Queering Architecture: (Un)Making Places

Queering Architecture: (Un)Making Places

By Éloise Choquette

 

The following is an excerpt. Éloïse Choquette’s full article can be found in the print edition of The Site Magazine, on newsstands now.

There is something eloquent and appealing about applying laws of physics to human identities and emotions, yet this application is too often simplistic and flawed. For instance, it would be absurd to quote the 18th-century chemist Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier’s famous paradigm on the conservation of mass (1) when speaking of queer narratives—and yet it is deeply satisfying to find simple words to explain a very complex concept. It doesn’t really matter that the changes associated with queerness have nothing in common with balancing a chemical equation, except that both processes relate to the powerful word, “transformation.” Call it a human weakness or a propensity to find calm in rationalization, we humans simply love a good metaphor.

Advances in technology have created a massive shift in how we perceive the world around us and have accelerated the rate at which the things around us evolve, change, and transform. In only a few decades, computers have gone from being so scarce and expensive that they were almost solely used by scientists, to so common that almost everyone is carrying one in their pocket. Architectural drawings have gone from being painstakingly drafted by hand to being generated by a digital model.

“Architecture”—referring in this context to both the built environment and the act of building—is often perceived as a transformation of “space”—as in the dimension of physical and immaterial reality in which we live. This is fallacious. Architecture and space are closely intertwined and constantly interacting with one another, but their relationship is certainly not straightforward. This relationship is one that we, as a society, have trouble understanding; not because architects fail to transform spatial settings and environments—to an extent, they succeed—but because we often forget and do not acknowledge that environments also have a transformative power over architecture. The problem is that architects believe in the false promise that they can shape spatial practices—and thus often fail to grasp the elusive and profoundly contradictory nature of humanity. Buildings and structures, as Michel Foucault argues, do not inherently and exclusively grant effects of freedom, no matter how much architects want them to. (2) Of course, the built environment we live in does have an effect on the way we live, but it is not the only force that shapes our lives. It is not enough to impose change upon people in anticipation that they follow suit. No matter how strongly architects believe in the house as a “machine for living,” (3) people—rather than architecture—change the way they live and their environments accordingly. Architects forget the agency of people to transform space and architecture.

This capacity to adapt and change remains a central aspect of queer theory. Architecture has an opportunity to learn from queer theory; from a “queered” reading of itself. The queer movement has long been aware that transformation is always, first and foremost, a matter of survival. Comprehending architecture as something global, that includes both the material and immaterial qualities of space, becomes paramount to its evolution, survival and endurance as a meaningful tool of transformation.

A “queering” of architecture—a resistance to architecture as a tool of oppression and a re-appropriation of space as a tool of transformation—is thus necessary for its transformative potential to be unleashed.

 

 New Babylon, Constant Nieuwhenhuys, 1963

New Babylon, Constant Nieuwhenhuys, 1963

Queer Spaces: Architecture Without Architects

Before going further, it is important to make a distinction between “queered” and “queer” spaces, though the concepts are not mutually exclusive. Similarly to what Carlos Jacques mentions in “Queering Straight Space: Thinking Towards a Queer Architecture,” a “queer space” is a space that is occupied by queer and marginalized people and a “queered space” is one that is in reaction to the status quo, to society’s normative standards—a chapter of the queer movement targeted at architecture specifically. (4) For example, a queer space would be a venue, such as an art gallery or a performing arts hall, that puts the work of LGBTQ+ artists forward. A queered space, on the other hand, would be an exclusive, safe space for Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (QTBIPOC), and therefore only accessible to people identifying both as queer and/or trans and as Black, Indigenous, or people of colour. A queered space proposes a subversion of the norm, a conscious act of resistance, and a rupture in the fabric of society. Because of this, any queering of architecture remains firmly anchored in the queer movement and its radical roots.

The need for secrecy is deeply rooted in the history of queer spaces which, as a matter of survival, needed to be adaptable, ephemeral, and anonymous. The act of coming to terms with one’s identity and letting go of masks and a shadowed life, in order to live brightly, flamboyantly, and unapologetically with people who share similar struggles, is at the core of queer mythologies, and remains radical, even dangerous. As bell hooks, the American author, feminist, and activist, points out in The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, “when culture is based on a dominator model, not only will it be violent, but it will frame all relationships as power struggles.” (5) The necessity of “coming out” in order to live according to one’s true identity fails to take into account the destructive and violent aspect of transforming and going against the cisgender heteronormative mainstream. (6)

The peril associated with leading a queer life has led to the development of an architecture without the presence of architects; an architecture of necessity and creativity that uses the insignificant, liminal, and transient spaces between the boundaries of the heteronormative world. These “non-places,” as coined by anthropologist Marc Augé, are effectively transformed into “places.” (7) A place is a characterization of space, a transformation that makes that place significant, meaningful, powerful, and closely linked to a person’s identity. (8) The occupation of these invisible spaces and their transformation into places becomes an act of transgression, of resistance to a world that constantly tries, at best, to confine queerness to the margins, and at worst, to eradicate it completely. Good examples of such places are the Caravan Club and the Shim Sham Club, both of which operated in London in the 1930s, a time when being openly gay could result in extreme legal consequences. Both clubs were under surveillance for years: the Caravan was ultimately raided and shut in 1934, resulting in the arrest of more than one hundred young people; (9) and the Shim Sham Club, which first opened in 1935, was reported many times by neighbours and passers-by for its immoral and illegal activities. The Shim Sham Club remained unregistered. (10)

In a similar way, do-it-yourself (DIY) places propose new spaces directly led by the people who use them, in reaction to established spaces and architectures defined by dominant cultures. DIY places thus provide safer spaces for people with marginalized identities such as BIPOC, queer, trans and gender nonconforming, working class, and disabled, and all the intersections of those identities. These places become spaces of radical acceptance; they are in constant evolution, which, along with their ephemerality and their illegality, makes them adaptable, portable, and sustainable in ways that established spaces are unable to fully reproduce. The progressive nature of thoughts, theories, and politics associated with non-places allows these spaces to become almost alive, as though they almost have thoughts and a personality of their own. By remaining critical and extremely self-aware, these non-places seem always willing to improve and redefine themselves, even if it leads to their own end and dismantlement.


Endnotes

(1)     “Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed,” is the central principle of the law of conservation of energy (first coined in 1774). Antoine Lavoisier, Elementary Treatise on Chemistry, trans. Robert Kerr (New York: Dover Publications, 2010), 226.

(2)     Michel Foucault, “Espace, savoir et pouvoir,” in Dits et Ecrits II: 1976–1988 (Paris: Gallimard, 2001), 16–20.

(3)     Le Corbusier-Saugnier, Vers une architecture (Paris: Éditions G. Crès et Cie, 1923).

(4)     Julius Gavroche, “Struggles for Space: Queering Straight Space: Thinking Towards a Queer Architecture,” Autonomies, 3 October, 2016, http://autonomies.org/2016/10/struggles-for-space-queering-straight-space-thinking-towards-a-queer-architecture-4/.

(5)     bell hooks, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love (New York: Atria Books, 2004), 115

(6)      Though not all societies throughout history have rejected queerness (quite the opposite), the occidentalization, christianization, and colonization of many regions of the world by European powers has marginalized inclusive views of queerness acceptance and shaped current-day North American society.

(7)     Marc Augé, Non-lieux, introduction à une anthropologie de la surmodernité (Paris: Le Seuil, 1992). A non-lieu (non-place) refers to a transient, anonymous space that is not significant enough to be considered a “place” (lieu). The term is subjective, as the meaning of a space can have various meanings for different individuals.

(8)     Ibid., 122.

(9)     Mark Brown, “Revived: the 1930s London Gay Members’ Club Raided by Police,” The Guardian, 27 February, 2017, www.theguardian.com/culture/2017/feb/27/revived-1930s-london-gay-members-club-caravan-club-raided-by-police.

(10)     Hannah Forsythe, “Exploring LGBTQ Spaces and Places in History,” The National Archives, 15 March, 2017, blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/blog/exploring-lgbtq-spaces-places-history/.


Architect by day, writer by night, intersectional feminist always, Éloïse Choquette is a Université de Montréal and a McGill graduate. While studying, she was involved in student associations and various creative and activist endeavours. After graduating, Choquette continued her involvement in the community by joining a collective fighting to preserve a historical building and the Board of Rock Camp for Girls and Gender Non-Conforming Youth Montreal. Choquette’s professional practice has focused on Inuit communities in Nunavik and Nunavut.