Queering Architecture? convenors Naomi Stead and Nicole Kalms explore the themes and questions around their upcoming XYX Lab event.
Parlour has surprised us all, in its powerful rejuvenation and rallying of a ‘community of interest’ around gender and gender equity in architecture, and a gathering point for women in the profession.
One question for us, now, is whether we need a similar community-building moment around ‘other’ architects – that is, more broadly, those of us in the built environment professions who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and/or queer, along with our allies and friends?
Furthermore, do we need more research in this area: what has been the experience of gay men and lesbians, and other non-conforming people of all stripes, in their work life within architecture (broadly conceived) in Australia? Has the experience been entirely positive, embracing and affirming, or have there been frictions, tensions or problems, which require investigation and analysis and perhaps redress?
We welcome advice and feedback from the Parlour community on these questions.
It could be said that, in today’s socio-political context, such conversations are more important and timely than ever. In the twenty-odd years since Beatriz Colomina’s edited collection Sexuality and Space was published in 1992, and Aaron Betsky’s Queer Space: Architecture and Same Sex Desire came out in 1997, discussions on queering architecture have been sporadic, and muted.
But the newly-formed XYX Lab (Monash University research lab on space, gender and communication) seems to offer a particular opportunity, alongside the considerable reach and resources of Parlour, to open such conversations again: to inform them with research, and if necessary to address them with advocacy.
To begin exploring such ideas, we are convening a panel at the forthcoming Melbourne Design Week, around the theme and question of ‘Queering Architecture?’.
The panel discussion is intended to open a speculative conversation about what it might mean to ‘queer’ architecture, in our present social, political and cultural context.
The event will ask: what might it mean (now, here) to ‘queer’ architecture – as a workplace, a professional identity, a series of processes and practices, or the built places that emerge from them?
The term ‘queer’ remains divisive, even as it has been used (and contested, and proclaimed) by activists since the late 1980s. As an umbrella category, it encompasses the whole messy bundle of identities gathered under the LGBTIQA acronym: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer/Questioning and Allied. But not everyone likes ‘queer’. As the re-appropriated ghost of an earlier term used to describe homosexuals in the late nineteenth century – as strange and abnormal – it begins from negative roots. But queer is a spacious term, a label that attempts to defy labels – it is an attitude as much as an identity.
People who identify as queer have committed to rethinking social norms, in one way or another – in how they live their lives, who they live with, how they work, how they construct their families or kinship groups, as well as how they express their gender and identity, and the people with whom they form intimate relationships. Queer is about much more than sexual orientation, or gender non-conformity. It is quite possible to be heterosexual and queer.
‘Queering’ is thus a process of looking askance, of not taking social or political or professional conventions for granted, of rethinking and resisting ‘normal’ ways of being in the world. Given architecture’s long tradition of reinventing ways of living and working, queer would seem to find a natural home in the field. In designing the places that people live, work, and take their pleasure, architects make concrete a range of (often unstated) ideas and beliefs about social norms. In doing so, they can either reinforce or question those norms, either enshrine or resist them, in built form. Likewise, they can either go along with conventional ways of practising architecture, or rethink and resist and ‘queer’ them.
Architecture has also long been aligned with elites: the people who commission bespoke buildings generally have money, or power, or both. This attachment to the establishment and its institutions means that architects often work in a context of social conservatism, even if they themselves identify otherwise – as progressive, as embracing difference. The profession as a whole seems a welcoming and embracing place for queer architects, but while this may be the experience for many, it seems it is not so for all. The closet is also an architectural space. Likewise, social stereotypes can bring assumptions about an architect’s professional capabilities: where it was once believed that women architects had a special capacity for kitchens and childcare centres, to be a gay male architect, for example, can come with its own pigeonholes.
So what might queering architecture entail, and what might be its significance – for us, now, in the perilous socio-political context we find ourselves in?
Perhaps it could mean making the architectural workplace more welcoming for those who identify as LGBTIQIA, such that the profession truly values difference and diversity and the unique contributions of all. Perhaps it might mean making buildings for such people and their particular needs and desires, their tastes and predilections – safe spaces, symbolic spaces, domestic spaces, the space of the everyday. Perhaps it could refer to architectural outcomes – buildings that are, themselves, somehow queer, resistant and non-conforming. Or perhaps it could be a process, which unsettles customary architectural methods or outcomes, which attempts to work differently and for difference, or even which works to reject and rethink social conventions per se: to employ architecture towards a more general resistance or alternative to ‘normality’. Queers think that normality is over-rated. Queer architecture might redesign normality, or design the path of resistance.
To explore these questions, please come along to the Queering Architecture? panel session at Melbourne Design Week.
Panellists are yet to be confirmed and will be announced closer to the event.
The hashtag will be #queeringarchitecture.
The panel discussion will be accompanied by a musical performance by Simona Castricum.
Naomi Stead is Professor of Architecture in the Department of Architecture at Monash University, and an Adjunct Professor in the School of Architecture at the University of Queensland. Her research interests lie broadly in the cultural studies of architecture: in its production, reproduction, mediation and reception.
Nicole Kalms is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Architecture at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. Nicole is the founding Director of Monash University’s XYX Laboratory, based in the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture. In this role Nicole leads a team of interdisciplinary researchers examining the complex interaction of space, gender and communication in cities.