus on its more deviant and less visible margins? Through the lens of three projects underway that aim to provide or protect public space for queer-identifying users, we’ll highlight the challenges of public design, when the category of the public itself has never been more scrutinized. Whether it’s in a paradoxically quiet monument, shifting spaces for protected nightlife, or infrastructures appropriated for new (and newly threatened) uses, what does it mean to create and protect public space with only some of the public in mind?
Looking closely at a diverse set of projects and practitioners contending with this specific, if porous, set of LGBTQ+ identities, this series asks what is motivating their work, what it means, and who it’s for. Surely if there were ever a mode of practice that called for careful self-examination, then designing with and for these important but hard-to-define groups is it. In spite of, or perhaps because of these difficulties, the potential to articulate shared concerns at the level of society-at-large is greatly facilitated by an initial identification of shared characteristics at a more intimate level. The projects investigated here highlight the challenges of working in and with LGBTQ+ identity today, and teach us about the potentially powerful effects of public work with a personal touch.
These efforts include, but are not limited to, the Arcus+Places Prize; AIDS at Home and Gay Gotham at the Museum of the City of New York; Berkeley’s “Queer Urbanisms” Program Series; Façadomy; “Feminisms in Architecture” at the Het Nieuwe Institut; Footprint 21; The Funambulist 13; “Housing Works History”; Log 41 “Working Queer”; The Memorial to Peace and Justice; Pioneering Women of American Architecture; projects archiving queer architects in history, including a forthcoming book by Wolfgang Voigt & Uwe Bresan and a digital project by QSPACE; Sex and the So-called City at the Storefront for Art and Architecture; The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture; “Toilet Architecture”; “Typology: Public Toilet”; UVA Memorial to Enslaved Laborers; WikiD: Women, Wikipedia, and Design; the 400 Forward initiative by Tiffany Brown; upcoming exhibition Now What?! Advocacy, Activism & Alliances in American Architecture Since 1968; the Feminist Art and Architecture Collaborative; and Where Are the Women Architects. Fitting patterns that reach beyond architecture and urbanism, disability is an identity category that is unfortunately under-represented to-date in professions interested in the built environment. One exception in the world of design is the recently opened exhibition Access+Ability at the Cooper Hewitt in New York City.
See Queer Space by Aaron Betsky, (William Morrow, 1997), Queer Space (Storefront for Art and Architecture, 1997), Sexuality and Space edited by Beatriz Colomina (Princeton Architectural Press, 1996), and Stud: Architectures of Masculinity edited by Joel Sanders (Princeton Architectural Press, 1996), among others. See Sanders & Betsky in Log 41 for an update to these positions.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.