The design of bathrooms — “men’s rooms” and “ladies’ rooms” as they are still commonly known — seems to be, first and foremost, all about gender. But appearances can be deceiving. In over twenty years of academic and professional practice, Joel Sanders has thought carefully about the ways that gender and sexual identity interact with architectural design, and over the last several years this focus has honed in on the bathroom. In this interview with representatives from the organizations QSPACE and QSAPP, together with Intersections guest editor Jacob Moore, he explains the ways that an updated approach to bathroom design, while critiquing and expanding society’s rigid definitions of gender, can and should additionally address issues of inclusivity, ability, and access that reach well beyond bathroom walls (or corridors, as the case may be).
For more, check out the livestream of Noncompliant Bodies: Social Equity and Public Space, a symposium Sanders organized at the Yale School of Architecture, April 6-7, 2018.
How did you come to work on bathrooms?
In 2015, Joel Sanders Architect (JSA) was invited to design the New York City headquarters for GLSEN (the gay, lesbian, straight education network), a non-profit dedicated to making schools safe and nurturing environments for K-12 students. Building codes coupled with an uncooperative landlord prevented us from implementing the all-gender bathrooms that were central to our client’s mission. These professional frustrations coincided with national debates that I was reading about in the media, controversies triggered by the threat of transgender people gaining access to public restrooms. Bathroom politics led me to immerse myself in transgender studies and rekindle a dialogue with Susan Stryker, a leading transgender historian, theorist, and activist, about the design implications of this social justice issue. We co-authored an essay which soon mushroomed into “Stalled!,” a design/research project dedicated to coming up with best practice guidelines and prototypes for inclusive public restrooms. In short, “Stalled!” is the product of the coincidental convergence of my academic, theoretical, and professional interests, which have led me back full circle to exploring LGBTQ issues.
Has your thinking about the way your identity intersects with your practice changed over time?
Over the course of my career, in both my teaching and practice, I have been exploring the intersection of architecture and gender identity. The twentieth anniversary of STUD: Architectures of Masculinity (1996) has prompted me to reflect on the evolution of my thinking. At the beginning, my work reflected the perspective of a white able-bodied gay man during the AIDS crisis. Today, I have been absorbing the lessons of two related fields, transgender and disability studies, and have adopted a trans-inclusive perspective that takes into consideration the needs of a wide spectrum of “non-compliant bodies,” of different ages, genders, races, and disabilities.
How would you say that gender and sexuality intersect in the context of professional practice? We seem to be talking a little bit more about what it means to be a woman in architecture, but we rarely talk about what it means to be queer in architecture.
You pose a provocative question that is rarely discussed. While my firm recently found out about and received LGBTE Certification from the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC), this status will only be meaningful once clients and institutions recognize this status and amend their supplier diversity initiatives to be more inclusive of LGBT-owned firms. For example, why don’t firms led by LGBTQ designers qualify as minority-owned businesses on RFPs? Why don’t schools of architecture actively recruit queer faculty who deal with LGBTQ issues?
Well I guess the easy answer is that it’s a question of visibility. The nitty-gritty in terms of diversity initiatives and calls that you bring up makes that a little messier though. In RFPs and RFQs, for example, do you ever find yourself articulating your practice as queer-owned? Do you find ways to draw that out?
Although I don’t wear a pink triangle at interviews and discussions with clients, I bring to the table values and a design approach that stem in part from my own experience as a gay man. However, back in the early days of STUD, my work dealt explicitly with gay male issues. Gradually my approach shifted: I brought a queer perspective to bear on a broader issue — the role architecture plays in the performance of a spectrum of human identities, both personal and professional. At the same time I began to speculate about how gender, as it intersects with race and class, shapes design approaches and professional conduct. In Curtain Wars (2002), I explored how the false opposition between two overlapping practices — architecture and interior design — stemmed from deep-rooted prejudices about women, decoration, and gay men. More recently, Groundwork: Between Landscape and Architecture (2011), co-edited with the late Diana Balmori, includes an essay that explores a similar theme: the impact of gender on the arbitrary segregation of two allied disciplines: architecture and landscape.
Compared to when they came out, do you feel those projects have the same or different kinds of traction now, given shifting debates?
Things have changed. The increasing visibility and social acceptance given to the LGBTQ community has had a positive impact on the design professions. In 2006, I addressed this issue in “Curtain Wars Revisited” where I argued that more flexible notions of gender had set the stage for the emergence of high-profile designers like Philippe Starck, Zaha Hadid, and OMA, whose work unabashedly blurred hard and fast distinctions between architecture, interiors, and fashion. And in the past ten years, the status of landscape has dramatically risen as students and professionals have become invested in environmental issues. However, despite these significant advances, we have a long way to go. Architecture is still dominated by white heterosexual men and siloed into separate fields each with their own protocols for education and professional licensure.
In that shifting sociocultural context, bathrooms have been variably critiqued as spaces for the production, performance, and regulation of gender and sexuality. How do you understand the relationship between the space of the bathroom, gender, and sexuality?
Well, that’s a very rich and complicated question. Bathrooms are over-determined sites where a series of cultural, psychological, and technological forces converge. Not only does the sex-segregated bathroom “naturalize” the male/female binary, but it also taps into deep-rooted and longstanding societal anxieties about sexuality including misogyny and homophobia. In addition, it raises thorny cultural and psychological questions about abjection, disability, and embodied difference. For this reason, over the course of American history the bathroom has been a crucible registering fears triggered by the threat of non-conforming bodies entering into public space. These include women entering the workplace in the 19th century, Blacks contesting bathroom segregation during the civil rights movement, gays contaminating men’s rooms during the AIDS crisis, and disabled veterans returning home after the Vietnam War. Today trans visibility poses a new threat to the status quo: gender ambiguity. Trans people call into question the presumption that anatomy is destiny by demonstrating that there are multiple ways of expressing one’s gender identity independent from one’s biological sex that do not conform to the binary that bathroom design perpetuates through spatial segregation.
Considering that critical assessment, we’re curious about your research process, especially when you’re trying to reimagine long-accepted norms. In looking for precedents, what counts as a bathroom? How far back do you go?
Our design and research process looks at restrooms from multiple perspectives that take into account the cultural, political and legal dimensions of this complex problem. Historical precedent is key. For example, with the help of Caitlin Baiada, a Yale graduate student, we looked at the history and evolution of bathroom practices to disprove the prevailing view that accepts sex-segregated restrooms as an historical inevitability answering to the dictates of biology and privacy based on anatomical difference. We discovered that from antiquity to the middle ages, men and women frequently bathed and sometimes eliminated in communal bathhouses, latrines, and privies. Understanding that restroom design is historically contingent and that its evolution mirrors changing cultural attitudes about publicity and privacy allowed us to challenge our own preconceptions and champion an alternative design approach, a de-segregated model outfitted with communal grooming and washing stations and fully enclosed privacy stalls, that abolishes the binary and promotes the mixing of differently embodied people in public space.
How did the “Stalled!” project hit the ground?
“Stalled!” began as a theoretical paper written for an academic journal. However, it quickly became apparent to us that the mission of“Stalled!” was timely and resonated with overlapping audiences. In response we have developed a series of initiatives to address these different constituencies. We have been conducting lectures at universities and professional organizations like the American Institute of Architects and the Society for College and University Planning aimed at raising the awareness of students and professionals. In these venues we talk about bathrooms as but one example of how designers can deal with social equity through design at a time when the civil liberties of non-compliant bodies — women, Blacks, Muslims, immigrants, and the LGBTQ — are imperiled both in this country and around the world by denying people access to public and private space. In addition, we have conducted “Stalled!” Workshops at universities like Princeton, MIT, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Houston that assemble key stakeholders invested in coming up with practical policies and guidelines. And this summer we will launch an open source “Stalled!” website that compiles two years of research into a resource that outlines a consistent set of guidelines and prototypes that can be adopted by design professionals, cultural institutions, and municipal agencies.
Were there any discussions from the workshops that fed back directly into the projects’ designs? Any “aha!” moments?
Yes, input from lectures, workshops, and interviews with differently embodied people fed our work. During the Q&A at a talk sponsored by QSAPP, a Muslim woman made us aware that our airport prototype needed to be revised to accommodate Muslim women and Orthodox Jews who are prohibited from revealing naked body parts in public. Likewise, my first meeting with Quemuel Arroyo, a disabilities specialist for NYC Department of Transportation, who subsequently joined our “Stalled!” team, was another “aha!” moment: “Joel, as a person in a wheelchair, I never realized before talking to you that I have something in common with trans people.” This discussion was a turning point. Rather than focus on difference — as identity politics tends to do — we shifted our focus to coalition building and adopted a design methodology that involves researching the design consequences of the specific needs of non-normative user groups categorized by age, gender, and ability, and then finding a shared lexicon of materials, lighting, and technologies that would allow them to mingle freely in public space.
And so moving beyond these more academic endeavors, within “Stalled!” there are commissioned design projects as well?
My studio, JSA, is collaborating with Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf that has been meeting the educational needs of “non-conforming” bodies since its founding by Abraham Lincoln. We are working with them to create inclusive restrooms and changing rooms at the Field House. Both JSA and our client consider this collaboration a case study that will yield design principles that can be applied to similar institutional retrofit projects.
Can you tell us a little more about Gallaudet?
The client’s original brief asked for the more typical solution to all-gender restrooms, a solution that supplements sex-segregated bathrooms with a single unit stall. After conducting stakeholder workshops, the design committee agreed to adopt a more ambitious multi-stall solution even though it requires a variance. We are converting existing back-to-back sex-segregated restrooms into a multi-unit facility equipped with communal washing stations and fully enclosed stalls of different sizes that accommodate individuals, families, and caregivers. Treating the stall as a unit of privacy allows us to eliminate the corridor wall and treat the restroom as a porous extension of the hallway activated by a student lounge. This project demonstrates that addressing social equity can yield innovative design solutions that improve public space.
You mentioned the locker room. Obviously that’s a whole different set of challenges.
Locker rooms are even more complicated because they raise the issue of nudity, a sensitive issue in our puritanical culture. Gallaudet supported our first proposal for a desegregated locker room. However, we had to scrap that approach: the structure of competitive team sports presupposes the binary and mandates separate women’s and men’s teams. As a consequence, our solution would not comfortably accommodate visiting teams. Instead, we are implementing multi-purpose changing room prototypes that accommodate diverse users. Each unit includes space for caregiving, breastfeeding, baby changing tables, dry counters for medical procedures, and a folding seat and hand shower that allows Muslims to perform ablutions including washing feet.
Can you expand a little bit on the differences you see between “gender-neutral” and “gender-inclusive,” “gender-“ or “human-diverse,” and also “noncompliant bodies,” as some key words that you’ve used in this conversation, but also throughout the project and in a lot of your work?
An entire interview could be devoted to language as pertains to restroom signage: should one use words or pictograms? This seemingly practical choice is ultimately an ideological question. We advocate taking gender out of the equation by labeling restrooms with fixture icons rather than words or gendered avatars that in the end perpetuate the binary. “Stalled!” aims to abolish sex-segregated spaces altogether — not only restrooms but also dormitories, prisons, fire stations, and military compounds. Instead, architects need to treat gender as one of many variables to consider as they design environments that will allow a spectrum of roles and identities to play out in both public and private space.
Originally gendered bathrooms were about making a safe space for women as they were entering the workforce. And for gay men, there’s a whole other history of sex-segregated bathrooms as being important sites of safety and/or activity. How does your thinking and your work on this issue of the bathroom confront some of those histories that create friction with your proposals? How do you acknowledge that some of these functions of bathrooms as sex-segregated bathrooms have to be given up on?
Sometimes at lectures and workshops we receive pushback from people who mourn the loss of sex-segregated restrooms. Some argue that traditional men’s room facilitate queer coupling and our schemes will eliminate those practices. Others cite women’s rooms as safe havens where women can congregate and support each other in our patriarchal culture. While I appreciate those arguments, the world has changed with the advent of digital culture. STUD devoted a chapter to the bathroom, arguing that restrooms were spaces that facilitated queer interactions. But now many of us, including women and queers, build sub-cultural communities in virtual space through social media. It’s a trade-off. At this moment in history we need to shift our priorities: Rather than create site-specific spaces that single out the needs of women and gay men and isolate bodies according to their differences, we need to create shared spaces that incorporate the needs of historically overlooked populations, like trans people and people with disabilities.
Has this work affected the way your practice works more generally?
While “Stalled!” began as a direct response to trans bathroom politics, Susan Stryker convinced me that we needed to cast a wider net and leverage the media spotlight on trans as a platform to trigger a larger conversation about the relationship between architecture, non-conforming bodies, and social equity. Immersing myself in two fields, transgender and disability studies, has been eye-opening: I now recognize that public restrooms are but one example of how the design of everyday architectural spaces has been based on ergonomic standards and building codes derived from able-bodied white cis-gender males that have, since the 19th century, inhibited a series of marginalized communities including African Americans, gay men, immigrants and the trans community from gaining access to public space. This broader notion of non-conforming bodies has transformed my teaching and practice. For example, conversations with residential clients now include thinking about the spatial implications of alternative families, administering medical procedures, and aging in place. Inclusion is the subject of a conference, “Noncompliant Bodies: Social Equity in Public Space,” that I am organizing at Yale in April that expands our purview beyond bathrooms to consider other building types — including residences, museums, prisons, campuses and medical facilities.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.